Most people are lucky to experience one life-affirming moment while they're on this earth; I experienced mine last week. AutoblogGreen's Sam Abuelsamid called to ask if I was interested in accompanying him on his exclusive First Drive of the Tesla Roadster. Aside from the company's own employees, only a few customers and the major automotive print publications have driven the Tesla Roadster so far. But you won't have to check your mailbox or drop $4.95 at Barnes and Noble to read about what it's like to drive this truly revolutionary vehicle. Follow the jump for our full road test (with video!) and check out the gallery of amazing images below.
UPDATE: Due to popular demand, we've included a video of the Tesla making a few passes without any music or voice over so you can get a sense of how quiet the EV is at speed.
All photos Copyright ©2007 Damon Lavrinc/Brad Wood/Weblogs, Inc.
A few days later we arrived at Tesla's R&D facility in San Carlos and were escorted to the back of the building where a half dozen Roadsters were parked and perched throughout the garage. Our silver tester for the day, Validation Prototype 10 (VP10), was near the corrugated rollup door, soft-top removed, lying in wait. After a series of impromptu photos and a few introductions, Sam got behind the wheel with a Tesla exec riding shotgun and we made our way back to the Audi R8 we were driving to follow the all-electric coupe through the crowded streets of the South Bay burb.
Thankfully, the monsoon that had been plaguing Northern California let up for a few hours and allowed Sam to wring out the Tesla on his way up to the Peninsula's crown jewel of motoring bliss: Skyline Blvd. Sweeping corners and dramatic elevation changes make up the 26-mile route that Tesla's PR people deemed worthy of the Roadster's time. The only concern on our part – and probably Tesla's – was that the prototype's Yokohama Advan Neova AD07 summer tires (sized 175/55R16 up front and 225/45R17 out back) might be ill suited for the damp tarmac. Sam put this concern to rest within the first half mile, laying into the throttle on the straights and braking late into some of the tighter bends without drama. Chasing the Tesla in Audi's V8-powered super coupe turned into an exercise of anticipation. Knowing the limits of Quattro and the R8's traction control system, it was obvious that I was able to power out of the corners with a bit more ease, but as soon as Mr. A slammed down on the throttle in the EV, it took a few seconds for the R8 to catch up to the Tesla's silver bumper. Less than 3,000 pounds (2,690 unoccupied) and 200 lb.-ft. of torque at zero rpm can do that.
We stopped at one of the few turnoffs on Skyline to take some photos and throw the cloth top on the Tesla (the same routine required by Elise owners), and we proceeded to head north. After a few more miles, Sam pulled off in front of a ranchette's white picket fence. We approached the driver's side of the Roadster and rolled down the window to see what the unscheduled stop was all about. "You ready to drive it?" It didn't take long for me to contort myself into the tight confines of the Tesla.
First reaction: My God, I'm in a Lotus. No surprise considering that the Tesla is built along side the Elise at the Hethel production facility. The MOMO steering wheel, seats and dash are all carryovers from the donor car, but the carbon fiber transmission tunnel, carpeting and gauge cluster are all specific to the Tesla. And about that gauge cluster... A 13,500 rpm redline causes a grin reminiscent of Jack Nicholson, post-chemical plant explosion. Below the tach is an LCD readout that gives total miles, battery charge level and a range display, while above my left knee is a small touch screen that provides a variety of auxiliary information, including quick facts about the 990-pound battery mounted behind my back.
The carbon fiber tunnel bisecting the cabin is one of many parts replaced with the exotic weave, and houses the HVAC knobs, traction control switch, gear selector and buttons for the heated seats. That last one surprised us in a vehicle that's obviously trying to keep off the pounds, but upon further questioning it was revealed that the amount of power necessary to heat the seats was a pittance compared to the energy required to keep the entire passenger compartment comfortable. Effieciency is top priority at Tesla.
Shifting into the one and only gear without pushing in a clutch is an off-putting task for someone who's spent a fair amount of time in an Elise. This particular car has the original XTrac two speed gear-box with first gear locked out, allowing it to simulate the behavior that can be expected from the single-speed units that will be used for early production cars starting March 17. After easing onto the throttle and pulling off the gravel-strewn turnout, everything was exactly as I remembered it in the Elise. Steering feel is still some of the best you'll ever experience, with an unboosted rack pulled straight from Lotus. It's direct and rewarding, providing plenty of information from initial input to lock. But we've experienced steering like this before, so the question is: how does it go?
Laying into the long pedal from a rolling start elicits instant acceleration on par with only a handful of exotics, but without any of the aural drama. The horizon comes towards you with authority, but the only sound is a faint whir that's quickly drowned out by tire and wind noise. Despite the electric motor's 248 hp and 200 lb.-ft. of torque, things begin to fall flat around 6,000 rpm – something of a disappointment since we were looking forward to revving the electric motor into the stratosphere. But that would have been totally unnecessary. The chosen road provided a number of straights that would easily put our license at risk, and undulating corners offered in a variety of angles quickly snubbed them out.
Handling those twists in the Tesla is an absolute joy, but again, no surprise considering the vehicle on which it's based. Turning into a corner at speed is predictable, with a faint amount of understeer that's slightly more than in the shorter (by six inches) and lighter (by around 700 pounds) Lotus Elise. Thankfully, Tesla's engineers mounted that massive battery pack against the firewall in the engine compartment, placing the majority of the weight in the middle of the car.
The Roadster maintains a lot of the Elise's chuckability, however, the softer suspension partnered with the extra pounds makes it a bit more nervous at the limit – and the wet roads on our drive didn't help. But the overall feel is one of planted purposefulness, with an engaging helm and an absolutely inspiring power delivery.
The drive was short, but it provided enough proof that this startup from San Carlos is well on its way to making motoring history. Early adopters who laid down the $98,000 cost of entry are expected to begin taking delivery of their own Roadsters March 17 and according to the chaperones during our drive, Tesla is heading out to Laguna Seca to test the Tesla's prowess on the track. We're looking forward to hearing how it fares and are even more curious about what the future holds for both Tesla and the industry it's helping to shape.
NOTE: Our 80-90 mile drive in the Tesla involved a lot of hard accelerating on a variety of roads. After driving the Roadster for two to three hours, when we made our way back to the shop, the EV still had about 30-percent of its battery life left.
All photos Copyright ©2007 Damon Lavrinc/Brad Wood/Weblogs, Inc.