- Supercar acceleration
- Smooth rush of power at any speed
- Excellent roadholding
- Range below 200 miles when driven hard
- Primitive amenities
- Utter lack of storage in cockpit
The 2009 Tesla Roadster delivers jaw-dropping green performance and handling in a classic open two-seater, but the aggressive driving it encourages may cut range to less than 200 miles.
The 2009 Tesla Roadster is an electric-powered two-seat sportscar based around some components of the Lotus Elise. Unveiled to the public in 2006 and originally promised for delivery in early 2008, the all-electric Tesla Roadster is finally in production.
The Tesla's audacious acceleration—a factory-quoted 0-to-60 mph in just 3.9 seconds—comes courtesy of a 185-kilowatt (248 horsepower) electric motor powered by a 53-kilowatt-hour battery pack, weighing 990 pounds, and mounted just behind the driver, where the engine would be in the Elise. Inside it are 6,831 lithium-ion cells like the ones that power laptop computers, plus a great deal of instrumentation, circuitry, cooling, and careful engineering to prevent mishaps if a cell goes bad. Behind the battery pack sits the electric motor, coupled to the transmission that drives the rear wheels.
Although the 2009 Tesla Roadster is a completely new model, it keeps quite closely with the proportions of the Lotus Elise on which it's based. But a little added length, combined with its sleeker snout and smooth, contoured flanks leading into the rear wheel wells—in place of the Elise's prominent side air intake—gives it an overall look that's quite different from some angles.
The result is a low-slung, racy sportscar with a radiator visible through the slots in the front decklid. The 2009 Roadster has carbon fiber panels, but they could just as easily be steel or fiberglass; there's nothing to indicate their unique construction.
The Tesla Roadster starts with carbon-fiber body panels from France that are attached to a chassis manufactured at the Lotus factory in Hethel, England. The unpowered "glider" is then shipped to the United States, where the battery and powertrain are added in Menlo Park, California. Cells from Japan are built into the battery pack a few miles away in San Carlos; the motor is made in Taiwan. It all adds up, apparently, to a "U.S.-built" car.
Switching on the "ignition" of a 2009 Tesla—more accurately, powering up the car—lights up the instrument cluster. A "bong" tone indicates the car is ready to roll. The "shifter" has just three positions: neutral, drive, and reverse.
In front of the driver are two gauges, a rev counter for the electric motor, and a 150-mph speedometer, plus a slew of warning lights. A small, seemingly flimsy JVC stereo and navigation system is mounted in the center of the dash. Just above the driver's left knee is a touch screen showing the state of battery charge. It lets the driver select one of five operating modes; Standard is the default. Maximum Performance allows the powertrain to run closer to its thermal limits. Maximum Range reduces power to preserve battery life; while Valet Mode cuts acceleration in half and limits both top speed and range. Finally, Storage mode keeps the pack at its optimum temperature with a high-voltage equivalent of trickle charging.
Without a gearbox, the rev counter and speedo move in sync. A motor speed of 8,000 rpm corresponded to 70 mph, and 100 mph was slightly over 11,000 rpm. The motor is redlined from 13,000 to 15,000 rpm, for the Roadster's quoted top speed of 125 mph.
Driving a Tesla Roadster requires reprogramming your old gasoline-car habits. The clever coders at Tesla have made the regenerative braking aggressive enough that you can drive the car almost entirely on the accelerator. More pressure equals more speed. Lift off, and the car slows—just like engine braking, but quieter. With a bit of pre-planning, you'll hit the Brembo brakes only when you slow down to 3 mph, when the simulated "idle creep" kicks in.
In almost three hours of spirited driving, mostly on twisty, hilly roads, our Roadster was resolutely eager. We didn't do formal timing tests, but in performance mode, the quoted 3.9-second 0-60 time was completely credible. The great thing about electric drive is that the torque is all there at any speed. We used the sheer, raw, relentless power over and over again, just for the hell of it. The instant in which 70 mph turned into 90 mph proved particularly alluring.
The 2009 Tesla Roadster is so powerful that you need to make sure it's pointed exactly where you intend to go when you floor it. Otherwise, it straightens abruptly and you'll accelerate right through the outside of your curve. Can you say "lift-off tuck-in"?
Contrary to popular wisdom, a Tesla Roadster isn't completely silent. The battery cooling system whirs behind the driver, and the motor hums on acceleration like a "Star Wars" flying scooter. But above 30 mph, those sounds are drowned out by wind noise.
The Roadster's passenger compartment is larger and easier to get into than that of the Elise, but don't expect a vast expanse. Seating space is narrow, with my right knee resting uncomfortably against the hard central spine that holds the climate control switches and the "gear" lever. Worst of all, the Tesla Roadster has zero storage space, except for one very slippery curved metal lip running transversely below the dash above the passenger's knees. We don't expect cup holders, but door pockets for papers and maps would add a lot.
There's a wide, shallow storage space under the rear deck, behind the battery pack. We advise soft luggage. Inside is the charging cord for standard 110-volt power (a $600 option); a full recharge can take up to 8 hours. The $3,000 high-voltage system that many owners will likely install in their garages cuts that to 3.5 hours, and a partial "fill" takes less. One irksome practice: Any recharging cord costs extra.
Our battery had an indicated 202 miles of range when we got the car. That fell to 110 miles remaining after our drive, which covered 58 road miles; aggressive driving will drain the batteries in the 2009 Tesla Roadster much quicker than steady-speed cruising.
One safety compromise: Tesla was granted a three-year waiver from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to build the Roadster without the latest occupant-sensing airbags. Instead, the Roadster carries older, less expensive standard front airbags for driver and passenger.
The Roadster comes standard with an anti-lock braking system, traction control, tire-pressure monitors, and the requisite airbags and seatbelt pre-tensioners. It also offers a Valet mode that cuts acceleration in half and limits both top speed and range.
The base Tesla Roadster costs $109,000, with the faster Sport model coming in at $128,500. Options include premium seats, leather interior, metallic paint, a hardtop, forged wheels, and more; a heavy hand on the list can up the price by $25,000 or more.
In the end, the 2009 Tesla Roadster does exactly what it promises: It offers the first green alternative to gasoline sportscars. It provides kick-ass all-electric performance in a classic, almost primitive two-seater drop-top: maximum driving pleasure with minimum eco impact. The fact that it's in production at all is one giant step for motorkind.