Electric cars are known for being quiet. Too quiet for some. When the subject comes up among gearheads there is always a lot of griping and groaning about how they can't imagine trading in their V8 for something as silent as a church mouse.
If the Tesla Roadster is any indication, they needn't worry.
Sure, it's a bizarre sight to have one fly by you at full steam making no more noise than an oversized remote controlled car, but from the driver's seat, it's an entirely different story.
While there is no engine pumping the thunder of thousands of tiny explosions through a finely tuned exhaust every minute, there is a motor and a transmission and fans and pumps and tires and other assorted moving parts that deliver an aural punch straight out of the movie "Tron."
A more fitting sound I can’t imagine.
Notwithstanding the public ups and downs this startup (upstart, if you work in Detroit or for Big Oil) has gone through over the past few years, one simple fact exists: The Tesla Roadster is real. You can buy one and you can drive one. I recently did the latter.
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In a process fitting of a company headquarted in Silicon Valley, Tesla assembles the Roadster in Menlo Park, Calif. using a chassis built by Lotus in England, an electric motor manufactured in Taiwan, and a battery pack it constructs in house using parts imported from Japan. Electric cars have been around a long time, but it's that last piece of the puzzle that brings Tesla's into the 21st century.
Unlike the Mini-E concept which uses a smaller, air-cooled lithium ion (Li-ion) battery pack, the one in the Tesla is both liquid cooled and heated. This allows it to extract more than the typical 50 percent of charge you can usually squeeze out of Li-ion batteries without destroying them. Tesla claims over 80 percent of the stored energy can be accessed in normal use, and you can even tap into that last 20 percent if desired, but the added strain will hurt the battery in the long run.
Comprised of a staggering 6,831 individual cells, the Roadster's 992 pound pack pumps out 53 kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity. For comparison, the batteries in everyday hybrids typically provide less than 2 kwh, which is why you can only drive one of those a couple of miles in electric mode and the Tesla can go 244.
That is if you happen to drive like a tester for the Environmental Protection Agency. Most people who buy $109,000 sports cars are looking for an experience slightly more exhilarating than that one probably is, and the Tesla Roadster delivers, up to a point.
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Despite the weight of the batteries, the aluminum and composite construction of the rest of the car keeps the weight near 2,700 pounds, about 500 less than a Chevy Corvette or Porsche 911. With 276 pound-feet of torque on tap the second you touch the accelerator, the Roadster can sprint from 0-60 mph in a seamless 3.9 seconds, a feat helped by a transmission that has just a single gear and doesn’t require any time consuming shifts as you approach the speed limit.
Sadly, even though Tesla's promotional material is peppered with the phrase "100% torque, 100% of the time," the company's own power charts show that it actually starts to drop off around 5,500 rpm. So by the time you are in ticket territory the fun is already starting to dissipate.
That's not to say things go downhill quickly from there. At extra legal speeds the 248 horsepower Roadster merely goes from being rail gun fast to plain old rocket sled fast up to its maximum speed of 125 miles per hour, at which point the motor is spinning at 14,000 rpm.
But it won't stay there for very long. If you run the Roadster like that for an extended period of time the motor, which is air cooled, will heat up and the Power Electronics Module (PEM) will dial back the power to help cool it down. You can override this to a point by switching to a special performance mode, but you'll be sacrificing some of the life of the powertrain in the process and ultimately the Master Control Program will have its way and deny your request before letting you kill it.
You’ll also be giving up a lot of distance in the process. To get those 244 miles out of the Roadster you need to use the control screen to switch the PEM to its extended-range setting which cuts the torque by about half, making the performance more like a Mazda Miata than a missile. By no means is it slow in this mode, but if a Dodge Challenger SRT8 pulls up next to you, it’s better to look the other way.
When I picked up the Roadster for my drive, it was set to normal and fully-charged, the range meter indicating that I had about 150 miles of juice in the box. After a day of putting it through a variety of situations including city traffic, highway cruising and mountain roads, I made it about 140 miles before the low battery warnings started in earnest. By then I was already in extended mode, trying not to look worried that I wasn’t going to make it back to the garage.
Had I not, a tow probably would’ve been preferable to the 24 or more hours it would take to get a fill-up for the Roadster from a standard wall outlet. With the high voltage fast charger that comes with the car and has to be installed in your home, the minute hand still has to make three and a half trips around the clock before you have a full battery. In either case, you won’t be taking the Tesla too far away from base unless you have a place to plug it in and lie down for a couple of long naps on the other end.
Hopefully you live near some terrific tarmac and that won’t be an issue. Compared to most cars, the Roadster is a nimble beast, with direct, unassisted steering that reads the road like a seasoned anchorman reads a teleprompter. Unfortunately, that big battery means that its butt is about as heavy as someone who’s spent most of their life sitting down, so the car’s balance is short of perfection. This only becomes an issue when you are being particularly mischievous, and the firm, double-wishbone suspension and sticky tires do their best to mitigate the Roadster’s inherent shortcomings.
Providing grins is not one of them.
The interior is tight and comes as well-dressed as a vehicle that is hardly more than a testbed for new technology can be expected to, but is disappointing compared to other cars that cost this much. There are electric windows, climate control, a radio, and little else. The seats are so thin they are practically two-dimensional, though leg and headroom are surprisingly adequate given the tidy dimensions of the car. I’m 6’1” and shoehorned myself through the mail slot-sized door and into the bucket with room to spare, though not a lot. The setup is great for a sprint, less so for cross-country jaunts.
Since you won’t be going on many of those in the Roadster, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Aside from the sounds the car makes, the only notably odd thing about the Tesla experience is the regenerative braking system. Designed to send some of the stopping power back into the battery, it is a particularly aggressive setup that you feel as soon as you take your foot off of the accelerator. There’s no easing off the power and just gliding. You are either on it, or on the brakes, even if you don’t hit the pedal. When you do, you sense that there’s a whole lot going on down there; the combination of the regeneration and anti-lock braking system taking more than a bit of getting used to. Eventually you do, and the effort is worth it.
But is the car?
Tesla has put 300 Roadsters on the road so far and holds deposits for 1,000 more. Depending on where the owners live, they’re running around on electricity produced by everything from wind to nuclear power to coal, so the upstream environmental benefits of owning one need to be considered, if that’s your reason for buying one.
If it’s the cost of the energy you’re concerned with, then Tesla says you’ll be paying about 2 cents per mile, though electrical prices vary widely. A Prius will cost you 4.5 cents per mile in gasoline, but a more apt comparison would be a Corvette Z06 which chugs 12 cents of premium over the same distance, and that’s with gas sitting close to $2 a gallon.
For many, though, the biggest concern with electric cars is the battery, and whether or not it will last as long as the rest of the car.
Tesla thinks so and gives it a 3 year/36,000 mile warranty, claiming that it should make it closer to 5-7 years and 100,000 miles, though performance will probably drop off some with age. If you do need to replace it, the cost is just $12,000. I say ‘just,’ because replacing the relatively wimpy battery in a Prius will set you back $3,000, so Tesla’s price seems like a pretty good deal given what you get. The $7,500 federal tax credit the Roadster comes with will make the outlay somewhat easier to swallow.
Is the Tesla Roadster the car of the future? As any former General Motors EV1 owner will tell you it’s really the car of the past redux. The difference is that this time around we probably will be seeing more vehicles like it in our future.
Whether or not Tesla will be one of the outfits selling them is yet to be seen. The company is looking for a $350 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy to help it move forward with its recently revealed Model S 7-passenger sedan, but will need a lot of wealthy early adopters to drop by its growing network of showrooms in the meantime and put their names on the waiting list for one of the 2-seaters if it hopes to make it to the next generation.
For those of you who do, the payoff is a lot more fun than the time you stood in line for that new iPhone.
Base Price: $109,000
Type: Mid-engine, Rear-wheel drive, two-passenger, two-door roadster
Motor: 375 volt AC induction motor
Power: 248 hp, 276 lb-ft torque
Transmission: one-speed automatic
Range: 244 miles
What do you think of the Tesla Roadster?
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