What it Feels Like to Drive a Tesla Roadster

The Tesla dealership is quiet as a cage of sleeping panthers. A pack of the electric roadsters, in varying degrees of grey, are strewn across the show floor looking 200kph standing still. I imagine most of them are awaiting for a venture capitalist to pick them up and take them from meeting to meeting for the rest of their uneventful lives. But outside is a bright blue roadster ready for the 10 minutes Telsa and God have handed me. This is my long awaited drive in the Tesla roadster.

[Photos by Monica Laipple and Giz, drive via Tim Ferriss]

Studying her lines it is clear to me this car has Lotus DNA, even though the car is much cleaner and classically beautiful looking than any bug eyed Elise or Exige, and more technologically advanced than the submarine Lotus James Bond drove in The Spy Who Loved Me (Thanks Ray). The British car maker helped to design the aluminium chassis, which weighs less than 90kg, and they handle early stage manufacturing. Tesla stresses that the Roadster is not just an electric Lotus, and it shares no more than 10% of the parts. Much more thought went into this car to simply dismiss it as such. But Tesla's engineers did choose to work with Lotus for a reason, the same reason why most auto journalists consider the Elise one of the last pure sports cars around and a great deal. The low power, light weight cars are simply one of the best handling and thrilling drives out there, described as some as a street legal go kart, and I'd agree that it's one of the best driving experiences I've ever had. With shared genetics, this is perhaps the best way to judge the limits of electric performance as compared to their gas counterparts.

It's rare that Tesla lets people drive the car without a company copilot, so we'd be tailed by a Lexus chase car since I'm sitting copilot to Tim Ferriss, the guy who set up this ride, for the first shift. Starting the car is silent, and we kept trying to turn it over because we're idiots. If you don't step on the gas, there is no idle, so the car does not move forward even when your feet are not on the brakes. When Tim takes off from the lot, before I hear road noise and wind, I hear the odd purring of gears, which can almost be described as turbine like. With one gear and no engine noise, its surprisingly hard to gauge speed except by the pressure applied to the headrest by the back of your skull, the churning in your stomach or the unintended roller coaster face of your passenger. (Me.) Looking at the speedometer would be idiotic at these rates, in local traffic, but somehow we make it to about 100 for brief bursts on our way to the highway.

The rates to 100 are rated at 3.9 seconds by virtue of the electric motor's 248 HP and 280 Torque. By comparison, it bests the fastest road legal Lotus by a 10th of a second, but the power to weigh ratio is on par with the standard Elise because the battery pack brings it to 1225kg (over 315kg heavier than the Elise). The key here is that the car doesn't have to take the time to switch gears and electric motors deliver 100% of their torque at start. That power curve caused some problems earlier in two previous transmissions, which were being destroyed after a few thousand miles. To overcome that problem with the latest, more durable single gear tranny, Telsa wisely used a motor with a 14000 RPM redline that could keep rotating faster in a low gear to achieve a top speed of 200kph, while improving on the 2008's single gear transmission time to 100kph down from 5.7 seconds to 3.9 seconds.

Behind the wheel, I found that the entire system works together to deliver power like thick gobs of thick yoghurt, with no drive lash on throttle or lift, but not too buzzy either. I have to admit it's the perfect amount of torque for a car this weight, somewhere in between detroit muscle and a peaky four banger in a rice rocket. With traction control off, something I was prohibited from doing, I hear you can do doughnuts in the car, something not too easy in many roadsters. That's what I heard, anyhow. In some ways, it feels automatic, without the third pedal, but when you lift off the throttle, the car's regenerative systems seize power through engine braking. It feels like you're lifting off after revving high in second or third gear in a manual transmission sports car. Tim often didn't have to use the brakes, preferring to wind down to almost nothing by engine braking alone. I'd test the brakes later. We'd entered the highway, and the car's acceleration to 130 was great, but power tapered off closer to 180 as aerodynamics of a open top car caught up to it and torque fell. Hypothetically.

I knew the acceleration was appropriate for a car of the future, besting many gas vehicles out there. But one thing I'd never heard about was what all the battery weight (again, 1225kg vs sub 900 kg) was doing to the car's handling; the Tesla would not likely turn and brake like a space age wonder considering similar chassis, brakes, wheels and suspension There's no escaping the laws of physics. Even magical electric cars want to stay in motion, when in motion.

I snaked the car through a set of S turns, but behind other cars, so I was not able to find much data other than the car does not oversteer easily. Through a banked onramp to highway 280, the ghetto skidpad, I wasn't light on the gas, and on the smooth, 270 degree banked circle, I could feel the car's rack and pinion wanting to push a bit. I wasn't sure of my speed, so it's impossible to say when confidence was starting to fade. The chase car driver later implied they had to slow down to 100 on the ramp, but I doubt I was going much faster than that. I'll conclusively say that the car handles less confidently than an Elise, but will destroy many road going sedans and coupes.

Back off the highway, with the chase car still catching up, I got a chance to try the brakes quickly rounding a corner and heading towards traffic. With a second lane opening up, I slammed them. Warm tires and chattered across the rough, slightly downhill road and I was forced to take the other lane or eat SUV. I felt the weight, and expected the car to stop shorter.

But here's something to chew on. I have no conclusive data of how fast we were going, given the singlegear, quiet propulsion of the vehicle. I could have been going 60kph, I could have been going 100kph, so it's not fair to judge the car's handling or braking. And Tesla and the internet have no skidpad, slalom or braking distance test results for the car. Conspiracy? I can't say. None of this really matters, because the Tesla Roadster is unique as a performance oriented electric car and deserves heaps of praise for what it is and how it feels to drive despite its efficiency from battery to wheels of 80-90%. Most gas engines sit at about 20%. Provided your public utility has some measure of efficiency to their electric production, you can do a lot of good in this car.

I wouldn't be describing this car properly without describing the interior. The Roadster's insides look similar but have been improved over its sister cars from the UK. Door sills have been lowered to make entrance easy (although still requiring some level of acrobatics) the leather seats are more comfortable and heated, the premium stereo is a single DIN JVC KD-NX5000, which features DivX and DVD playback, as well as navigation and a 40GB HDD and iPod dock. The position of the stereo is sort of low on the dashboard. The stereo's imaging is superb and there's a sub somewhere in the tiny cockpit thumping away. There's an electric touch LCD on the left managing battery charge, tire pressure monitors, etc. Your arse is dragging probably 20cm from the ground.

I can't afford this car. If I wanted something similar to this in shape, feel and performance, I'd probably buy a used Elise for $US30K if I could get over the bug eyes. But I can assure you that a Tesla is still a hell of a a car, by electric or gas terms, even if its just a bit more portly and more expensive than a comparable Lotus. I mean, its fast. It's electric. It's efficient. It's sexy. And you can actually buy it if you're rich. And while Tesla as a company may have had some problems in manufacturing at first, they didn't wait for old industry to get off its arse and build something revolutionary. Like Android, I hope it catalyses the fossil fuel makers traditional makers into a game of catch up with cars that are just as fast and efficient, and hopefully a lot cheaper. And if that doesn't leave you somewhat impressed, then you belong with the dinosaurs.

Note: Impressions from a 10 minute drive are going to be impressions from a 10 minute drive, nothing more.

[Special Thanks to Tim Ferriss for facilitating this drive and donating half of his drive time to me, and for photographer Monica Laipple for the better shots above. Some more videos over at Tim's site. ]