Tesla Motors says it's taken 350 deposits for their Lotus Elise-based, lithium ion-propelled, $92k Roadster. Despite this success, Tesla's hyper-exotic may offer more hype than hope. The company won't allow expert evaluation of their product until it's "ready for market." Even before they've delivered a single Roadster, they're promising two additional, mass market electric vehicles– whose enabling technology is, at best, under-developed. Meanwhile, they've raised $60m in venture capital and secured $20m in state subsidies to build a New Mexican factory. To find out if the Tesla Roadster is keeping it real for planet Earth, or DeLorean/Tucker redux, we sent our man Shoemaker to Tesla for a "test drive."
Jay reports that the carbon fiber Tesla is far more attractive than the fiberglass Elise. Lotus’ engineers added two inches to the Elise’s wheelbase to holster Tesla's LiIon batteries and attendant cooling and heating gear. Lotus' boffins also lowered the sports car’s door sills and modified all the bodywork, adding Tesla-specific design cues. The finished Roadster includes 2.5mph bumpers, HID headlights and all LED rear lights.
Shoes says the new dimensions and finely rendered jewelry (e.g. the distinctive hood motif and the taillights standing proud from the body) transform the British sports car’s look from insectoid to exotic. There's a bit of Ferrari F355, a bit of Lotus Europa, a lot of style. It’s no wonder the Tesla Roadster has become the plug-in poster boy.
Jay also reports that the Roadster’s interior is so Elise it hurts. Literally.
Tesla modded the cabin to appease their upmarket customers. They’ve widened the narrow seats and fitted them with “the finest space-age foam available.” They carpeted the floor, leather-trimmed the door panels and Blaupunked the ICE. The overall effect is like adding a space heater to a drafty classroom. “If it holstered a small block Chevy, the Roadster would be the official car of ‘The 300.’”
Instead, the Roadster houses 6831 lithium ion cells. The battery pack weighs 900 pounds and costs $20k to replace (try not to misplace it Bond). Tesla rates the four pole electric motor at 248 horsepower. It can be charged in six hours (if your home has 30 – 40 Amps of power) or as little as three hours (if you’re rigged with 90 Amps). Although the Roadster’s maximum range is 250 miles, the company says spirited driving will yield “substantially less.”
Before we share Shoemaker’s “driving” impressions, keep in mind that all these numbers reflect Tesla's ambitions, not demonstrable reality. Again, no independent organization has evaluated any aspect of the Roadster's performance or construction. While Tesla Motors is happy admitting their Roadster's range could be “substantially less” than advertised, anyone thinking about buying a Roadster should consider those words carefully. Would you purchase a sports car that can only drive 90 miles between 12 hour recharges?
Tesla admirers/intenders also note: our man was not allowed behind the wheel. Indeed, all Tesla’s media coverage has been carefully supervised and controlled. While "you can't touch this" restrictions are not unknown in an industry that produces million dollar plus prototypes, there are plenty of electric car companies happy to let responsible journos do what responsible journos are supposed to do.
Tesla says the Roadster sprints from zero to 60mph in about four seconds, which would make it faster than the Elise. According to Shoemaker, the Roadster felt every bit as quick as his E63 AMG. The Roadster's all-electric engine doesn’t free wheel, so the car slows when pressure diminishes on the accelerator. Although the Roadster doesn’t generate any engine noise and very little transmission whine, Shoes says there’s virtually no insulation from significant road or wind noise.
In terms of handling, “fast and darty sums it up.” Tesla says that although the Roadster’s batteries add 25 percent to the weight of the elongated Elise; the weight distribution is still 40 – 60 front to rear. Jay says the Tesla Roadster’s low center of gravity and relative light weight maintain the Lotus’ slot car handling. The Roadster uses regenerative braking; as a passenger, Jay couldn’t rate the system’s feel or effectiveness.
The enthusiastic staff at Tesla Motors describes the Roadster’s selling proposition as “performance without guilt.” But if you set aside the media’s PC fawning over an eco-friendly sports car, there are serious questions about the Roadster’s ability to deliver on its manufacturer's promises.
For example, Tesla says its engineers have placed the Roadster’s LiIon batteries away from each other in steel and aluminum containers. Even so, if one of its batteries ignites, it could cause a virtually unstoppable series of fires and/or explosions. Roadster deliveries are now scheduled for fall; federal approval for the vehicle has not yet been granted.
Safety, range, reliability, recharge time, battery life, build quality, manufacturing costs– Tesla has yet to prove that they’ve overcome any of these obstacles for their lightweight Roadster (never mind their planned family car). Until they do, until they allow the press to thoroughly evaluate the car’s real world capabilities, their Roadster should be viewed as nothing more than another well-meaning concept car. Or, if you prefer, a fabulous toy.