Recently, he test drove the pure electric Tesla vehicle in San Francisco area:
By David Chao
Without question, the Tesla Roadster is one of the world’s truly special sports cars. Not just because it’s fast, powerful, and a blast to drive, but because it is all of these things while also being the first-ever mass-produced, all-electric car.
Specializing in electric drive technology, Tesla’s founders knew that they wouldn’t have the expertise to develop a new car from scratch, and didn’t expect to find it near their headquarters in Silicon Valley. Instead, the company made arrangements with British automaker Lotus Cars to purchase nearly complete Elise roadsters. Fitted with Tesla’s patented electric motor and battery system, the small and nimble Elise became something the world had never seen before: the Tesla Roadster.
Introduced in 2006, the Roadster went into production in 2008, and will wind up in early 2012, when Tesla’s contract with Lotus ends. To date, there have been roughly 1,700 sold worldwide, making the Roadster an absolute success and paving the way for Tesla’s next vehicle: the Model S sedan. The company has even taken over the NUMMI manufacturing plant in Fremont, California (which previously built Toyota and GM vehicles) and renaming it the Tesla Factory.
Beyond the fact that it’s ridiculously fast, holding its own against the much-more expensive Porsche 911 Turbo, what sets the Roadster apart is its seamless fusion of high technology and automotive design. It runs nearly silent, with the tires generating more noise than the motor, and since there are fewer moving parts the Roadster only needs to be serviced once a year. Tesla will even send technicians to your house to run diagnostics and update software.
On the road, the Roadster is an absolute joy—though it “feels” very different from conventional sports car. Since electric motors spool up so quickly, maximum torque is available in an instant. As a result, the Roadster’s computers are tasked with limiting initial acceleration in order to prevent the whiplash that would result from applying nearly 300 lb-ft of torque to a stationary object.
Of course, the Roadster isn’t a car for everyone and has its share of flaws—mostly in the realm of comfort and features. As such, it’s best to see it for what it really is: proof of concept. And with the concept proven in spades, Tesla can get down to serious business with the Model S and beyond.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to drive this vehicle at Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Alto, just outside San Francisco.
As noted, each Roadster begins life as a Lotus Elise sold to Tesla as a “glider”; essentially a complete vehicle without a drivetrain. That’s a heck of a starting point, as the Elise has long been recognized as the epitome of the pocket-rocket two-seater, proving especially popular as a short-track hobby racer.
As the Elise nears the end of its second generation, the exterior is starting to show its age. Of course, when there are so few of them on the road—Tesla or Elise—it’s easy to make the case that the car will continue to stand out from the crowd. Helping that along, Tesla offers 14 different exterior colours for the carbon-fibre body, from slick silvers to a hue known as “Very Orange”.
The interior is simple and straightforward, with a Spartan quality that suits the Roadster. It’s a far cry from the high-tech interiors found in most hybrid luxury cars, with an almost “prototype” feel that belies the sophistication hidden inside. That being said, if you’re looking for a luxurious interior then there are better choices out there.
Similarly, fit and finish is merely okay, which is understandable given how new Tesla is to the production-car scene. Expect things to improve with the introduction of the Model S sedan, which was designed entirely by Tesla.
The Roadster’s drivetrain involves a 375-volt induction air-cooled electric motor powered by a 53kWh Lithium-Ion battery pack. The base model is rated at 288-hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, while the upgraded Sport is tuned for 288-hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Tesla states the car’s range to be up to 394km.
There’s nothing quite like driving the Roadster, due mostly to the instantaneous power delivery. It’ll launch you from 0-96km/h in just 3.9 seconds (3.7 in the Sport), and the loudest sound will be the wind rushing over the open top.There’s only one forward gear, and when you let go of the brake the car starts to creep forward. Lift off the gas at speed, and the regenerative-braking system will immediately kick in to slow the car down while recharging the battery, enabling drivers to manage and minimize energy lost to braking.
With unpowered steering and a small footprint, the rear-wheel-drive Tesla takes a very basic and down-to-earth approach to handling that is extremely fun and rewarding, though a bit of a chore at times. An optional adjustable suspension has ten settings to vary ride comfort and performance.
If you’ve ever seen a Tesla or an Elise up close, you know that this isn’t a very big car. It’s tiny, and that means getting in and out is not easy—even for smaller folks. Once you’re in, you’ll find the Roadster to be tight, with minimal leg and arm room. But then again, this is a “pure” sports car!
Despite the battery pack taking up a half-ton of space behind the seats, there is a trunk at the very rear of the car; just don’t expect to put much into it. You can put a golf bag in it, along with a few other items, but weekend trips for two will require soft and squeezable luggage.
One interesting improvement since the car went on sale is the addition of a push-button drive console for Park, Drive, Neutral, and Reverse, replacing a shifter that wasn’t of much use and took up valuable space in the confined cabin.
The Tesla retains the Elise’s soft-top cloth roof—which will eat up some of the cargo area—and few cars offer the open-air thrill of the eerily quiet roadster. A carbon-fibre hardtop is also available.
Starting at US$109,000, the Roadster comes in base and Sport trims.
Standard equipment includes ABS, traction control, cruise control, air conditioning, soft-top roof, heated seats, touchscreen LCD for vehicle information, power windows and door locks, tire-pressure monitoring system, and front airbags.
Additional features, available as options or standard on the Sport, include premium leather or Microfiber seats, an executive leather package, carbon fibre package, hardtop roof, solar guard windshield, and a 400W sound system with seven speakers, GPS, and back-up camera.
Tesla advertises that the Roadster can be charged completely in four hours, but the equipment to do so will cost you an extra US$1,950, plus installation. It’s called the High Power Wall Connector, and a certified electrician can install it in your garage.When you’re out and about, the Universal Mobile Connector (US$1,500) will charge the car fully in six hours through a dryer plug, and ten adapters are available for US$100 each. Or you can stick with the Spare Mobile Connector that comes with the car, which plugs into a standard household outlet, but takes 30+ hours.