Warning! The following report will likely sound to many readers as though it comes from a fanboy. Perhaps I am, although I have tried to report on the problems and realities that Tesla faces as well as all the company's bold claims. Whatever the case, this car is one amazing ride, and one can't come away from it without a big s**t-eating grin. Onward ...
One of the bright spots of the old GM EV1 was that it had good acceleration thanks to the immediately available torque characteristics of an electric motor and its lightweight construction. Unfortunately, when it came to stopping and changing directions, the EV1 was more like a classic American muscle car thanks to its high pressure, low rolling resistance tires.
The Tesla Roadster that we have all heard so much about does not suffer this malady. On the contrary, if the old Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and Colin Chapman were around today they might create something very much like this car. As circumstances would have it, I was in Santa Monica, Calif., for another event at the same time as the Tesla Roadster validation prototype #10 (VP10). It was also the case that the car's schedule and mine happened to have equal open time slots in our schedules. With the entrance ramp to the Pacific Coast Highway only a couple hundred feet away, how could we not take advantage of the opportunity?
Besides being vice president of marketing at Tesla Motors, Darryl Siry is a certified speed freak. His garage currently holds at least a Mitsubishi EVO and Ducati Monster, both of which get regular visits to the track. Darryl and Aaron Platshon rolled up quietly in the silver VP10 at the appointed time and Aaron relinquished his seat to me so that I could get a chance to experience one of the most amazing sports cars ever built.
When Martin Eberhard decided he wanted an ultra-high-performance sports car with no direct emissions, he launched a company to develop the battery pack and power-train technology. But they needed a car to put around all that electrical hardware and software, and for that they turned to the chassis mavens at Lotus for assistance. Using the extruded aluminum and bonded chassis of the Elise as a jumping off point, they created a new car that goes beyond the Lotus-badged model in many ways.
The chassis of the Elise was modified to lower the sills and make the passenger compartment a little longer. The lower sills definitely make ingress and egress easier, but this is definitely not a car for the arthritic or husky of stature. The first thing you notice when you approach the Roadster is how small it is. The minimalist cockpit is narrow with a slim console that leaves the two occupants in close proximity.
After I settled into the Roadster's thinly padded and leather-covered seat, we quietly glided out onto Ocean Drive and then down to the Pacific Coast Highway. It didn't take long before Darryl was demonstrating the immense acceleration capabilities of the tiny machine. I've piloted numerous electrically driven vehicles over the past year and they all feel strong off the line, but this one was in a whole different world. I've also driven quite a few immensely powerful internal combustion-engined vehicles that usually have an exhaust note that gives a pretty good indication of the propulsive force available under your right foot.
There is something visceral about the roar of a big American V8 or the shriek of a high-revving exotic. Somehow the Tesla Roadster combines the hushed silence of an EV with that big speed potential. At speeds up to about 50 mph, you can hear the whine of the electric motor and hum of the Yokohama tires. Beyond that the rush of air moving overhead overwhelms the other sounds.
However, that lack of engine note in no way lessens the thrill of this car. Not only does it leap off the line, but it never seems to let up. Even at extremely elevated speeds this thing just keeps pulling with seemingly the same rate of acceleration as it did at 10 mph. The virtually constant torque characteristics of an electric motor from 0 up to maximum RPM mean that shifting is largely unnecessary and the Tesla only uses a two-speed transmission to provide the necessary speed range for a car of this type.
Eventually we turned off PCH for a blast up one of the canyons. Here the talents of the Lotus chassis engineers came to the forefront as Darryl demonstrated the immense mechanical grip of the Roadster. On a road comprised of less than pristine pavement, the suspension did what it's supposed to do by keeping the rubber on the road. The immensely stiff chassis never felt like it was flexing under the loads. The Yokohama Neova tires chosen for this car have high grip with a progressive breakaway that is transmitted to the driver by sound as they begin to slide sideways. In spite of their high grip, they have very low rolling resistance that makes them ideally suited to an electric vehicle application.
The Tesla Roadster is not a car for everyone. It's confined, expensive and has limited utility. On its own, it's not going to save the world. But it is a harbinger of things to come. It's a sign that being environmentally conscious won't necessarily require one to be an Ascetic. The lessons learned from creating this machine will be fed forward into more mainstream cars and everyone will eventually benefit from it.
Alas, all too soon it was time to turn around and head back to our destination. For someone who loves cars, the Tesla Roadster is a thrill ride par excellence. The ride isn't uncomfortable, but the car is small and this machine is best appreciated in much the same way as its Lotus progenitor. But this car is completely devoid of direct emissions while at the same time is even faster than the Elise. What more could you ask for in a sports car? Oh yeah, there is that pesky issue of the price. But one can dream, right? And sometimes dreams do come true, and we've been promised time in the left seat very soon. My driving gloves are ready.