2008 Tesla Roadster

Don Sherman
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Brian Konoske

Tesla is in business not to make a statement but to make money. So instead of pandering to hair-shirt environmentalists with a bland, anemic, painfully practical piece of minimalist transportation - what the company calls "a punishment car" - they opted for an aspirational vehicle designed to be an object of desire. To speed development, Tesla based the Roadster on the Elise and hired Lotus to build it at its plant in Hethel, England. Inevitably, the Roadster looks a lot like an Elise. But Musk gets irritated when I suggest that the Tesla is just a glorified kit car. "Only ten percent of the parts come from Lotus," he insists. The exterior design is more conventionally handsome than the insectlike Lotus. The chassis is two inches longer and stouter, primarily to accommodate the battery pack, and the doorsills are lower to make it easier - "easier" being a relative term - to get into and out of the car. Although still tiny and light on amenities, the cockpit is roomier and better-appointed than a Lotus, with leather upholstery and a carbon-fiber center console replacing the molded plastic found in the Elise.

After levering myself inside and wedging into the driver's seat, I start the car. (Traditional terms such as "crank the ignition" and "bury the throttle" don't apply.) A Technicolor display of warning lights briefly illuminates the screen. Then . . . nothing. No sound. No vibration. No signs of life whatsoever. Very spooky.

"Is it on?" I ask Darryl Siry, Tesla's vice president of sales, marketing, and service, who's riding shotgun.

"Just put it in gear," he tells me.

Getting into gear - literally - has been Tesla's biggest headache. The electric motor is torquey enough to get by with a single-speed transmission, but a one-gear-for-all approach won't produce the sort of gaudy 0-to-60-mph numbers that cause enthusiasts to drool. So early on, Tesla opted for a two-speed transmission, which posed a vexing engineering challenge when mated to an engine redlined at 13,000 rpm. The huge gap between ratios has created an intractable problem, and Tesla is already working with its third gearbox vendor.

Unfortunately, the car I'm driving (as opposed to the car Sherman tested) is fitted with an old transmission, so first gear isn't an option. As I ease out of the parking lot, I get an unmistakable golf-cart vibe. Not good, I think. Who the hell wants to pay $100,000 to feel like they're scooting across a fairway at Leisure World? But when I put the hammer down, the Roadster leaps forward. I wait for the motor to run out of steam so that I have to grab another gear. But it just keeps on pulling and pulling and pulling, feeling more like a jet doing a takeoff roll than a dragster doing a quarter mile.

The other big surprise is the sound. I'd expected the car to be silent. And sure enough, it's quiet enough that I can make out squeaks and rattles as the chassis flexes. But under power, I also hear the electric motor, and the whine gets pretty annoying at elevated rpm. "We had to ask ourselves, what noise should the car make?" says Malcolm Powell, VP of vehicle integration. Even if Tesla could fake it, the canvas-ripping shriek of a Ferrari V-12 wouldn't make sense for an electric car. Who knows? A generation from now, the high-pitched drone of an electric motor at redline may be music to the ears of car enthusiasts.

Not this one, however. And at the risk of sounding like an old fogy, I have to admit that I'm nonplussed by the one-speed transmission. Intellectually, I understand that it's easier than a conventional multispeed job. But I like shifting gears. Blipping the throttle on downshifts and heel-and-toeing under braking are two acts that connect us to our cars and enhance the driving experience. Maybe this won't matter to kids who grew up playing Gran Turismo on their PlayStations and watching in-car video from paddleshift F1 cars. But old-school sports car aficionados ought to be forewarned.

On the other hand, my fears that the weight of the massive battery pack would compromise the character of the car turn out to be unfounded. At 2700 pounds, the Tesla is one-third heavier than the Lotus, and it lacks the Elise's feral ability to claw down to apexes. But the unassisted steering is nicely weighted and gratifyingly direct, and the car corners with the aplomb of an authentic sports car. Granted, the ride-and-handling engineers have dialed a fair amount of understeer into the suspension, but with 65 percent of the weight at the rear and no stability control, this probably isn't a bad idea. Light as it is, the car stops reasonably well (and charges the battery during braking).

But for all of its sporty characteristics, the Roadster is by no stretch of the imagination a track-day car. In fact, the air-cooled motor and power electronics will quickly overheat and lose power if the car is used for this purpose. Unlike the Elise, which was created to replicate the Schuey-does-Silverstone experience, the Tesla is tuned for a grand touring ride, and the compliant springs-bars-and-dampers package means that it could be driven comfortably for hundreds of miles at a time - except, alas, that the batteries would run out of juice before you got nearly that far.

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