2009 Tesla Roadster – Road Test
Whatever design anomalies, daily annoyances, absurd ergonomics, and ridiculous economics underlie Tesla’s little battery-powered peashooter, the car has one slam-dunk feature: It makes boys out of men.
One driver with gray at his temples and a giggle on his lips recalled when he used to daydream of shrinking down and driving his own slot cars. Another became a comic-book rocket guy, racing to save the underground city. Driving the Tesla is so unlike wheeling a normal vehicle—indeed, even the severely abnormal Lotus Elise on which the Tesla is based—that it’s possible to be transported in mind much farther than in body. Well, anything that extends a Tesla’s range, metaphysical or otherwise, is welcome.
Recall that the Tesla, named for 19th- and early-20th-century electrical über-inventor Nikola Tesla, is a two-seat targa assembled by Lotus in England and finished by Tesla Motors in San Carlos, California. The aluminum-chassis and carbon-fiber-paneled roadster weighs 2756 pounds, 781 more than an Elise, but is made spunky by a 248-hp, air-cooled AC-induction electric motor fed by 6831 lithium-ion cells resembling slightly overweight AA penlight batteries. No gas, no oil, just juice from the wall socket—amounting to about $4 to $7 worth for a single fill-up, depending on your local electricity rates.
After helping invent the online-payment service PayPal, and then selling it for $1.5 billion in eBay stock, Elon Musk, 37, founded Tesla Motors.
The first drivable prototype created in mid-2007 was almost as big as the Beatles in the media. Deposits poured in. As of January, the company claims to have put 168 cars on the road through a pair of reassuringly modern and well-equipped dealerships in California.
Lately, however, it looks as if Lady Luck has been hopscotching in golf cleats on the company. Tesla underwent a bitter management change in late 2007, and it has run into a fund-raising wall since the credit industry and economy went kablammo. The company also jacked up the roadster’s base price to $110,950 in January (originally it was $92,950, then $99,950). Customers who had already plunked down deposits but were still awaiting delivery were told to agree to the higher price or their cars wouldn’t be built. The internet boiled.
Especially itchy, according to owner blogs, is how Tesla now charges for items that were once standard equipment. Among them, the 240-volt “high-power connector” quick charger allowing three- to four-hour recharges is now an extra $3000 (the charging time with the 120-volt plug that is included in the price takes about 37 hours, while a $1500 lower-amp, 240-volt plug involves eight to 10 hours). The forged aluminum wheels in these pictures, once standard, now cost $2300. The company says it needs to charge more to stay viable.
Regardless of where your mind is transported, your body will move only about 240 miles, at most, between charges, says Tesla. Unfortunately, we can’t verify the claim. We traveled only about 160 miles before total failure. Not of the battery pack but of our lower backs. As in an Elise, the Tesla’s seats seem to consist of little more than black paint on the fire wall. Now that waterboarding is banned, may we suggest simply locking terrorists inside a Tesla.
Still, we find no reason to dispute Tesla’s range claim. The touch screen reports miles remaining on the battery pack, but it’s a prediction based on previous behavior. The harder one pushes, the lower the number of miles remaining. Ease up, as we rarely did, and your range circle widens. Holding a steady 75 on the freeway drains the pack fast, as it sucks amps and there are fewer opportunities for brake regeneration. Conversely, pummeling the car on a winding road winds down the clock less quickly.
If you’re now pondering which used Ferrari you can snap up for this Tesla’s price of $126,595, then a Tesla isn’t for you. It’s not throaty. It doesn’t melt tires. The women most interested in the car are usually wearing muumuus. Its ethereal vibe is about as different from a Ferrari’s as Mother Jones’s is from Mos Def’s. Heck, people have driven Ferraris from coast to coast in less time than it takes to fully recharge the Tesla off its 120-volt plug.
The Tesla’s charms lie in its otherness relative to ordinary cars. For example, your garage becomes your filling station, self-service only.
Prepare to pay thousands to a contractor to rewire for Tesla’s wall-mounted, VCR-size quick charger—it pulls a staggering 70 amps at 240 volts, about enough zap to run a laundromat. We chose the Homer Simpson route, spending $19.22 at the local hardware megabox for a 40-amp, two-pole circuit breaker, a few feet of heavy wire, and a common kitchen-range plug. Hammers, drills, and electrical tape were involved, though city building inspectors were notably absent. After an hour, vidi ˇcuda! (it means voilà! in Nikola Tesla’s native Serbian), we had a Tesla home-charging station.
It wouldn’t revive an exhausted Tesla in three to four hours, but it did easily recharge the car overnight using the optional $1500 “portable” cord. The cord is about 20 feet long, as thick as a garden hose and fairly heavy, though it does indeed coil into the five-cubic-foot, carbon-fiber bucket that serves as a trunk.
Actually, the Tesla’s charger is built into the car, and using the clever dash touch screen, you can program it to draw from 20 to 70 amps. The optional 240-volt cord pulls about 32 amps, enough to instill a slightly disconcerting warmth in our home-brewed circuit.
While sucking power, the Tesla gurgles softly as its propylene-glycol coolant circulates through the battery pack and the radiators mounted in the nose. Periodically the car’s cooling fans kick on with a whoosh, a fact your neighbor’s dogs will find highly alarming at 3 a.m.
Fully charged and ready to roll by morning, the Tesla was loaded onto a trailer. The nearest test track is 100 miles away. Therein lies one of the Tesla’s rubs. Unless you live much closer to a track, have an extension cord that will reach orbit, or know a friend with a fission reactor in the vicinity, track days can’t happen without trailers.
At the time of our first Tesla test [March 2008], the roadster still had a two-speed transmission. The transmission, uh, well—it just didn’t work. So Tesla has pared the ratios back to a single gear reduction. Now, the motor spins to 14,000 rpm—1000 rpm past its redline—and the car whirs to 122 mph in one long, seamless windup from zero. Once you experience direct drive, you’ll never want to go back. There’s no slack from gear lash, no hang time while a transmission computer thinks about which gear to select. Burying the pedal has the same accelerative immediacy as jumping in front of the 5:35 express.
Myth buster: The Tesla is not silent, especially while hurtling BMW M3–like to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds and through the quarter in 13.2 seconds at 103 mph. The targa top is a roll-up canvas hankie that holds back wind noise about as well as a beach towel. The electric motor in back doesn’t growl like an engine, but it is audible. It sounds exactly like Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder. If you stand by the road as a Tesla whisks by, you hear the turbine whine of an Airbus about to suck down some Canadian honkers.
The handling is steadfastly neutral except if you try to kick it sideways. Then it just plows. You won’t see Teslas on the pro drifting circuit, but its drivers will always be smiling. The unassisted steering is quick, organic, and a bit heavy. A few inches wider and longer than an Elise, it is also sprung softer and has more give over lumps and more roll in corners.
Though fitted with cross-drilled discs and expensive-looking AP Racing brakes, which halt the car from 70 mph in 170 feet, the Tesla would probably get by with Yugo brakes. Regenerative braking—when the drive motor switches itself to become a power generator—slows the car so sharply that you can sail down mountain roads without touching the left pedal. Indeed, for safety, the Tesla has brake lights triggered whenever you lift off the gas. Thus, a small negative for all the cash saved on brake pads is that tailing drivers believe you’ve downed a hockey puck made of codeine.
Once you’ve pommel-horsed the wide sills to get in, the Tesla’s well-made cabin has plenty of legroom. It is efficiently trimmed with a glossy carbon-fiber center console with buttons for the cabin-temperature controls, seat heaters, and air conditioning. Heat comes via a resistance coil—the cockpit becomes a big toaster—while the air-conditioning compressor spins by an electric pump. The brakes also have an electric pump to create vacuum for power assist. Basically, pushing any pedal or button inside the Tesla drops the range by some infinitesimal degree, but so what?
To our surprise, the Tesla’s range turned out to be a nonissue. It has plenty of reach, either as a daily commuter or for morning coffee runs with the Lotus club. Only people with titanium vertebrae will want to drive more than a couple hundred miles in a sitting. No, the big issue is the six-digit price. A lease plan might help grease sales, but so far, Tesla has none. Also, there’s the fear of being stuck with a fancy paperweight should the company go under.
Any adult would scamper away in fear, but there’s no telling what your inner child might do.