This is the first in the CocoEco series, published for the holiday issue last December. (For the full story, see “The Hero and the Sidekick“.)
So many automakers are unveiling electric concept cars these days that the irony almost no longer registers- for all sorts of reasons, the future is pretty clearly electric. But the folks at Tesla Motors, a San Carlos-based company infused with both Silicon Valley talent and funding, aren’t nearly that patient. Earlier this year, they began customer deliveries of the Roadster, a two-seat convertible that was unveiled two years ago and whose Signature edition sold out in two weeks. At $109,000 for the base 2009 model and with a year-long waiting list, this car’s more than a bit out of my range- which does absolutely nothing to temper my appreciation of it, even more than three years after my first giddy test drive.
In its own way, the Roadster is a sleeper. Not that it doesn’t get noticed; passers-by seem to be compelled by an inaudible “Psst, over here” to check it out, if only to see what “it” is. Premised on a Lotus Elise chassis that has been lengthened, stiffened and re-skinned such that the Tesla engineers visibly blanch at comparisons to the original Lotus, the Roadster has clearly held on to its sporty roots. Still, it also emanates a more cultivated sex appeal- more Maserati-subtle than Lamborghini-in your face, and yet distinctive from anything else. That it’s electric is mentioned almost as an aside in the silence it leaves behind…but to underestimate this car as a golf cart would be a blushing mistake.
For the gearheads out there, the Roadster is powered by a 248-horsepower (185kW), 3-phase AC motor. Those familiar with fast cars know that when acceleration is your goal, it’s not really about horsepower- it’s about torque- and the watermelon-sized power plant deploys 276 foot-pounds of thrust to move a car just shy of 2,700 lbs. The biggest experiential difference between an electric car and a gas-powered one is that that torque is available at any speed, meaning that the Roadster is just as fast off the line from a stop light as it is accelerating around that hypermiling Prius on the freeway- with a 0-60 time of 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 125 mph to show for it. Which pretty much makes this car the vehicular equivalent of the suggestive, if slightly naughty, best friend sure to egg you on at every opportunity. I don’t care if you don’t think yourself a car person- plant your right foot on the accelerator with a clear patch of road ahead of you, and you’ll enjoy the true meaning of “visceral reaction”. It holds its own on curves as well- the promise of the twists and turns on the Sepulveda detour through the pass makes me wish for traffic on the 405 when I’m in this car.
Thanks to fanatical attention to saving weight in the rest of the vehicle (weight being the enemy of range), the Roadster boasts a range of 221 miles per charge from its 900-lb battery pack, depending on your right foot. My range would likely be considerably less- but oh how little I’d care. Drive more conservatively, and regenerative braking system will recover energy as you coast downhill and to stops, increasing your range by up to 20%. Given that the average person only drives about 30 miles per day, a few dollars’ worth of electricity would provide a week’s worth of pleasurable commuting- something few cars can provide at any cost.
The Roadster comes with most of the creature comforts one would expect from a car in that price range: heat and a/c, power windows and locks, heated leather seats (microfiber also available), cruise control, iPod compatibility, touch screen info display, Homelink. A Crayola box of paint colors offer something for every personality, and the home charging system will refuel the Roadster for its next adventure while you sleep, in as little as 3.5 hours. Just like a conventional car, you’re welcome to kick the tires (though I’d try to wrangle a test drive instead) at stores in Santa Monica and Menlo Park, CA, with one on the way in New York.
Unless you have a very special relationship with Santa, the Tesla Roadster might have to remain on your wish list this year, as it will mine. But the team is already working on the next model: a 4-door sedan priced at $60,000, expected for delivery in 2011. But as cool as Tesla’s cars are, the truly exciting part about the company may be its catalytic effect on the industry- an upstart company in California, pitching a thinly-veiled dare to the majors to jump in the deep end of the pool. In the meantime, the nice people at Tesla are proving very tolerant of me pressing my nose to the glass as I lust after their firstborn. I’m looking forward to meeting its siblings.