2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 S Review

Tesla proves zero-emissions doesn’t have to mean zero-fun

2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 S Review
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A recent poll suggested that 40% of Americans were interested in driving an electric car. If they knew what the Tesla Roadster was all about, that number would likely be 100%.

FAST FACTS

1. With 288-hp and 295 ft-lbs of torque, the Tesla Roadster 2.5 S can hit 60-mph in just 3.7 seconds.

2. Power comes from an electric motor with energy stored in 6831 rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

3. Tesla is planning a Model S luxury sedan with a 300-mile range and a 0-60 time of 6 seconds.

4. A joint project with Toyota and Tesla will see an electric RAV4 concept presented at the 2010 LA Auto Show.

Green cars are not supposed to be like this. They’re for hairshirt wearing, bike path populating hippies who are obsessed with how few miles their produce has traveled and whether their child’s Kindergarten is LEED Certified Gold for eco-friendliness.

THRILLING AND IMMEDIATE ACCELERATION

The Tesla, as you may have inferred, is not this. It has as much in common with other green vehicles as zero calorie cola does with an all-night cocaine binge. It makes 288-hp and 295 ft-lbs of torque and can accelerate to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds. Sure, that’s not as fast as, say, a Porsche 911 Turbo or Corvette ZR1, but the quoted times for those cars are only good under perfect conditions and likely with a brutal launch technique that you would never replicate. On the other hand, the Tesla’s single gear transmission makes repeated sprints a cinch and ensures anything short of a Bugatti Veyron will end up getting shanked.

LOTUS ORIGINS NOT LOST ON THIS GREEN MACHINE

The fun doesn’t stop when the road starts to curve either. With its Lotus Elise-derived chassis and Bilstein suspension setup, the Tesla feels just like a heavier version of the Elise. Heavier, of course, being a relative term, since the Elise weighs just less than 2,000 lbs, while the Tesla, electric drivetrain and all, is about 2,700 lbs. That’s 400 lbs less than a Honda Civic Si, considered a “compact” car by the EPA.

With a manual steering system and a MOMO steering wheel the size of a saucer, weaving the Tesla through the corners is a sublime experience, as you grip the wheel tight around the perfectly placed indents (at 9 and 3, with one on each side that let your thumbs point skyward, the way they should), you can slice through turns like a sportbike knowing that the massive torque will be available right away as soon as you’re pointing straight again.

Like all great sports cars, the Tesla is best driven under ideal conditions; glass smooth roads, sunny weather and little traffic. The weather held up, and the car performed admirably in stop-and-go situations, but if you live in an area with poor roads, the Tesla might be a bit of a chore. The same amazing suspension that puts a smile on your face while driving on a highway ramp also means that the Roadster is very stiff on all but the best pavement. Fire your chiropractor if you drive a Tesla over railway tracks, potholes or manhole covers, because the rigor mortis-like rigidity and high spring rates will re-align your spine multiple times per second with a sickening thud every time you meet an imperfection in the road.

In city driving, the Tesla is quiet, comfortable and easy to maneuver. The single speed transmission and the progressive nature of the regenerative braking (as opposed to the abrupt deceleration of the MINI E) means that the brakes only need to be used to bring the car to a dead stop mere feet from a stop sign. Slow speed movements and U turns require some muscle thanks to the manual steering, but one easily adapts to this quirk. The biggest obstacle you’ll have to deal with is the mob of people who will stop you at inopportune times to ask about the car.

DRIVING THE TESLA WILL MAKE YOU AN INSTANT CELEBRITY

In a town where Bentley Continental GTs and Audi R8s hardly merit a second look, the Tesla will induce the sort of hysteria that is seldom seen outside of a Justin Beiber concert. In the course of three hours I had: three mobs of screaming school children chase me down (including one who shouted “Oh by God a Lotus”); two guys offer me a home theatre system just to sit in the car (I declined); one young gentleman run out of a Foot Locker and ask if I was a movie star; untold camera phone snaps and plenty of smiles and waves from cyclists (notoriously unfriendly to motorists.)

Unlike an exotic car, the Tesla seems to inspire goodwill among pedestrians and other motorists. Whether it’s because it’s electric, or because it looks, sounds and goes like something from outer space is unknown. But prepare to feel like you’re on TMZ when you drive this car.

STIFF RIDE, LOW-GRADE TRIM AMONG DRAWBACKS

As incredible as it is, the Tesla has its drawbacks beyond the stiff ride. The interior looks good from afar, but for a $100,000 car, it could use some work. Exposed bolts and wiring are present in certain spots, and not in the industrial minimalist style that’s popular in modern architecture. One could say that it’s typical Lotus low-rent charm, but buyers of the Tesla are likely unaware of the spotty build quality that plagues that marque, and it seemed a little insidious to cut corners like this, especially in spots where most people wouldn’t look.

In addition to the hardware on display, certain trim pieces looked like they were installed by someone with poor depth perception – one center console piece was slightly tilted, but enough to see with the naked eye. The few storage spaces in the cabin are easily accessible, but poorly thought out. During the (admittedly frequent) bouts of rapid acceleration, Blackberries and iPods went flying.

Space inside is tight as well; if you take someone on a date in a Tesla, you will undoubtedly be getting fresh by accident when you apply the parking brake or move your upper body. If you’re a female, wearing a skirt or dress is strongly discouraged, thanks to the high doorsills and difficult entry and exit procedure – unless of course, you’re an aspiring Paris Hilton. The trunk might give you enough room for an overnight bag, but the car’s limited range means you’ll be lucky to even get away for dinner.

With an estimated range of 250 miles the Tesla isn’t a long distance car, and your mileage may vary. Keep your foot pinned to the floor and the number goes down. If you coast and allow the regenerative braking to kick in, you might see a boost. Either way, a nice long drive isn’t in the cards at this stage of electric vehicle technology. Charging takes as little as 4 hours if you use a 220 volt outlet (like your washing machine or stove uses) and a proprietary quick charger sold by Tesla but can be as high as 8 hours without one, and exponentially more with a 12 volt outlet.

THE VERDICT

The Tesla Roadster 2.5 S is a massively impressive vehicle, more spacecraft than sports car. It requires much less maintenance than a traditional high-powered auto, and no gasoline fill-ups. It has the chops to go up against blue-chip names from Italy, Germany and England, but more importantly, it eases the anxiety of gearheads everywhere.

Theories like global warming, peak oil and rising oil prices should no longer bring heart palpitations to car fans. The Tesla shows just how good zero-emissions “green” technology can be.

Quite frankly, getting into a normal car at the end of the test drive was a major letdown. The whirr of the engine, the shove in the backside and the lithe little roadster that seems to pivot around you is replaced by a grunting, belching, feedback-free driving experience.

It’s easy to rationalize the internal combustion engine as a necessity, but it doesn’t have to, and probably won’t always be. Throw out whatever prejudices you may have, because the inevitable march towards alternative powertrains is on. Lucky for us, it’s damn good.
LOVE IT
  • Intoxicating acceleration
  • Manual steering is a wonderful throwback
  • Driving one makes you a celebrity
LEAVE IT
  • Impractical except as a toy for city dwellers
  • Exposed interior wiring unacceptable at this price point
  • Getting in and out is a task for acrobats

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