By on February 11, 2012

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.

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18 Comments on “Capsule Review: 2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 S...”

  • avatar

    Wow. Looking back after the novelty is gone, it must be painful to see that you were susceptible to mass hysteria. The Tesla Roadsters were toys that depreciated about $10 a mile, required another $1 a mile in service and tires, changed hands as soon as another fool could be found, and are rarely seen on the roads of coastal San Diego, where they were once seen almost daily. Tesla managed to put 6,387 miles on one in only four years via an international promotional tour, but even setting a mileage record didn’t slow the depreciation rate much, with the car sitting on the market at $55K off its original price.

    • 0 avatar

      I had no idea they depreciated so much. $100k+ was way out of range, but at $45k I would think it’s kind of a good deal. But $1 a mile in service? Are they prone to that many problems?

      • 0 avatar

        I’m having a hard time believing this considering there are so few moving parts and tires are the main consumable. If anyone has horror stories about Ferrari-like maintenance bills, please post links to substantiate it.

      • 0 avatar

        Tesla has yet to scrub this forum post revealing the cost of the annual service visit: $1,000. I’ve seen at least one article about the surprising cost of maintenance, but google is averse to finding it. Tesla Roadsters shipped on R-compound tires, deemed necessary because of the extra 900 lbs the chassis was never intended to bear. They carry a tread-wear rating rating of 60, adding another grand to the cost of covering every 6,000 miles. Looking at the miles covered by the cars that pop up on ebay for far less than Pch101’s Dupont Registry prices, once a year servicing is rarely amortized by driving more than 1,000 miles. BTW, asking prices on ebay currently range from 65 to 85K for upgraded models that had MSRPs of about $120K. The expensive one has 3,800 miles to show for the haircut.

      • 0 avatar

        $10 a mile? Sweet! I’d love to take one with 10k miles home for $20-30k. But I suppose that that was intended to be ridiculous hyperbole.

        The Roadster comes with the same tires fitted to the Lotus Elise (Yamaha Advan AD47 extreme performance summer, 180 treadware rating). The optional tire upgrade (standard on the Roadster Sport) is the Advan A048 R compounds. I’m not really sure what you’re complaining about here – might as well complain about tire costs for the SRT-10 ACR cup tires.

        I’d love to see a comprehensive comparison of depreciation (incl. battery) and ownership costs for the Roadster vs similar vehicles .. instead of the Camry that CJ appears to have in mind.

        Annual maintenance is about $600/year. Since the dealership coverage is rather limited, Tesla sends out service personnel to service those Roadsters that live far from the dealer ($1/mile traveled). So the presumed 400 mile round trip mentioned in the linked blog comment would bump annual maintenance up to around $1000/year.

        It’s a rather steep penalty for living so far away from Tesla’s small network of dealerships, but the network does continues to grow.

    • 0 avatar

      Here are four Teslas listed for sale. Asking prices: $99,000-144,900.

    • 0 avatar

      @CJinSD Your rush to condescension has led you astray from the fact that I drove a press demo for a day and enjoyed myself. A rant about running costs or depreciation doesn’t change the fact that it was fun to drive and got lots of attention.

      • 0 avatar

        Haters gonna hate, Derek. Don’t take it too seriously.

      • 0 avatar

        Don’t worry about CJ, Derek. If the Tesla was a Honda Civic Hybrid or present generation Insight, the excuses would be flowing like water. I, for one, would have loved to be in you shoes for the day. I look at this car a narrow focus vehicle that is powered by electricity instead of gas. No more or less. Yeah the depreciation sucks, but anybody check out the depreciation of a BMW 7 series? As far as costs of maintenance, all ‘exotic” and semi exotic cars cost a fortune to operate. This car can’t be looked at as a cheaper alternative to other cars because that was never the intent in the first place.

      • 0 avatar

        CJ cherry picked his figures pretty blatantly. He chose the very lowest asking price that he could find, and assumed that it defines the market.

        I don’t know what the value or depreciation rates are, and I doubt that there is enough transaction data for anyone to rightly say. That being said, the price of a new Tesla is quite a steep markup over the price of a regular Lotus, which presumably provides some basis for comparison. I wouldn’t buy one with the expectation that they’ll necessarily become a collector’s item.

      • 0 avatar

        No cherry picking involved. I’ve looked at Teslas on ebay at least half a dozen times, and they’re always offered for buy-it-now prices similar to the ones on there right now.

      • 0 avatar

        “No cherry picking involved.”

        You focused on the lowest cost Tesla on Ebay (which has to be painted in the ugliest shade of puke green that I’ve seen a long time), attempting to use it as sort of market average, while completely ignoring the red one that is being offered for $19,000 more on the same website. That’s pretty obvious cherry picking.

        In any case, there just isn’t going to be much data about this, either way. And regardless, none of that does anything to change the reviewer’s driving experience.

      • 0 avatar

        Try harder. Like read my actual posts. I gave the price range of the Teslas on ebay exactly as it is. I didn’t cherry pick. You failed to read before you tried to spin.

    • 0 avatar
      PJ McCombs

      Is there any reliability data on the Tesla yet? The company line is that you service it once a year or every 12K miles, and with the lack of fluids to change, moving parts to replace, etc I would think it would actually be much cheaper to run than an equivalent Elise. Any shared Lotus bits and trim, on the other hand, I might worry about.

      Anyway, you don’t buy any $100K roadster because it makes good financial sense.

  • avatar

    There was a Fisker Karma parked outside our Whole Foods yesterday. That thing is huge compared to the Tesla and also the Leaf several spaces away.

    Apart from the tires and eventually batteries, my understanding is Tesla require less maintenance than the Elise they are based on. Everything just lasts longer, fluid changes are minimal. Presumably there are updates to the firmware but like others have said way less depreciation than a European luxobarge. Maybe like those cars they charge a lot of money for inspecting the car.

  • avatar

    1k service on a 100k car is certainly not out of the ordinary. No suprise there. You don’t buy an exotic car of any sort and expect maintenance to be cheap.

    However I have never been particularly impressed with them. I’ve seen a few around downtown Montreal. It’s eerie to see one take off at a light with nothing more than a bit of tire roar. They look neat, but as the review mentions the interiors are crap. Looks like a kit car built with Canadian Tire (or Autozone for yanks) aftermarket parts.

    As the Son of Clark opined, I would much rather pay half as much to get a Lotus and then spend the remainder to fuel the car for the rest of my life.

  • avatar

    BTW, some reviews suggested that it was impossible to get the car to coast. Once you lift off completely, it starts braking, even braking lights come on. Is that true? I imagine it to be a bit of a problem, but I cannot know.

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