Back in August of 2010, I had the chance to drive a Tesla Roadster. Since the Model X debuted yesterday, I thought I’d re-visit the original Roadster. It was a lot of fun to drive. Here’s my original review. Thanks to Peter W J Miller for the photography.
Green cars are not supposed to be like this. They’re for hairshirt wearing, bike path populating hippies who are obsessed with how few miles their produce has traveled and whether their child’s Kindergarten is LEED Certified Gold for eco-friendliness. The Tesla Roadster, is not this. It has as much in common with other green vehicles as zero calorie cola does with an all-night cocaine binge.
With an electric motor making 288-hp and 295 ft-lbs of torque, the Roadster can accelerate to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds. Sure, that’s not as fast as, say, a Porsche 911 Turbo or Corvette ZR1, but the quoted times for those cars are only valid under perfect conditions and with a brutal launch technique that you would never replicate. On the other hand, the Tesla’s single gear transmission makes repeated sprints a cinch and ensures anything short of a Bugatti Veyron will end up getting shanked.
The fun doesn’t stop when the road starts to curve either. With its Lotus Elise-derived chassis and Bilstein suspension setup, the Tesla feels just like the the Elise albeit with a 700lb weight penalty. Heavier, of course, being a relative term, since the Elise weighs just less than 2,000 lbs, while the Tesla, electric drivetrain and all, is about 2,700 lbs.
With a manual steering system and a MOMO steering wheel the size of a saucer, weaving the Tesla through the corners is a sublime experience, as you grip the wheel tight around the perfectly placed indents (at 9 and 3, with one on each side that let your thumbs point skyward, the way they should), you can slice through turns like a sportbike knowing that the massive torque will be available right away as soon as you’re pointing straight again.
Like all great sports cars, the Tesla is best driven under ideal conditions; glass smooth roads, sunny weather and little traffic. The weather held up, and the car performed admirably in stop-and-go situations, but if you live in an area with poor roads, driving the Tesla might be a bit of a chore. The same amazing suspension that makes cornering so joyous also means that the Roadster is very stiff on all but the best pavement. Fire your chiropractor if you drive a Tesla over railway tracks, potholes or manhole covers, because the rigor mortis-like rigidity and high spring rates will re-align your spine multiple times per second with a sickening thud every time you meet an imperfection in the road.
In city driving, the Tesla is quiet, comfortable and easy to maneuver. The single speed transmission and the progressive nature of the regenerative braking (as opposed to the abrupt deceleration of the MINI E) means that the brakes only need to be used to bring the car to a dead stop mere feet from a stop sign. Slow speed movements and U turns require some muscle thanks to the manual steering, but one easily adapts to this quirk. The biggest obstacle you’ll have to deal with is the mob of people who will stop you at inopportune times to ask about the car.
Unlike many exotic cars, the Tesla seems to inspire goodwill among pedestrians and other motorists. In a town where Bentley Continental GTs and Audi R8s hardly merit a second look, the Tesla will induce the sort of hysteria that is seldom seen outside of a Justin Beiber concert. In the course of three hours I had: three mobs of screaming school children chase me down (including one who shouted “Oh by God a Lotus”); two guys offer me a home theatre system just to sit in the car (I declined); one young gentleman run out of a Foot Locker and ask if I was a movie star (no, but I have a wonderful radio face); untold camera phone snaps and plenty of smiles and waves from cyclists (who are notoriously unfriendly to motorists.) Prepare to feel like you’re on TMZ when you drive this car.
As incredible as it is, the Tesla has its drawbacks beyond the stiff ride. The interior looks good from afar, but for a $100,000 car, it could use some work. Exposed bolts and wiring are present in certain spots, and not in the industrial minimalist style that’s popular in modern architecture. One could say that it’s typical Lotus low-rent charm, but buyers of the Tesla are likely unaware of the spotty build quality that plagues that marque, and it seemed a little insidious to cut corners like this, especially in spots where most people wouldn’t look. The few storage spaces in the cabin are easily accessible, but poorly thought out. During the (admittedly frequent) bouts of rapid acceleration, Blackberries and iPods went flying al over the cabin.
Space inside is tight as well; if you take someone on a date in a Tesla, you’ll be getting fresh just by applying the parking brake or move your upper body. The awkward, race-car like ingress and egress means that female drivers or passengers should avoid wearing a skirt or a dress,lest they aspire to carry on Paris Hilton’s legacy. The trunk might provide enough room for an overnight bag, but the car’s limited range means you’ll be lucky to even get away for dinner.
With an estimated range of 250 miles, the Tesla isn’t a long distance car, and your mileage may vary. Keep your foot pinned to the floor and the number goes down. If you coast along and allow the regenerative braking to kick in, you might see a boost in range. Either way, a nice long drive isn’t in the cards at this stage of electric vehicle technology. Charging takes as little as 4 hours if you use a 220 volt outlet (like your washing machine or stove uses) and a proprietary quick charger sold by Tesla. With a standard outlet like your toaster or hair dryer uses, you’ll be charging your Roadster overnight at a minimum just to replenish the batteries.
Getting into a normal car at the end of the test drive was a major letdown. The whirr of the electric motor, the shove in the backside and the lithe little roadster that seems to pivot around you is replaced by a grunting, belching, feedback-free driving experience. Compared to a traditional gasoline automobile, the Tesla Roadster seems more spacecraft than sports car. Opinions on the viability of electric vehicles are still sharply divided, but driving the Tesla Roadster provides irrefutable evidence that the electrification of the automobile won’t be harmful for those who still enjoy driving.