2011 Tesla Roadster Review

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John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
February 15, 2011

The 2011 Tesla Roadster is a classic, open-top two-seat sportscar with handling and performance among the best, plus unsurpassed green cred. But drive it fast and often, and your range falls below 200 miles.

Tesla has delivered on its promise: The 2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 is truly the first green alternative to more than 100 years of fast cars powered by gasoline. The Roadster’s classic two-seat shape, complete with soft top, provides what can only be called kick-ass performance without a tailpipe, emissions, or a fuel tank.

The 2011 Roadster has been updated to “Version 2.5,” in Tesla’s Silicon Valley argot. This third model year for the low-production Roadster includes a restyled front end, more comfortable seats, better noise insulation, and an optional backup camera. Otherwise, it’s the same all-electric Roadster whose performance has earned raves from reviewers all over the globe.

Based on a heavily revised platform borrowed from the Lotus Elise, the Tesla Roadster was first unveiled in 2006. Volume deliveries began early in 2009 at a price of $109,000 for the standard Roadster, and $128,500 for the even quicker Roadster Sport.

Review continues below

The Tesla Roadster will always be a low-volume vehicle. Tesla is moving closer to introduction of its Model S all-electric mid-size sports sedan, now planned to occur before the end of 2012. But Roadster production winds down in December 2011, once an assembly contract with England’s Lotus ends with a total of 2,400 cars built.

As a proof of concept to show what a modern electric can offer, the Tesla Roadster will go down in automotive history whether or not Tesla Motors survives as an independent company. The Roadster did more to update the image of the electric car than any other single vehicle. And it did it using the best of all possible arguments: It’s truly, impressively, addictively fun to drive.

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2011 Tesla Roadster

Styling

The 2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 has freshened front-end styling that matches its stunning sportscar performance, and interior upgrades to match.

The 2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 may be based on Lotus Elise underpinnings, but its styling is significantly different. The Release 2.5 update, new for this year, keeps it fresh and gives it a slightly more sophisticated look than the previous gaping maw.

Against the styling of the lithe, light Elise, the 2011 Tesla Roadster is longer, slightly sleeker, and dispenses with the side air intakes. It’s low-slung, racy, and a real attention-getter. The revised nose this year ties the Roadster more closely to the upcoming Model S all-electric sedan, for the start of a brand character.

Reviewers like the styling, in general, and the removable folding cloth roof panel fits neatly into the small space under the rear decklid. A carbon-fiber hard top is also available. It’s a small car nonetheless, just 44 inches tall with top erected, and fully 5 inches shorter than a subcompact Honda Fit.

But the 2011 Roadster’s carbon-fiber body panels would be equally attractive with a gasoline engine underneath. The battery-powered drivetrain is Tesla’s selling point.

Earlier Roadsters had Spartan interiors with almost no storage space. Both seats and furnishings have been revised each model year, with the Release 2.5 version offering seats that are claimed to be far more comfortable.

Behind the steering wheel, the instrument panel lights up and the car makes a computer-like “bong” tone once it’s powered up. The traditional pairing—speedometer and rev counter—face the driver, along with a bank of warning lights. A touch-screen vehicle information system lets the driver select among five operational modes for performance, battery conservation, and even long-term storage.

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2011 Tesla Roadster

Performance

The 2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 offers both acceleration and handling that easily outdoes other sportscars, though it comes at a price: Your range will suffer.

When it was unveiled in 2006, the idea that any electric car could perform at the level Tesla claimed seemed absurd. Five years later, Tesla has made good on its promises—and every reviewer has experienced just how exciting all-electric performance can be.

Back then, anyone who pictured an “electric car” might think of either a golf cart or, more likely, a hybrid-electric vehicle like a Toyota Prius. But without an engine or a gasoline tank, the 2011 Roadster 2.5 is powered by a lithium-ion battery pack that powers the 288-horsepower electric motor that turns its rear wheels through a single-speed, fixed-gear Borg-Warner transmission.

Full torque kicks in instantly—one advantage of electric motors is that their maximum torque starts at 0 rpm—which provides truly explosive acceleration. Tesla claims the 2011 Roadster will get to 60 mph in less than 4.0 seconds from standstill. Tweaks to the internals of the electric motor produce more torque at lower speeds, so the Roadster Sport is even quicker. Along with slightly lowered suspension, its quoted 0-to-60-mph time is just 3.7 seconds, a figure sufficiently low to embarrass a number of far pricier cars from better-known brands.

At 8,000 rpm, the road speed is about 70 mph; at 100 mph, the electric motor is turning over at just above 11,000 rpm. A quoted top speed of 125 mph, enforced by a speed limiter, corresponds to the redline zone of 13,000 to 15,000 rpm. Remember, with no gearbox, the rev counter and speedometer move in lockstep.

So what about range? Tesla quotes a range of 244 miles on a full charge, but even more so than gasoline-powered cars, your mileage (or range) may vary. So-called “hypermilers” have been able to coax several hundred miles out of a single charge, but steady highway cruising will drain the battery quickly without much opportunity for regenerative charging when braking. And if you use the acceleration frequently—which most drivers will find irresistible—total range may fall below 150 miles.

On the other hand, depending on your local electricity rates, a full recharge may cost just $4 to $7. It will take up to eight hours, though, using the custom 240-volt charging station Tesla provides—at extra cost, mind you.

For the 2011 Roadster 2.5 model, Tesla has made some changes to the control software that permit “spirited driving” even in very hot climates. Otherwise, the performance is largely the same as prior models.

Handling of this small but heavy sportscar is almost like a slot car. The steering isn’t power assisted, but its light and precise action renders it entirely unnecessary. The regenerative brakes may be the best of any all-electric car on the market, with no more than five minutes required to learn single-pedal driving. It slows the car enough that you can hurtle down mountain roads without braking, the car recharging just enough so it won’t accelerate unless you want it to. The transitions from regenerative to friction brakes are seamless in emergency situations or for that last few miles per hour before you come to a full stop.

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2011 Tesla Roadster

Comfort & Quality

The 2011 Tesla Roadster has limited space for people, less for luggage. But it is more refined than earlier model years, and its appearance is closer to its price.

If the 2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 has anything in common with some of its gasoline counterparts, it’s a tight cabin and a rough ride. Tesla has already redesigned its seats, twice, though tricky maneuvering is still required to get in and out. Don’t try it in a short skirt.

For 2011, the seats have been given larger bolsters and a new lumbar support system. Tesla has also made several modifications to cut cabin noise, including new front fender liners with an acoustic component that helps to suppress tire noise. Last year, the company also recalibrated the suspension to be more forgiving over rough road surfaces.

Fit and finish of the latest cars is improved over earlier examples, and certainly the interior appearance matches the car’s upscale price and performance far better. The two-tone leather seats are more stylish than the early Roadster buckets, which one reviewer memorably said seemed to “consist of little more than black paint on the fire wall.”

Seats are heated, a more efficient way to give driver and passenger a feeling of warmth while reducing the power-sucking appetite of a resistance heater for the whole cabin. Five glowing buttons on the console let the driver choose among park, drive, reverse, neutral, and traction control.

Cargo space is still at a premium, however. You’ll find no door pockets, cup holders, cubbies, or bins. And the trunk, a full-width carbon-fiber tray behind the battery pack, can hold either luggage or the folded cloth top, but probably not both at the same time—unless your travel kit consists of only a small and flexible day pack.

While electric drive is indisputably quieter than a gasoline engine, but the 2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 is far from silent. The motor makes a low whir, especially when wound out for performance. And the canvas top does little to muffle wind noise when in place. Still, the Roadster has seen several rounds of revisions to its sound insulation, meaning that this year’s cars are likely to be more pleasant than examples of two years ago. That said, they are hardly as hushed as Rolls-Royce motorcars, nor should they be.

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2011 Tesla Roadster

Safety

There are no third-party crash-test results for the 2011 Tesla Roadster, nor are there likely to be, so use its handling to help steer you away from peril.

The 2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 hasn’t been crash-tested by either the NHTSA or the IIHS, nor is it likely to be. Its production volume is low, and production will end within 18 months.

So it’s hard to know how its metal frame and carbon-fiber body panels will hold up. Unfortunately, in the interest of saving weight, the Roadster’s designers decided to omit some now-standard safety gear.

Its safety features, like those of other low-volume vehicles, lie more on the active side than the passive. It does include traction control and tire-pressure monitoring system. Its four-wheel disc brakes include anti-lock braking software, but there’s hardly a new car sold that doesn’t.

The 2011 Roadster has two airbags, one each for the driver and passenger. But due to a low-volume vehicle exemption granted by the NHTSA, the passenger bag doesn’t include sensors in the seat that detects the weight of the seat occupant. That means that deployment strength can’t be adjusted accordingly. Side airbags? Not offered.

Rearward visibility is minimal, with a low seating position, a high tail, and very thick pillars. New for 2011 is an optional reversing camera that sends its image to the 7-inch touchscreen display panel in the dashboard.

You might also consider the Roadster’s Valet Mode to be a safety feature. When invoked, neither parking-lot attendants nor teenagers of any age can enjoy the Tesla’s considerable performance.

6

2011 Tesla Roadster

Features

The 2011 Tesla Roadster is hardly the most feature-packed you’ll find. But that’s not why anyone buys an all-electric sportscar anyway.

No one buys a 2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 because it’s the best-equipped car with the most features. They buy it for the “wow factor,” which it provides in spades.

The price of $109,000 goes toward a unique drivetrain, and the acceleration—and exhilaration—it offers. In its third year of production, Tesla is still working on some of the basics of the Roadster model. Last year it got a redesigned interior, better seats, and a more powerful heating and air-conditioning system. This year, it got further upgrades to the seats, and an optional reversing camera.

Still, the base Tesla Roadster has a few features you might not expect in a Spartan two-seat open-top performance car. Cruise control and electric windows are fairly standard now, but remote locking and heated seats aren’t yet universal. The heated seats, incidentally, are there to make occupants feel warmer using less stored electricity than would be required to run an electric-resistance cabin heater.

There’s also a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and iPod connectivity in the stereo/CD player.

You’ll end up paying at least some money toward options, though: Shamefully, even a simple 120-volt recharging cord isn’t included in the six-figure price—unlike, say, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt or 2011 Nissan Leaf.  There’s also an optional Electronics Group that bundles Bluetooth mobile-phone connections, a subwoofer for the stereo, a navigation system, and Sirius Satellite Radio.

Additional options include a carbon-fiber hardtop to supplement the standard folding canvas item, along with various other special carbon-fiber exterior panels, which can total up to five figures of options all by themselves. There are also metallic paint colors and forged wheels, among other options. The Roadster Sport model, which knocks two-tenths of a second off the 0-to-60-mph acceleration time, costs just north of $15,000 more. It features special badges and black forged wheels, along with a lower stance and a more powerful motor.

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2011 Tesla Roadster

Fuel Economy

As a battery electric vehicle, the 2011 Tesla Roadster couldn’t be any greener—though its performance almost guarantees that drivers will use those electrons in a profligate fashion.

It doesn’t burn any gasoline, and a full battery recharge—for up to 250 miles, Tesla says—will cost you less than $10 on your electricity bill. Compare that to the $60 it would cost to run a 12.5-mpg supercar of similar performance on $3-a-gallon gasoline.

Now, no one buys a $109,000 two-seat sportscar to save money. But the Tesla’s green credentials are unimpeachable: Even if it is recharged by plugging into the dirtiest electric grid in the nation, it emits less carbon per mile (on a “wells-to-wheels” basis) than any 25-mile-per-gallon car out there.

In California, which has a fairly low-carbon grid, the Tesla is notably better than a 50-mpg Toyota Prius. And for that reason—its lowest-in-class wells-to-wheels carbon output per mile, including the emissions of the power plants used to recharge it—the 2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5 gets the highest score we can give on our Green Rating scale.

Because it uses no fuel, its fuel economy is not rated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Nor is the Roadster offered with any alternative powertrains, such as a hybrid or a diesel. It wouldn’t be a Tesla Roadster if it were.

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