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Tesla Roadster Roadtest

The electric car that hopes to rock the boat.

technologically speaking we're into uncharted territory

If you were born in the 1970s, the phrase 'Silicon Valley' should be familiar to you. It refers to a dusty, craggy region adjoining San Francisco Bay from whence the US computer industry evolved, and where much of the world's most cutting edge software, genetics and communications development is still done today. The US car industry, however, is a different matter altogether - in over a century of history, the automakers remain indelibly linked to Detroit, 2,500 miles away to the east.

Yet it was wealthy internet entrepreneurs from the sunny climes of the Pacific North West , who decided to build a car for themselves - figuratively and literally. It had to be reliable, fast, hi-tech and environmentally conscious, they reasoned. What's more, it would be an electric car. Detractors said that the California sun had gone to their heads.

Tesla Motors has sunk a lot of money into the resulting Roadster, and since day one have used the web (what else?) both to generate investment and publicise the car. Every developmental high and low has been played out fully in the glare of a watchful - often cynical - public. So when I finally got to sit in a Tesla, parked up in Central London, it felt faintly eerie, almost like a car I've seen somewhere before...

There is an element of truth in this of course. The basic Roadster design is based on a Lotus Elise, with ongoing ties to the Norfolk sports car firm that run as deep as initial assembly of the key components. The high sills and awkward entry to the car are every bit Elise. Similarly, much of the fascia and dashboard cause déjà vu. Forget that though, technologically speaking we're into uncharted territory.

Despite the technical wizardry inherent within the Roadster's systems, almost all of it is hidden from the driver. Starting the Tesla is easier than making toast - put the key in, turn it two stops and a sound not unlike the welcoming 'bong' of a PC emanates from somewhere. A smiling Tesla representative leans in and tells me I'm good to go: "Move the gearstick to D and gently apply the pedal..." After several years of anticipation, I'm milliseconds away from experiencing a Tesla Roadster for myself!

Feels Like It Will Accelerate Forever

Gingerly, I wait... and realise the car is in fact moving. I am moving. Utterly silently, a shrinking Tesla rep my main point of reference. Because that's what the Roadster is like - the blood pumping in my ears is louder at this moment than the 52kg electric motor propelling the car. Apply your foot on the brake and the car comes to a steady stop again, initial test complete. It's time to insert this baby into London traffic.

The first time you push the car hard, the jolt of acceleration feels less like an electric car and more like an electric chair. Seeing a gap in Hyde Park Corner traffic - the gods must be smiling - eyes narrowed, we aim for it and I lightly apply the pedal. Should've taken a deep breath before I did so, as the torque of the motor is such that it feels like it will accelerate forever. This is the torque that arrives from nowhere, quite literally - 270Nm arrives from nada, niet: ZERO rpm. The sensation is almost as if the whole world is moving backwards suddenly, rather than us moving forwards. I'm rather ashamed to admit this first open-road foray in the Tesla had me whooping and punching the air in delight.

There's no clutch, and with a sluggish regenerative braking system drawing wasted current back from the wheels, the Tesla can be driven almost on the accelerator alone. It is an easy car to drive, by almost any standard. The steering feels weighty but never lifeless, and certainly firm enough for a point-and-shoot style of city driving, typical of crowded London streets. That firm ride is punishing over any potholes mind, as the Tesla will crash and shudder at the daintiest of uneven tarmac.

The electric engine itself is comparable in size to a watermelon, but there's a significant weight penalty on account of the battery pack. Despite extensive use of carbon fibre instead of fibreglass, this car is approximately 330kg heavier than its Lotus cousin. Consequently Tesla has beefed up the rear suspension, making the Roadster more prone to understeer. Let's face it, the Tesla has a mightily sophisticated rear end that you really don't want to lose on a corner.

An hour in stop-start traffic and the electric newcomer starts to make more sense than anything else that surrounds us on the road. With 60mph arriving in less than 4 seconds from standstill, the Tesla is fast enough to outperform, out-manoeuvre and outwit just about all other road users at the lights. In traffic jams, where this car will spend much of its life, there are no emissions and no wasted energy. The Tesla should certainly appeal to Londoners - it's exempt from the Congestion Charge.

On A Full Charge A Maximum Of 220 Miles Is Claimed

At speed, there's significant cabin noise from the wind rushing past your head, which is protected in foul weather by a roll-out fabric targa covering, stowed in the boot. The Tesla is officially limited to a top speed of 125mph, which sadly our Central London test couldn't accommodate. What I can say is the car has some strange amplification quality about it, since 40mph feels much faster in the Roadster, which should serve to make motorway trips around the M25 much more interesting.

Just as driving a combustion-engined vehicle hard will increase the fuel consumption, so it is with the Tesla. On a full charge a maximum of 220 miles is claimed, but start to push it hard - and you will - and the range drops off significantly. From a half-full charge of the battery, our afternoon of about 25 miles sapped that down to nearer a quarter-full within a few hours. When it reaches 10% of total charge, the Tesla's systems are programmed to automatically switch the car to a 'limp home' setting to protect the battery.

Crucial to understanding the Tesla is that lithium-ion battery pack, similar in principle to the power store of most laptops, cameras and mobile phones - albeit scaled up. In fact there are over 6,800 individual cells in the Tesla, located directly behind the driver's backside, but mounted ahead of the rear wheels. Recharging such a massive battery takes about 14 hours from the standard mains you or I have at home, but some owners may opt to install a higher voltage supply, reducing that to about 3.5 hours. In Central London there are currently payment-free recharge points dotted about the place, assuming you can find one without a G-Wiz parked in it.

After some spirited driving around Marble Arch, Westminster and Knightsbridge, the Tesla's large front-mounted fans whirred to life in a bid to cool the systems down. Tremendous heat is generated by the lithium-ion cells, so it's reassuring to hear the occasional gurgle of coolant circling through the battery pack. Other noise is negligible: from the driving seat it's possible to tune your ears into a menacing low-pitched hum, which may be no V8 rumble, but is the closest you'll get to a real sense of the Tesla's raw energy. It's faintly reminiscent of a stroll past an electricity sub-station. If you prefer gadgetry to guesswork, Tesla has included a built-in computer interface mounted to the lower left side of the driver (the car is left-hand drive only). This touch screen offers full-colour graphical access to information on battery status, range and even a G-force meter.

Other toys as standard include traction control and a Blaupunkt stereo with six speakers. And that's about it - there's really not a lot else to the interior, save the heated leather seats, which remained supportive and comfortable despite a full afternoon of (legal) hooning. And a seat is what you'll need when I tell you that the price for this remarkable car is £92,000, which puts it up against rivals like the Porsche 911 GT3 and Aston Martin Vantage. It'll need to be serviced by Tesla, and since the battery pack will begin to lose efficiency over time, you should expect to send it to them for replacement within 2-4 years. This will never be a cheap operation, but Tesla is gambling that battery technology will keep developing to inch cars like this towards 'affordable.'

Rationally speaking, what this group of go-ahead Silicon Valley techies have created seems unlikely to change the way we drive, day-to-day. The Tesla is out of the reach of the common man, and will rarely leave the confines of a city boundary due to its limitations. By any of the usual yardsticks, it's an irrational purchase. But hey, people aren't always rational. Some people feed their dogs prime fillet steaks, whilst others throw themselves out of aeroplanes. Forget the future of motoring, forget 'green', - all I know is, the buzz from driving the Tesla Roadster lasted long after I had reluctantly handed back the keys.

Posted on 10.09.2008 by Pat Holliday
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