Tesla has eked out a small first-quarter net profit just as the coronavirus started to affect the electric car and solar panel maker.

The US company said it made $US16 million ($A24 million) from January through March, or 8 US cents per share.

It was the third straight profitable quarter for the California-based company.

It appears the virus may force Tesla to dial back its forecast produce more than 500,000 vehicles in 2020.

Although the company said it has the capacity to make a half-million vehicles, it’s uncertain how quickly its California plant can ramp up after being shut down due to the virus.

Excluding one-time items, Tesla earned $US1.24 per share. That easily beat Wall Street estimates of a 28-US-cent-per-share loss, according to Factset.

The profit came as the virus forced Tesla to shut down its Fremont, California, assembly plant late in the quarter on March 23, cutting into production and sales as the plant was starting to crank out the new Model Y SUV.

Yet the company reported stronger-than-expected first quarter global sales. Tesla delivered 88,400 vehicles during the first three months of the year, a 40 per cent increase from a year ago. That was aided by production at its new factory in Shanghai.

Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas wrote in a note to investors that continued US growth for Tesla is still a bit of a “show me” story. Jonas wrote that it’s hard to see how the company can be immune from the impact of a recession and expected car sales downturn.

“At the end of the day it is an auto company in a recession,” wrote Jonas, who predicts a 17 per cent drop in US car sales this year even with a government stimulus program.

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