Considering that it’s such a significant car, it seems wrong that so few journalists outside of the US have been anywhere near a Tesla Roadster. This is, after all, the world’s first zero-emissions sports car.
If Toyota had launched it, the PR budget would have dwarfed Liberia’s deficit, and the reams of copy written as a result would have been lengthier than the collected works of George Eliot. But Tesla can’t afford that. Which is why we’ve employed the services of Automobile technical editor Don Sherman to give you the first verdict on the car. Read it by clicking here.
I’m one of the lucky ones. Fifteen months ago I got a passenger ride in a Tesla Roadster while it was undergoing engineering proving at Lotus. Back then, they were still trying to work out how to make the car run for longer than an hour without something fusing, melting or overheating. Photographer Charlie Magee and I waited for a couple of hours on a chilly December morning while Lotus’s seconded engineers reset control systems, reconnected wiring looms, rebooted ECUs and tried desperately to revive the stranded Roadster we were attempting to photograph. Back then, they didn’t have much luck; we ended up towing the car around a corner to get the shots we needed.
An hour beforehand, though (while the car was still cooking with direct current), one of Hethel’s chassis men had taken me for a spin down some of the firm’s tried-and-tested shakedown routes, and I got to experience this car’s remarkable performance first hand.
Tesla’s powertrain may well depend upon so many laptop batteries strapped together, but it’s a marvellous thing. It sounded unlike anything I’d ever heard: a cross between milk float and Millennium Falcon, and back then, Tesla had done little about insulating its whine from the cabin, so I imagine the effect was much more marked.
What’s unusual is that it’s an electric motor teamed with a two-speed, semi-automatic gearbox. In fuel cell cars and hybrids, electric motors are usually teamed with CVTs, and so you never feel their hit of torque like you do in the Tesla.
Just as Don Sherman explains, this motor develops peak torque – something like 200lb ft of it – just above zero rpm. That means you get maximum acceleration the second you hit the throttle. In a one-tonne car, that really snaps your head back.
With your right foot planted to the carpet, you then get another big hit of torque as the car hits second gear which, at max throttle, happens just below 60mph. Buy one of these cars and I suspect that anticipating that one-two change would dominate the Roadster’s driving experience. You certainly wouldn’t want it to surprise you on a slippery left-hander.
I remember the Roadster feeling distinctly Lotus-like over bumps and in corners, riding with aplomb and keeping respectable control over its considerable mass too. And I remember thinking “this thing is going to completely rewrite the way people think about performance cars.”
A year and a bit later, judging by our first drive at least, it looks like it has begun doing that. It’ll be a while before the full effect is appreciated: before Tesla can make these cars in enough numbers to show the world the potential-to-entertain that battery power really has.
If they’re not careful, the likes of General Motors and Toyota may beat them to the punch. Tesla may become a footnote in automotive history; the brand everyone should remember and the one nobody actually does.
Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen though. Here’s to the Tesla Roadster. Next time somebody asks you what Han Solo would drive were he real and in the market for a new car, tell them it’s this.