Thursday, 10 February 2011 17:54
We sent reporter and photographer Sean Kelly to try what is being billed as the fastest electric car on the road.
Story and photos by Sean Kelly
Let's put it this way: the Tesla Roadster is all the emotional, chocolate-fueled, scented-candle lit, roses on the bed, big sparkly ring feeling that makes a girl's heart swell... but in a raw, space shuttle-launch, monster-truck way that any respectful American male wants deep down in his heart. Here is our report.
When Tesla Motors invited us to take their ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLAR ELECTRIC SPORTS CAR on a test drive, I thought they were crazy. When they let us have it for two hours, I knew they were. (They did eschew the eco-mobile angle for the electric supercar as their entry into the [collapsing] car market, after all).
I found the only person I know who can help analyze this car and truly abuse the privilege bestowed upon us: Neil, a 6’2” engineering student who's a member of the University of Florida formula car racing team and on the pit crew for a Rolex 24 LMS team. He wore his titanium watch to "not weigh us down.”
My assistant and I meet the Tesla rep, who shows us the heart and lungs of the shiny red car, found under the carbon fiber trunk lid: a battery pack and cooling system. It's also got space for a set of golf clubs, or in our case, camera gear.
The rest of the car is remarkably normal—not something you'd expect from a car that gets quizzical looks as if it's a blinking spaceship. It has creature comforts (navigation, USB ports, a nice stereo and A/C) and surprisingly comfortable seats. But the sticker-stats aren't why people lust after this car. They want to know how 14,000 RPM and nearly 300 feet per pound of constant, instantly available torque feels. There are no cup holders, but you can’t sip your Grande Frappuccino at these speeds.
Some skeptical bystanders call it a fancy golf cart. I disagree. We soon find that it drives like a traditional car in almost every respect, like genus car and species electric.
On first entering the driver’s seat, we see the normal speedometer, but to the right is a funny-looking tachometer. It goes negative! The regenerative braking system captures the energy from your forward motion and stores it, something par for the course in hybrid technology. Like any male, I become obsessed with this new gauge, so we traverse down the street with the motion of a hacksaw, accelerating as the needle claws its way to the right, then letting off the “gas” as the needle swings to negative 30 kW. We rarely use the brake. I wasn't sure what a kilowatt of braking felt like, nor what 250 kilowatts of acceleration felt like, but now I do. It's somewhere between "Warp Speed, Scotty" and 88mph in Back to the Future, in both sound and feeling.
"It's great for bird-watching!" my assistant says after a hardly-legal romp down 6th Street. The car doesn't make any sounds, save for wind noise, a little whir and the heavy breathing coming from the passenger seat. At 70 miles an hour, it's got the whir you'd expect from the hard eco-tires it has.
Unlike typical sports cars, it's well behaved at low speeds. In a straight line, it accelerates with the same ferocity. It's got a one-speed transmission, and when you ask it to go, it immediately obliges and next thing you know you're carbon-fiber-nose-deep into the next stoplight.
The traction control is astounding; goosing it at a green light gives a satisfying chirp, then it explodes out of the intersection like a robot version of Seabiscuit.
We manually remove and stow the soft top to prepare for the photo shoot. Driving around the UF campus and downtown results in finger pointing and cell-phone photos. Our egos get so swollen it's hard to fit our heads inside the cabin, even with the roof off.
We assess the logistics of owning this car. You can't just stop on the side of the road and fill-er-up (we tried). The car comes with a charging cable that plugs into a washing-machine type socket installed in your garage. You can completely recharge in about three hours, but you'd have to stay on top of this if you use the car daily. It's got a range of about 250 miles, so traveling longer distances will take some foresight. Sorry, but this isn't a minivan.
Tesla has proven that “green” doesn't have to mean low range or low performance. I may not own an electric car in the next five years, but the evolution is inevitable. This car is for those who live on the edge.
After our test drive, I'm convinced the Tesla Roadster would be a terrific daily driver. I'd take it to the grocery store, to work, out for a Sunday drive and even on trips on the highway. And this thing goes fast—zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds fast. (I think we set a new top score for the I-75 ramp at exit 390).
After two hours of unsupervised horseplay, we return it to the Tesla rep. He says two people in Gainesville are new owners, a red and a black one. That's thrilling; I'm no early adopter, but I like knowing them. If I were in the market for a car in this price range, I'd buy this one right now.