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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Comments (19)
  1. Wow. In my opinion a 15 minutes charge is more than acceptable. The problem is how long will it take to create a network of charging station in order to make this car suitable for travel.

  2. I wish our Government in Canada would allow this car to be bought and sold. there is such potential for it to suceed

  3. It was a rush to drive, that's for sure. There aren't many things that surprise someone who's been driving for 25+ years, but this was one of them. Hope you enjoyed my article... :)

  4. Bullshit.

    The Elise is half the price and can be filled up at any gas station, anytime.

    What exactly is the point of an electric sportscar? Why arent they working to perfect non-fuel burning tractor-trailer or something that is actually useful and can replace energy draining and polluting vehicles on a large scale?

    Anybody who thinks this is a step forward is a fool.

  5. So this was the temporary trans with slower accel times? And with all that "goosing ' of the throttle, how practical is the projected range?

  6. Well, since they are sold out for the first year, there must be a lot of fools out there.
    Such as it is, it's a fun machine, whether it's the future or not remains to be seen...

  7. And don't forget, while the Elise is half the price, it's also half as quick...

  8. Exceptional review...after reading several reviews of the Tesla Roadster, this review stands out as the most descriptive and compelling.

  9. i think its a waste of money (for now)... you pay almost 100G for it and you can only get 100miles range and if you havent made it home by then you're stuck... until they fit this car with a range extender, like the volt, this car will be pointless and irrelevant in my opinion... if you can afford to buy a tesla then you can easily afford the gas for a lotus elise. thats my 2cents.

  10. Of course, you can just buy a used Elise for $30k if you want to save money and still have a boatload of fun. The $70,000 + you save can buy quite a bit of gasoline. But that's not the point. Getting away from gas-burning cars is the point of the Tesla and with any new thing the first ones will be expensive. You have to start somewhere and eventually the technology will get cheaper and trickle down to more "normal" cars.

    Btw, the visibility problem can be greatly improved with MultiVex mirrors. I have them on my Elise and it's the first - and best - accessory one should buy.

  11. Part of buying this car, for sure, is as a "green, different, status symbol". No doubt.
    In no way does it make more sense than an Elise, or several other cars much cheaper.
    But the cool factor (for those buying it) is off the scale. They can afford a flatbed trailer tow every now and then. It's comparable to the buyers of the Prius in many ways, those buyers want to be different, stand out from the crowd, even if it doesn't totally make sense in dollars and cents for many years to come...
    If I had millions and had to pick a toy, or I was a diehard environmantalist with money, this would be high on my list.

  12. Here is my biggest question/problem.

    15 charge if they can get it there would be fine. This world is in a hurry too much. The green status? that is a joke and the green movement is to only make money. I feel everyone should try to minimise waste but this go green is a great ad line......

    Every battery powered device has failed me in a few years. I am not a battery tech man, but nothing major has changed years.

    You get 100 miles a charge off the lot....Then what? how much to replace said battery?
    In the prius is is masked because of the engine, but when you have only a battery pack i guess we will see. If the battery does last. Damn it they need that tech on every battery.

    I dont know. Using less i am all for. Battery cars to save the world and have a place in this world? not really for me. I am a desiel fan and wish the research dollars for it would match gas/electric.

    I do wish i could test drive it though

  13. Great review. I've driven it as well and share the author's excitment (although I could never have expressed it as well).

    Where the heck did the 100 mile range comments come from? The EPA range measurement is ~225 miles per charge. Sure aggressive driving will cut this down a lot but you'd have to be REALLY pushing it to cut it to 100 miles!

    Also, Tesla has no announced plans for any batteries that would take a 15 minute charge. That whole discussion (most from one of their competitors) is very much moot anyway. At least in the US, there isn't anything resembling a power infrastructure to support that type of charging. The most almost anybody can get at home is something like the 220v 90amp circuit which Tesla can use to charge the roadster overnight...


  14. True, nowhere did I (or the Tesla rep) say 100 miles. In fact, he mentioned a record of 279 miles or something like that. The car can go far, plenty far for the vast majority of people. Even if you play hard with it, you can go a long time, but of course you can't just fill it up at the corner station and go home.
    The 15 minutes is something we talked about, and some other battery companies are trying to cut the time down drastically as well, but yes, you do need a big power source to do it, and no one will have that at home. However, that 15 minute number was put out as something that might be possible at a "filling station" which does have that type of industrial power supply. Most people would just be happy to charge the car at home overnight, which is probably better for the batteries anyhow.

  15. I have read every review of the Tesla (but never driven it) This was easily one of the best. Watch out Dan Neil.

    Some bits:

    Have you ever timed a trip to the gas station to fill an empty tank? It's often longer than 10 minutes to fill up even without one of the irritatingly slow nozzles.

    The EPA rating of ~225 miles uses the new 2008 testing cycle.

    The company offers a charging plug adapter kit for most common plugs and there is an aftermarket adapter for those old 90's charging plugs.

    Try comparing the Roadster to other supercars that have comparable speed and acceleration. and their PRICE. this site: http://www.performancecarnews.com/Fastest-Cars-0-60.asp?Process=ShowTable&Irate=5.95&Month=60&DPay=30000&STax=0 shows the Lamborghini Murcielago at .6 faster for 3 times the price. Across the board other cars that fast are typically double or triple the Teslas price. Let's not even go into the cost of maintenance of all those ICE moving parts. The Tesla motor has 1.

  16. And this is weird to think about. When you buy a new replacement battery pack in 5 to 10 years, your mileage will actually increase because the tech just gets better. On average about 8% each year..

  17. "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."

    The answer to this is the hydrogen fuel cell. New Communities and Municipalities will have to have hydrogen fuel cell powered charging stations either in parking lots and in garages at peoples homes that will charge these things at minimal cost. For those lucky enough to live in cities that Chevy test marketed the EV1 in then you can sue the adapter that vfx spoke of. Once they make a nice 30K sedan I will think about buying one.

  18. consider those paying 100k to drive a tesla roadster as pioneers on the road to getting better cleaner cars and stop being spoilsports.

  19. I dig it man.

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