I’m anything but a Trekkie, but a recent drive in the Tesla Roadster made me think of the Starship Enterprise. To be more precise, the Enterprise a second after warp speed has been deployed. Imagine for a moment that your brain is Captain Kirk and the “gas” pedal is Scotty. When Scotty receives the warp factor order and flips the fast switch, something very weird and very breathtaking happens. On the Starship, as in the Tesla.
Time and time again, when I’d mash the Tesla’s accelerator, I couldn’t help but curse. As in, “holy *&@!, this is incredible”. That is what happens when you have linear, quiet, shiftless acceleration from zero to sixty in yes, three point bloody nine seconds. Quicker than any Porsche, and as quick as anybody who has not driven a formula car recently can imagine. And with far less drama than I’ve ever experienced in a sports car. You want to go faster, and then, suddenly, you’re faster — faster than you probably wanted.
Doesn’t this kind of power corrupt? During a 20-minute drive through and around Frankfurt, it did, inasmuch as I couldn’t help dishing out gobs of pure speed whenever there was an opening in traffic. And watching motorcycles struggle to catch up was only half the fun. It feels almost unspeakably awesome to have almost unlimited acceleration at your disposal, especially when it’s in an unflashy, inconspicuous small car. A car of which a pedestrian at a traffic light once asked “is it just a quiet car, or is it what I think it is?” When you’re in a Tesla, nobody insinuates you’re a toff, or a wanker, or yuppie scum. You’re in a superfast sports car, and everything is just fine. Has there ever been anything like it?
Did I say sports car? Well… let’s discuss that. The layout is sportscarish, what with two tight-but-comfortable seats, Lotus-low entry and egress, and a cabon-fiber cladded trunk that may be large and wide enough for your golf kit but not much else. Continuing the case for the Tesla’s sportscar-dom by virtue of inconvenience is the top of the windshield’s habit of blocking your line of vision if you’re over six feet tall.
Fit and finish is old-school sports car too: the inside is simple and pretty, but by no means is this the interior of a 100k car. You’ll find no jewellish instruments and no foolish luxury condiments such as an air scarf. No toys, in other words, except the car itself.
A toy, exactly, but, again, is it a sports car? Well, first there’s the steering. What Tesla gives you is a very small, unassisted wheel that doesn’t agree with your arm muscles at low speeds and feels wooden at higher ones. Does Tesla have this feature to discourage hoonage? If so: guys, it works. Then, there is the heavy battery pack which, in contrast to some other EVs, is not flat beneath the floor, but behind you, at around the level of your shoulders. The sum effect is that the Tesla feels solid and substantial but not particularly maneuverable. I didn’t take it to the ‘ring, butI can assume from the way it feels that this Roadster would feel not at all at home there.
On the other hand, ride comfort is suprisingly good. Tramway track crossings are taken in stride and long undulations, of the kind that make many a car feel bouncy on the autobahn, didn’t bother me at all. (Wind noise is present all the time, though).
Does it matter that the Tesla is not as direct, as communicative, as quick handling a car as its Lotus donator is? I’d say, no. Because what you do with this car is point and squirt — albeit with a monster squirt gun.
In other words, you need to employ a totally different driving style than you would in Porsche, for instance. You step on it, reach warp speed, let the regenerative brakes do their thing and get down to a comfortable speed before entering a curve, and then take off again.
Are you catching my, well, drift? This is a modern-day muscle car. It follows a simple formula: put a super-powerful engine in a small package, and watch people pay a hefty premium.
OK — it’s unsophisticated, and if you ask the competitors in the electric vehicle field, the guys who are busy designing some miracle car for 2012, they’ll tell you the Tesla is impossible. Laptop batteries! A Lotus chassis they simply loaded to the brink with Lithium! But really: as much as some people care, plenty of people don’t. And come to think of it, neither do I when the drive is so good.
Also, many people probably care about how long the batteries will last; what happens to your faulty batteries if Tesla’s financing dies; whether these newfangled Lithium-Ion batteries are really safe; whether its range of 50-200 miles is acceptable. (I wouldn’t suffer from range anxiety for the simple reason that anybody with the money to buy one would in addition own another car for the occasional long-distance drive). These issues are in flux, and a matter of discussion to take place outside the context of a test drive. Another qualm might be the price, to which I say: it’s an early-adopter’s toy, for crying out loud — these things are always expensive.
But for me, the real significance of the Tesla is this. For the first time in decades, Americans are offering a car that by way of brute force, cheekiness, acute understanding of new technology, and clever access to financing, has turned into something desirable for people everywhere. America is no longer the laughing stock of the automotive world. Folks, you might not like the Tesla, you might think it’s some kind of Silicon Valley scam, but if it was made in my country, I’d be mighty proud.