By on July 28, 2010

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.

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26 Comments on “Review: 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport...”

  • avatar

    Nice review, Dan. We should try some tag team H-town car reviewing at some point. Let’s do lunch at Sammy’s Cafe sometime.

  • avatar

    Dan, *thank you* for such a creative review! Since I’m in Edmonton, Canada, and am not a millionaire (yet), living vicariously through your review is likely as close as I’ll get to a 1st gen. electric beast like the Tesla Roadster.

  • avatar

    I have to say, while most are poopooing electric cars, I’m really looking forward to driving an electric sports car one day. Just think, this is the first one. It’s only going to get better from here. You have to start somewhere and this car seems like a pretty good start. I might not buy this one, but in 10 years I bet there will be an awesome electric sports car on the market.

  • avatar

    When’s Baruth going to track one?

    I’ve told at least one Tesla owner that I’d do more to get enough owners involved in TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey. Haven’t yet. Maybe tomorrow?

  • avatar

    “Nice, smooth roads”? Clearly, you never strayed off of 84 and took a very direct route to get there from the shop. Pretty much any other road you may have tried would likely have removed half your fillings.

  • avatar

    No drama, no engine growl.

    But I like drama and growling…

    Otherwise it sounds like an exciting car.

  • avatar

    Great review Dan! It’s nice to get the “regular guy” review on a car like this, as more often than not, it will be the “regular” people who will buy these and get the ball rolling. A far cry from the usual “it’s too heavy compared to the Elise” type comments.

    It is what it is, and it can be fun. Sure, we’re not talking kissing, cornering balance etc…but that’s not what most 50 somethings with 90gs in the bank are always thinking either! All they want is a weekend toy that give’s em “tinglies”, and this sounds like it!

    It may not be an enthusiast’s first choice, but i’m sure it must be hard to resist the “Squeee”…

    PS. Thanks, I’m gonna be saying that everytime I hit my gas pedal from now on.

  • avatar

    Question is – when is Tesla going to start turning a profit?

  • avatar

    I live in silicon valley, so I get to see these all the time. And everyone who drives one seems to delight in their cars.

    We were walking to downtown Sunnyvale, and crossed in front of one. I told the driver to ‘rev his engine’, wondering what he would do. Much to our 4 year old’s (and mine!) delight, the driver shouted out “Vroom! Vroom!” then took off like a strangely silent rocket. Put a huge smile on my face.

    As a 6’3″ MX-5 driver, I understand a little discomfort to get the ride you want. Maybe when the money comes rolling in…

  • avatar

    if the tesla guys were going on about saving the world they sure as hell weren’t talking about the tesla doing the saving. you’re not saving anything with a prohibitivly expensive car with prohibitive utility and prohibitive range, except inhibit your ability to sell loads of them.

    the “world saver” is more likely a 5door hatchback with tesla tech that is cheap enough for the average family. more to the point though would be a way to “fix” the amount of petrol prods we use shipping stuff (semis, jet fuel, tankers, etc.).

    Also, I wonder how much coal, oil, gas, or whatever you need to burn to generate enough electricity to fully charge a tesla?

    no the tesla’s not about saving the world. on the contrary, it’s about being “hella cool.”

    • 0 avatar

      Don Mitchell wrote a nice blog piece about how you might estimate the “gas mileage” of an electric car like a Tesla. The bottom line is that you get “about 60-70 miles per gallon.”

    • 0 avatar

      thanks for the blog link.

      it’s always staggering to me how much “energy” we lose translating fuel into power through internal combustion engines. It’s one reason i’m interested in the use of electric wheel motors. Theorhetically, you could take any car you wanted and rip out all of the mechanics that make it work, replace with batteries, wheel motors, and a computer management system and have the most kick ass AWD beast around.

  • avatar

    Nice reference to the park. I play basketball there every week, and let me tell you, even as a young adult that slide is wicked fun.

  • avatar

    Ahhh, Phillip J. Timewaster, there you are.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t usually mind sending somebody off on a solo drive if they are up front that they aren’t that serious and just curious about the car. It takes me five minutes to fill out the forms and copy the license and insurance, and then I’m free to get back to actual paying customers.

      It’s the people who feel they are somehow doing me a favor by pretending to go through the entire process including negotiation when they have no intention of buying the car that bug me. Plus, I’d assume Tesla salesmen are on some sort of salary, as there is no way there is enough volume of actual paying customers for them to earn a living right now, especially since Tesla has barely started to deliver cars.

    • 0 avatar


      Thanks for that advice. All this while, I thought it was customary to do the whole act. I will try this approach the next time I hit a dealership, and maybe it will be easier on everyone including me.

  • avatar

    I have never seen a professor of cognitive science driving anything exciting. Usually they own a Japanese econobox or something very old and built in Sweden.

    • 0 avatar

      I can’t speak for my cognitive science colleagues (although a human factors coworker of mine drives a Mazdaspeed 3 and is every bit the hoon that I am), but I’m a computer scientist, and I’ve always had some sort of sports car or other.

    • 0 avatar

      How do you like the ol’ computer science thing, anyway? I was on that path until brain chemistry, an aversion to studying anything I knew how to understand already, and genetics predisposing me to entrepreneurship took over.

      I always wanted to work with AI or AL, though. Did a neat genetic algorithm where pixels trained themselves to drive a 2D racetrack over 10 or 15 generations when I was 12. Naturally, since I was 12, I spent just as much time on the more standard algorithm that drew wafting smoke when they crashed…

    • 0 avatar

      Well, there’s certainly no lack of entrepreneurs in the computer field. Professionally, I work in computer security, and the challenges never stop coming.

  • avatar

    You know, as a guy whose formative memories are of his dad racing a GT1 car with a howling, resonant 675hp V8, and being able to track it around Watkins Glen just from the sound of the engine ricocheting off the forests – I have to say that every review I’ve read from someone driving a Tesla makes me want to try one.

    If I can get excited about a car that goes ‘sqeeeee’ then probably anyone can.

  • avatar

    Is it really that easy to get a test drive in a Tesla Roadster? My wife and I will be in the east bay for the weekend in a couple of weeks, and I was looking for things to do and places to see (we typically find ourselves in the bay area two to three times each year).

  • avatar

    They do like to say Hella in the bay area.

  • avatar

    Someone mentioned the great efficency of electric motors vs. gas or diesel. That is true – they are about 70-80% efficent. However the problem is most electricity is generated by burning coal which is only 30-35% efficent.

    So looking at it this way the 20% efficency of ICE isn’t that bad. This is the problem for electric cars and savvy consumers..

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