Without question, the Tesla Roadster is one of the worlds truly special sports cars.
Not just because its fast, powerful, and a blast to drive, but because it is all of these things while also being the first-ever mass-produced, all-electric car.
Specializing in electric drive technology, Teslas founders knew that they wouldnt have the expertise to develop a new car from scratch, and didnt expect to find it near their headquarters in Silicon Valley. Instead, the company made arrangements with British automaker Lotus Cars to purchase nearly complete Elise roadsters. Fitted with Teslas patented electric motor and battery system, the small and nimble Elise became something the world had never seen before: the Tesla Roadster.
Introduced in 2006, the Roadster went into production in 2008, and will wind up in early 2012, when Teslas contract with Lotus ends. To date, there have been roughly 1,700 sold worldwide, making the Roadster an absolute success and paving the way for Teslas next vehicle: the Model S sedan. The company has even taken over the NUMMI manufacturing plant in Fremont, Calif. (which previously built Toyota and GM vehicles) and renamed it the Tesla Factory.
Beyond the fact that its ridiculously fast, holding its own against the much more expensive Porsche 911 Turbo, what sets the Roadster apart is its seamless fusion of high technology and automotive design. It runs nearly silent, with the tires generating more noise than the motor, and since there are fewer moving parts the Roadster only needs to be serviced once a year. Tesla will even send technicians to your house to run diagnostics and update software.
On the road, the Roadster is an absolute joy though it feels very different from a conventional sports car. Since electric motors spool up so quickly, maximum torque is available in an instant. As a result, the Roadsters computers are tasked with limiting initial acceleration in order to prevent the whiplash that would result from applying nearly 300 foot-pounds of torque to a stationary object.
Of course, the Roadster isnt a car for everyone and has its share of flaws mostly in the realm of comfort and features. As such, its best to see it for what it really is: proof of concept. And with the concept proven in spades, Tesla can get down to serious business with the Model S and beyond.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to drive this vehicle at Teslas headquarters in Palo Alto, just outside San Francisco.
As noted, each Roadster begins life as a Lotus Elise sold to Tesla as a glider; essentially a complete vehicle without a drivetrain. Thats a heck of a starting point, as the Elise has long been recognized as the epitome of the pocket-rocket two-seater, proving especially popular as a short-track hobby racer.
As the Elise nears the end of its second generation, the exterior is starting to show its age. Of course, when there are so few of them on the road Tesla or Elise its easy to make the case that the car will continue to stand out from the crowd. Helping that along, Tesla offers 14 different exterior colours for the carbon-fibre body, from slick silvers to a hue known as Very Orange.
The interior is simple and straightforward, with a spartan quality that suits the Roadster. Its a far cry from the high-tech interiors found in most hybrid luxury cars, with an almost prototype feel that belies the sophistication hidden inside. That being said, if youre looking for a luxurious interior then there are better choices out there.
Similarly, fit and finish is merely OK, which is understandable given how new Tesla is to the production-car scene. Expect things to improve with the introduction of the Model S sedan, which was designed entirely by Tesla.
The Roadsters drivetrain involves a 375-volt induction air-cooled electric motor powered by a 53 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. The base model is rated at 288 h.p. and 273 foot-pounds of torque, while the upgraded Sport is tuned for 288 h.p. and 295 foot-pounds of torque. Tesla states the cars range to be up to 394 kilometres.
Theres nothing quite like driving the Roadster, due mostly to the instantaneous power delivery. Itll launch you from 0-96 km/h in just 3.9 seconds (3.7 in the Sport), and the loudest sound will be the wind rushing over the open top.
Theres only one forward gear, and when you let go of the brake the car starts to creep forward. Lift off the gas at speed, and the regenerative-braking system will immediately kick in to slow the car down while recharging the battery, enabling drivers to manage and minimize energy lost to braking.
With unpowered steering and a small footprint, the rear-wheel drive Tesla takes a very basic and down-to-earth approach to handling that is extremely fun and rewarding, though a bit of a chore at times. An optional adjustable suspension has ten settings to vary ride comfort and performance.
If youve ever seen a Tesla or an Elise up close, you know that this isnt a very big car. Its tiny, and that means getting in and out is not easy even for smaller folks. Once youre in, youll find the Roadster to be tight, with minimal leg and arm room. But then again, this is a pure sports car!
Despite the battery pack taking up a half-ton of space behind the seats, there is a trunk at the very rear of the car; just dont expect to put much into it. You can put a golf bag in it, along with a few other items, but weekend trips for two will require soft and squeezable luggage.
One interesting improvement since the car went on sale is the addition of a push-button drive console for Park, Drive, Neutral, and Reverse, replacing a shifter that wasnt of much use and took up valuable space in the confined cabin.
The Tesla retains the Elises soft-top cloth roof which will eat up some of the cargo area and few cars offer the open-air thrill of the eerily quiet roadster. A carbon-fibre hardtop is also available.
Starting at US$109,000, the Roadster comes in base and Sport trims.
Standard equipment includes ABS, traction control, cruise control, air conditioning, soft-top roof, heated seats, touchscreen LCD for vehicle information, power windows and door locks, tire-pressure monitoring system and front airbags.
Additional features, available as options or standard on the Sport, include premium leather or microfibre seats, an executive leather package, carbon fibre package, hardtop roof, solar guard windshield, and a 400-watt sound system with seven speakers, GPS and back-up camera.
Tesla advertises that the Roadster can be charged completely in four hours, but the equipment to do so will cost you an extra US$1,950, plus installation. Its called the High Power Wall Connector, and a certified electrician can install it in your garage.
When youre out and about, the Universal Mobile Connector (US$1,500) will charge the car fully in six hours through a dryer plug, and ten adapters are available for US$100 each. Or you can stick with the Spare Mobile Connector that comes with the car, which plugs into a standard household outlet, but takes 30+ hours.
Ultra-quiet and fully electric drivetrain! Amazing performance and driveability.
Cramped and minimalist interior; prototype feel interior.
The bottom line
Deserving of its place in automotive history.
The MX-5 can be had in fully-loaded GT trim for $39,995, with a 2.0-litre inline-four producing 167 h.p. and 140 foot-pounds of torque. Its 7.8-second 0-100 km/h time is twice that of the Tesla Roadster, but at far less than half the cost.
One thing that the MX-5 doesnt give up to the Tesla is handling. Mazdas iconic roadster remains one of the most fun-to-drive cars you can get, delivering serious bang for the buck.
Starting at $129,900, the SL 550 has a 5.5-litre V-8 with 382 h.p. and 391 foot-pounds of torque that gets it from 0-100 km/h in 5.4 seconds, while the $166,100 SL 63 AMG features a 6.3-litre V-8 with 518 h.p. and 465 foot-pounds of torque that reduces the acceleration time to 4.6 seconds.
The Benz doesnt offer the unique spirit of the Tesla Roadster, but brings a lot more sophistication and comfort to the table, with a host of high-tech features and a retractable hardtop roof.
Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet
The $172,500 911 Turbo Cabriolet is powered by a turbocharged, 3.8-litre flat-six engine producing 500 h.p. and 480 foot-pounds of torque, which gets the soft-top Porsche from zero to 100km/h in 3.8 seconds.
Dropping down a few notches in price, power, and acceleration, the base 911 Carrera hardtop can be had for $90,100, equipped with a 3.6-litre flat-six generating 345 h.p. and 288 foot-pounds of torque.