Driven: 2009 Tesla Roadster

June 1, 2009

I've written plenty about CAFE regulations, government intervention in the automotive business, and other topics that make me cranky. Truth be told, I was fully prepared to write something negative about the 2009 Tesla Roadster simply because it is the poster child for "environmental change" and "all things wrong with Detroit." Then I drove it.

I suppose it's OK to be wrong when you admit it...

If this is the future of cars, enthusiasts have nothing to worry about.

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. The powertrain pulls to 14,000 rpm (drive shaft speed, as there is no crank shaft in an electric motor).

Suddenly, there was not excuse not to floor the Roadster at each and every opportunity. The Tesla requires so little work to access speed that the power has a corrosive affect on one's ability to obey posted limits. Driving the same roads back to back in an Elise SC, on short straights where I never bothered to downshift the Lotus to accelerate with maximum thrust, the hammer went down in the Roadster almost every time.

With its battery pack, engine, and transmission mounted behind the passenger compartment, the 2009 Tesla Roadster uses a rack-and-pinion steering gear without any power assist (there's no weight over the front wheels to make power assist necessary). The unfiltered feedback is tremendous, as you can almost feel the front wheels driving over shadows. Steering response and turn in are immediate. Under heavy throttle, it is possible to provoke understeer, but that's to be expected. Breathing off the gas (?!) always shifted enough weight forward to help the front tires regain their bite.

Running from Menlo Park to the Pacific cost and back over some seriously twisted roads. The pint-sized Roadster fit perfectly on the narrow two lanes, even allowing for the inevitable truck trundling along taking up all of his lane and part of mine. 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 as the generator recharges the battery pack. One doesn't coast 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, I hardly needed to use the brakes at all, except to hold the Roadster still at traffic lights.

Arriving back in Menlo Park, I was man with a changed mind. While the $101,500 cost of the Roadster is ridiculous, as e-cars become mainstream, costs will come down. E-cars will also get bigger and more practical. Lastly, solutions to range and charge times will enable these cars to be used for road trips, a practical impossibility today with longish charge times required every 250 miles or so.

So I don't hate the 2009 Tesla Roadster.

As for being the guiding light for the automotive world, Tesla Motors certainly isn't. The company has a long way to go before it makes a genuine difference in the ecology of the Earth that so many people (myself not included) are worried about. As companies like GM, Ford and Chrysler emerge from their individual Hells, they'll be big-time players in the world's future greening because, right now, they and several foreign manufacturers are the only ones who can build enough green cars to make a difference.

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