DRIVEN: First Drive: 2009 Tesla Roadster

June 11, 2009
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Before we could drive the 2009 Roadster, a brief tour of the HQ and "factory" was provided. Two curious things about the HQ's location; the first was that it's in Menlo Park. Thomas Edison did much of his most notable work in Menlo Park--only Edison's Menlo Park was in New Jersey.
Coincidence? Most likely, because when we asked how Tesla Motors came to have their international HQ exactly where it is, we were told that the city fathers needed to find a tenant for an abandoned Chevrolet dealership. Where plaid-suited salesmen once sold fuel-swilling Suburbans and Trail Blazers, Tesla Roadsters now go through their final assembly and plug in for a fill up at a cost of about $4. One charge takes the two-seater about 240 miles according to the EPA.
At the facility, several Roadsters were going through final assembly, a marrying of the powertrain to the chassis. The size of the battery pack is stunning, as it takes the complete width of the car and nearly the entire height, rising from the floorpan to almost the tops of seatbacks. Weighing in at almost 1,000 pounds -- half the weight of a running Elise SC -- individual battery arrays get delivered in wooden crates the size of stand-alone residential freezer. Carefully arranged within the massive, armored and cooled assembly are 6,831 individual lithium ion battery cells packaged for your protection and their long life.
The chassis for the Tesla Roadster was developed in a partnership with Lotus, and the e-car shares much of its basic underpinnings with the Elise. Compared to the Brit, a diminutive car by any standard, the Roadster is three inches longer, a change made to make room for the battery pack. The Tesla's totally original body panels (made in France) help the car look not as tiny as the Elise, as your eyes easily follow the sweeping, stretched out body lines.
After the tour, California's Highway 1 awaited our arrival. Climbing in the Roadster was much easier than squeezing in the Elise. Tesla had the Roadster's doorsills lowered, and it makes a huge difference. Room inside is still tight, and even a modestly tall adult can easily reach the passenger door without a stretch. If you've got someone riding shotgun, you'll rub shoulders and elbows. Soft leather and full carpeting make for a more luxurious interior compared to the Spartan and purposeful Elise.
Settled in the sling-like bucket seat, the job of driving the Roadster is easier than most sports cars. Hit the starter button, engage drive, and go. The transmission is a single-speed unit, so there's no need to shift. Just stab the throttle and steer.
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It was raining hard along the Pacific coast, so we turned back inland over some seriously twisted roads. The pint-sized Roadster fit perfectly on the narrow two lanes, leaving enough room to for the inevitable truck trundling along taking up all of his lane and part of ours.
The Roadster's braking capabilities are excellent, but curious. The electric motor that powers the Roadster immediately switches into a generator when you lift off of the accelerator pedal. When you lift, the car slows immediately due to the resistance of generator spinning to recharge the battery pack.
Apparently, one never coasts in a Tesla.
If you lift off the throttle completely, the braking force is significant, but powerful traditional four-wheel disc brakes are at the ready when serious stopping power is needed. In normal driving, however, the brakes are hardly needed, except to hold the Roadster still at traffic lights.
While handling and braking impress, the Roadster's throttle response bends the mind. Unless you've driven one of these, you've never experienced anything like it.
The Roadster's single electric motor produces the equivalent of 248 horsepower and an even more impressive 276 lb-ft of torque. The torque is available from 0 rpm (that's zero). The thrust is completely instant, linear, and uninterrupted.
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The affect turned me into a road hooligan. In a car like the Elise SC, rowing the gears is essential to maximizing speed, so when running only 6/10th or so, there are many stretches where one wouldn't bother to grab a lower cog because it's just not worth the effort. In the Roadster, however, because no shifts are required, the hammer went down almost every time. The Tesla requires so little work to access speed that the power has a corrosive effect on one's ability to obey posted limits.
Tesla claims that the Roadster is good for 0-60 mph sprints of around four seconds. After putting several hundred miles on our tester, the claim feels more than reasonable, and easily matched by drivers of even modest skills.
While the Roadster's $101,500 MSRP is ridiculous, such cars will not remain so expensive forever. Furthermore, the driving experience will continue to improve, and issues of range will be conquered or worked around by owners.
If this is the future of cars, enthusiasts have nothing to worry about.
To date, Tesla Motors has already delivered more than 400 Roadsters, and has been recently bolstered by investment funds from Mercedes-Benz. We're told that a refundable $9,900 deposit secures a vehicle, but that the earliest delivery for an order placed now would be late this fall. Visit the company's Website at TeslaMotors.com.

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