The Tesla dealership is quiet as a cage of sleeping panthers. A pack of the electric Roadsters, in varying degrees of gray, are strewn across the show floor looking like 120mph standing still. I imagine most of them are waiting for a venture capitalist to pick them up and take them from meeting to meeting for the rest of their uneventful lives. But outside is a bright blue one ready for the 10 minutes Tesla and God have handed me. This is my long awaited drive in the Tesla Roadster.
Studying her lines, it is clear to me this car has Lotus DNA, even though the car is much cleaner and classically beautiful-looking than any bug eyed Elise or Exige, and more technologically advanced than the submarine Lotus James Bond drove in The Spy Who Loved Me. The British car maker helped to design the aluminum chassis, which weighs less than 200 pounds, and they handle early stage manufacturing. Tesla stresses that the Roadster is not just an electric Lotus, and it shares no more than 10% of the parts. Much more thought went into this car to simply dismiss it as such. But Tesla's engineers did choose to work with Lotus for a reason, the same reason why most auto journalists consider the Elise one of the last pure sports cars around and a great deal. The low-power, lightweight car is simply one of the best handling and thrilling drives out there, described as some as a street-legal go-kart, and I'd agree that it's one of the best driving experiences I've ever had. With shared genetics, this is perhaps the best way to judge the limits of electric performance as compared to their gas counterparts.
It's rare that Tesla lets people drive the car without a company copilot, so we'd be tailed by a Lexus chase car since I'm sitting copilot to Tim Ferriss, the guy who set up this ride, for the first shift. Starting the car is silent, and we kept trying to turn it over because we're idiots. If you don't step on the
gas accelerator, there is no idle; the car does not move forward even when your feet are not on the brakes. When Tim takes off from the lot, before I hear road noise and wind, I hear the odd purring of the transmission, which can almost be described as turbine-like. With one gear and no engine noise, it's surprisingly hard to gauge speed except by the pressure applied to the headrest by the back of your skull, the churning in your stomach or the unintended roller-coaster face of your passenger. Looking at the speedometer would be idiotic at these rates, in local traffic, but somehow we make it to about 60 for brief bursts on our way to the highway.
Zero to 60 is rated at 3.9 seconds by virtue of the electric motor's 248 HP and 280 torque. By comparison, it bests the fastest road-legal Lotus by a 10th of a second, but the power-to-weight ratio is on par with the standard Elise because the battery pack brings it to 2700 pounds (over 700 pounds heavier than the Elise). The key here is that the car doesn't have to take the time to switch gears, and electric motors deliver 100% of their torque at start. That power curve caused some problems earlier in two previous transmissions, which were being destroyed after a few thousand miles. To overcome that problem with the latest, more durable single-gear tranny, Tesla wisely used a motor with a 14000-RPM redline that could keep rotating faster in a low gear to achieve a top speed of 125 MPH while improving on the earlier transmission's zero-to-sixty time of 5.7 seconds.
Behind the wheel, I found that the entire system works together to deliver power like thick gobs of thick yogurt, with no drive lash on throttle or lift, but not too buzzy either. I have to admit it's the perfect amount of torque for a car of this weight, somewhere in between Detroit muscle and a peaky four banger in a rice rocket. With traction control off, something I was prohibited from doing, I hear you can do doughnuts in the car, something not too easy in many roadsters. That's what I heard, anyhow. In some ways, it feels automatic, without the third pedal, but when you lift off the throttle, the car's regenerative systems seize power through engine braking. It feels like you're lifting off after revving high in second or third gear in a manual transmission sports car. Tim often didn't have to use the brakes, preferring to wind down to almost nothing by engine braking alone. I'd test the brakes later. We'd entered the highway, and the car's acceleration to 80 was great, but power tapered off closer to 110 as aerodynamics of a open top car caught up to it and torque fell. Hypothetically.
I knew the acceleration was appropriate for a car of the future, besting many gas vehicles out there. But one thing I'd never heard about was what all the battery weight (again, 2700 pounds vs sub 2000 pounds) was doing to the car's handling; the Tesla would not likely turn and brake like a space-age wonder considering similar chassis, brakes, wheels and suspension. There's no escaping the laws of physics. Even magical electric cars want to stay in motion, when in motion.
I snaked the car through a set of S turns, but behind other cars, so I was not able to find much data other than that the car does not oversteer easily. Through a banked onramp to highway 280, the ghetto skidpad, I wasn't light on the
gas accelerator, and on the smooth, 270-degree banked circle, I could feel the car's rack-and-pinion wanting to push a bit. I wasn't sure of my speed, so it's impossible to say when confidence was starting to fade. The chase car driver later implied they had to slow down to 60 on the ramp, but I doubt I was going much faster than that. I'll conclusively say that the car handles less confidently than an Elise, but will destroy many road-going sedans and coupes.
Back off the highway, with the chase car still catching up, I got a chance to try the brakes, quickly rounding a corner and heading towards traffic. With a second lane opening up, I slammed them. Warm tires chattered across the rough, slightly downhill road and I was forced to take the other lane or eat SUV. I felt the weight, and expected the car to stop shorter.
But here's something to chew on. I have no conclusive data of how fast we were going, given the single-gear, quiet propulsion of the vehicle. I could have been going 35, I could have been going 60, so it's not fair to judge the car's handling or braking. And neither Tesla nor the internet have any skidpad, slalom or braking distance test results for the car. Conspiracy? I can't say. None of this really matters. The Tesla Roadster is unique as a performance-oriented electric car and deserves heaps of praise for what it is. Its efficiency from battery to wheels hovers between 80% and 90%. Most gas engines sit at about 20%. Provided your public utility has some measure of efficiency in their electric production, you can do a lot of good in this car.
I wouldn't be describing this car properly without discussing the interior. The Roadster's insides look similar to its sister cars from the UK, but have been improved. Door sills have been lowered to make entrance easy (although still requiring some level of acrobatics), the leather seats are more comfortable and heated, and the premium stereo is a single-DIN JVC KD-NX5000 which features DivX and DVD playback as well as navigation, a 40GB HDD and an iPod dock. The position of the stereo is sort of low on the dashboard. The stereo's imaging is superb and there's a sub somewhere in the tiny cockpit thumping away. There's an electric touch LCD on the left managing battery charge, tire pressure monitors, etc. Your ass is dragging probably 8 inches from the ground.
I can't afford this car. If I wanted something similar to this in shape, feel and performance, I'd probably buy a used Elise for $30K, if I could get over the bug eyes. But I can assure you that a Tesla is still a hell of a car, by electric or gas terms, even if it's just a bit more portly and more expensive than a comparable Lotus. I mean, it's fast. It's electric. It's efficient. It's sexy. And you can actually buy it if you're rich. And while Tesla as a company may have had some problems in manufacturing at first, they didn't wait for old industry to get off its ass and build something revolutionary. Like Google's Android challenges the cellphone establishment, I hope the Roadster catalyzes the traditional fossil-fuel-dependent makers into a game of catchup, with cars that are just as fast and efficient, and hopefully a lot cheaper. And if that doesn't leave you somewhat impressed, then you belong with the dinosaurs.
Note: Impressions from a 10 minute drive are going to be impressions from a 10 minute drive, nothing more.
Special thanks to Tim Ferriss for facilitating this drive and donating half of his drive time to me, and for photographer Monica Laipple for the better shots above. Check out more videos over at Tim's site.