2009 Tesla Roadster Photo

2009 Tesla Roadster - Review

 

MotorAuthority contributing editor Gus Chyba recently visited Tesla's new store in Los Angeles and took the Roadster for a short spin. Here are his thoughts.

My cheeks hurt.

The birth of my daughter. My first solo flight in an airplane. Driving a Tesla Roadster. All of these things kept me grinning for hours and hours afterwards. And so now my cheeks hurt.

The Tesla Roadster is a complicated and yet simple piece of technology that makes you realize you are touching, or in this case driving, something that's really different from everything that has come before it. Even though it looks like a Lotus Elise, a fantastic little car in its own right, this is something else entirely.

The first thing you notice is the shape is slightly different from the Elise. It’s longer by 9in, and a little wider by 3in, but the small increase makes a huge difference on such a diminutive vehicle. It turns the boy-racer looking Elise into something a little more grown up. It has more presence. It just feels more like a ‘real’ car.

Your eye is immediately drawn to the glossy carbon-fiber roll hoop cover that looks like it’s been dipped in 20 layers of clear lacquer. It's three dimensional in a way I have never seen; it’s almost hard to focus your eyes on, and kept my attention for longer than it should have.

The rest of the car is equally well detailed. The geek in me got turned on by the charging port, with its line of LEDs that change color as the car charged, and glow white to show you where to put the (huge) plug in a dark garage.

The paint is flawless over the carbon fiber body, the trunk is sizable for such a small car, and much, much larger than the one in the Elise. Opening the rear hatch reveals a large panel over the controller and AC/DC/Charging computer that runs the whole show, and which extends the width of the car. There is only one thing that looks familiar to the eye of an old suck-squish-bang-blow motor head, and it’s a tiny reservoir with a small cap. I put my hand on it, and it was bubbling.

This, it turns out, is the fill reservoir for the coolant required to keep the entire battery pack from doing a Three Mile Island out of the bottom of the car during charging and even more so during full-throttle acceleration. Much as one would think that the problem of losing energy as heat has been solved, there is a complex system of coolant-filled radiators caressed by powerful fans that would suggest otherwise.

Towards the front of the car, a tug on the hatch reveals more carbon fiber, right down to the structure holding the lid in place. Next to an ordinary-looking brake booster sits a box with fins, which is the heater for the occupants.

Get into the car and you have your first issue, if you are any larger than I am. One of the wonderful things about being 5’10” tall and 180lbs is the curious notion that I am what’s referred to as a “99th percentile male”. What that means, basically, is that everything is designed for lucky me.

As I swung my legs over the wide (but slightly lower than an Elise) door sill and plunked down into the thin but very comfortable seats, everything fell immediately to hand - but there was no more room behind my seat. That was it. You will not see any big athletes bouncing around Beverly in this one.

The A/C system in this car still feels like the one in the Elise, basically two squirrels blowing at you through cocktail straws, but with the roof off on a perfect L.A. day, who cares?

The blind spot behind your left shoulder isn’t a spot, it’s a country. Looking around the C-pillar would take the neck of an ostrich; you simply cannot see if there is someone of your rear quarter panel. This is quickly solved by simply mashing on the accelerator but a convex blind spot mirror on both sides should be standard equipment on this car.

The diminutive steering wheel initially felt like that of a go kart, but that feeling went away almost immediately. Everything about the interior of this car means business.

Now for the best part.

Turning the key on doesn’t do a damn thing. Silence. Maybe a fan running, but no feeling of anything starting, no reassuring whir of machinery. This is very, very odd to someone used to driving something pushed along by endless tiny explosions. Even the softest Mercedes S-class motor can still be felt and heard at some level, but not here.

I thought that would be the strangest part of the whole experience, the silence, but I was wrong, because as soon as you are moving it sounds like any other convertible, the wind noise, tire noise, and slight gear whine could be any luxurious drop-top with a large motor that escapes notice because it doesn’t have to spin very fast.

I won’t even talk much about the handling, since it was perfect for a car this size and pedigree. That part isn’t Tesla, it’s Lotus, and they are the masters. However, given that this car is 900 pounds heavier than the Elise, and longer, the ride was not harsh at all, even on the earthquake ravaged 405 freeway through Santa Monica. The steering was communicative, tracked true, and as I found out the hard way on a four point turn, not power assisted.

The strangest part of the whole experience, by far, was the acceleration. Not that it was the fastest car I have ever driven - that would be the Lamborghini Murcielago. No, this car feels different than any other car you have ever driven, simply because it doesn’t respond like a normal car.

The Lamborghini is explosive, frightening even, and does not inspire you to get anywhere near its limits, lest you become a bug on the windshield of life. The Tesla was gleefully drivable within an inch of its abilities almost instantly, and this is the reason why: the “gas” pedal is immediate, without being twitchy. It has feel without any feedback. The precision with which this car’s acceleration can be controlled cannot be described in words, but I shall try. It is a race car driver’s dream, because the finest driving foot in the world cannot control the power through a normal drive train the way I could through this system. Or at least it felt that way.

Even in a car with a large engine, gobs of torque and a perfect automatic, it still requires some thought; when you are driving a twisty mountain road, maybe one with some turns that have sand on them, you still need to think a little bit ahead of the car, think ahead of the motor and transmission, think about what gear you are in. And then there is still that split second hesitation between the action of your foot and the push or pull on the car, and a good driver that knows his or her car automatically compensates for this with time.

I kept surprising myself over and over again because there simply is no lag. None. Zero. Of course I’m sure there is, when measured in milliseconds, but the utter simplicity of lightning fast computer calculations, and electricity through a motor directly driving (with no clutches or torque converters) the wheels, the car felt like it was going before I thought I had even given it the command to do so.

The regenerative braking felt perfect, like engine braking on a normal car, only so linear and constant, you find yourself hardly ever using the brakes. You squeeze this accelerator pedal more than you push on it. I wish I could have wrapped my toes around it or glued my foot to it, it was that good. This part is not Lotus, it is Tesla, and the geeks that figured out this drive system are pocket protector-wearing gods.

Weird. But man, it’s addictive. And that’s the biggest problem.

Like any car, the harder you drive it, the less range you get. While Tesla has perhaps the most sophisticated battery and charging system ever put into a road car, the very nature of this little beast is to want to go, go, go everywhere you can. You find yourself goosing the machine every chance you get just to feel the smoothness of the ferocious acceleration, which is supposed to get even better with the new ‘Powertrain 1.5’.

Every gap in traffic is a spot for you to squirt into, every turn a chance to feel the grip of the chassis and the torque from the unstoppable AC motor. It is every bit as fast from 0-20mph as it is from 60-80mph, and I had to prove this to myself over and over again. As a result, the small battery display alarmingly showed several dozen pixels less charge remaining at the end of our short drive. Every precious pixel on that gauge represents distance that had to be accounted for both on the way out and back, since the only other option would have been a ride home on a flatbed trailer.

There’s talk at Tesla of using removable battery packs in its next vehicle, and of batteries that could charge in as little as 15 minutes. Though 15 minutes seems long compared to a gas fill up, most people would charge their vehicles at home, using a “filling station” only on longer trips.

Asked if it was possible to drive to San Francisco, Jeremy, my excellent and knowledgeable host, admitted that it would only be possible if you could find an outlet near the car at an overnight hotel, and if you don’t have a plug where you park at home, it becomes equally problematic.

The many electric charging stations dispersed throughout Los Angeles don’t work on this car, since they use the older “induction” style charging circle (like GM’s EV1) whereas the Tesla uses a “conductive” metal to metal plug. There’s no doubt for me after driving this car that an electric motor will be driving the wheels of all future cars, but the question of how to get power to that motor away from home is still not answered.

Should you buy this car instead of another $100,000 car? Sure, but it requires forethought. The handling is so good and the power so perfect that it makes most other cars look archaic by comparison. However, taking long trips requires some planning and perhaps the willingness to be towed home on occasion, should your foot become too enthusiastic.

So that’s what this car is: precious energy. Because it’s a sports car, the goal isn’t to see how far you can make it go, the goal is to see if you can get the stability control to kick in (which I couldn’t, it just sticks like glue to everything) or to pass that pesky Porsche in the next lane. Squeezing the go pedal in this car is as addicting as coke to an ‘80s lawyer in Florida - you just can’t stop snorting and grinning.Tesla RoadsterFirst drive: Tesla's all-electric Roadster
 
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