There’s a great playground in Berkeley, near the Rose Garden, that has a two-story tall twisted and banked concrete slide down the side of a hill, of the sort that cities would never build again in our modern liability-freaked danger-averse era. Blissfully unaware of this, the local kids use torn-up cardboard boxes to reduce their friction and go even faster. While I watched, one kid went sailing off the end, landing flat on his back. He stood up and did a high-five with one of his friends, grinning from ear to ear. “That was hella cool!”
What happens when that kid becomes a 38-year old tenured CS professor? He goes and test drives a Tesla Roadster Sport. We were on a family vacation to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I stopped by the Tesla mothership in Menlo Park, on a whim, to check out their gear in person. On the Friday I arrived, my friendly salesman, Ernie, evinced a pained look when I said that the Roadster wouldn’t really work for me but that I was quite interested in the Model S. Sorry, they didn’t even have the pretty mockup yet, but hopefully they would, some few months to come. I asked if I could test drive a Roadster, regardless. “You know it will handle differently from the Model S, right?” Indeed.
I made an appointment and came back on Sunday afternoon. Ernie photocopied my license and had me sign a one page waiver (notable element: I will not race the car) and then tossed me the keys and said to have it back in 30-45 minutes. No chaperone. (Cue music: Yello’s “Oh Yeah” from Ferris Buhler’s Day Off.)
Okay, what’s a Tesla like in the flesh? The hardest thing about a Tesla is getting in and out. I’m 5’10″, and with the seat all the way back, I only just fit. The seat adjustments and mirrors are all manual, but at least it has power windows. The cockpit is quite cramped, without much spare room for your legs next to the wide shelf of the car frame. I did my drive with the top off (again, a manual process that can only be done standing up). The massive B-pillars probably keep you quite safe in the event of a rollover, but they also create massive blind spots that force you to be extra super careful when you change lanes. Mustn’t hurt the precious.
As other reviewers have pointed out, there’s remarkably little drama in driving a Tesla. When you take your foot off the brake, you get a little bit of forward thrust, not unlike our boring rental Toyota Camry. However, when you’re cruising and you lift all the way off the gas, you get significant back-force from the power regeneration. In practice, in daily driving, you only need the brake for emergency maneuvers, and for holding the car at a red light. Even when driving down a steep hill, you don’t need the brake. I kept expecting it to lug the engine or otherwise misbehave, but there is no engine to lug, so it just slowed down gracefully. Very cool. (The brake lights come on automatically when you fully lift the throttle, as well they should.)
So how does it feel to drive a Tesla? Allow me digress to the first time I drove a Porsche 911 Turbo, the 993-variant, the last of the air-cooled classics without electronic nannies to keep you from killing yourself. I was merging onto a freeway and gave it what seemed like the right amount of gas to get up to speed and pull in. And it was exactly the right amount of gas, until the turbo finished spooling up and sent me blasting forward toward the unforgiving rear end of a semi. Brake!
In the Tesla, there’s zero lag. Not even the smallest bit. In a normal car, the only way you can get close to this experience is to have the engine already howling along high in its RPM power band right before you drop the hammer. With the Tesla, it’s always there, all the time. No drama, no engine growl. You see your opening. Stomp. Sqeeee! Lightspeed. (Yes, the sound is more akin to the capacitors in a big camera strobe charging up than any normal automotive sound. This is no bad thing.) And don’t forget that the Tesla had only one gear and that electric motors have essentially flat torque curves. That means you have the same staggering torque off the line as you have at 80mph. (I initially torque thought I’d write this torque review using the word “torque” about once every five words. Torque. Tesla’s got torque.)
I plotted a route on the freeway then up the 84 to Skyline Blvd. Traffic was generally too thick for me to be too much of a hoon, but there were moments, like when the slow Prius pulled over to let me pass. Stomp. Sqeeeee! Brake. Turn. Sqeeeee! Brake. Traffic. Grrr.
The ride was quiet and tight. The unpowered steering required some effort in the twisties, but was never objectionable. The suspension travel is very short, and small road bumps made the car thud loud enough that I wondered if I broke anything (I didn’t). This car works well on the nice smooth roads in and around my test drive (thank you, California tax payers!), but I imagine it would be far less fun with the potholes and poorly-maintained steets of Houston where I live. One of my coworkers drives an Exige, so at least it’s ostensibly possible. Hmm.
Geek factor: I attended a talk at Stanford in 2007 when the Tesla guys were going on, at length, about issues like environmental impact relative to different charging models (i.e., whether you’ve just gotten yourself a “longer tailpipe” or whether you’ve truly done something worthwhile for the environment). Through all of that, all I could think was “yeah, but what’s it like to drive?” Now I know: it’s hella cool.
The author is, indeed, a tenured faculty member at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Behold the power of academic freedom. Tesla furnished the Roadster Sport for the author’s test driving. The author does not currently own any Tesla stock and does not have any Tesla car on order. Yet.