2009 Tesla Roadster Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Trevor Wild Trevor Wild Author
April 28, 2009

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.

TheCarConnection.com's editors prepared this review from hands-on experience with the new 2009 Tesla Roadster. TheCarConnection.com will also produce a full review, including opinions from other professional sources, as more road tests of the 2009 Tesla Roadster become available.

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.

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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.

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2009 Tesla Roadster

Styling

The 2009 Tesla Roadster has the stunning looks to match its sportscar performance.

The 2009 Tesla Roadster is based on a Lotus Elise platform, but its styling is wholly unique and unquestionably cool.

A number of reviewers mention that the Tesla Roadster isn't an all-new vehicle; Car and Driver reports that this "two-seat targa [is] assembled by Lotus in England and finished by Tesla Motors in San Carlos, California." However, while the underpinnings are derived from the Elise, the exterior bodywork is completely changed, and the Tesla Roadster has received fantastic reviews from both critics and consumers. Road & Track loves the "sleek carbon-fiber bodywork," while The Detroit News calls it "stunning," featuring "crisp lines across the carbon fiber body [that] give a futuristic look." Cars.com notes that this Tesla 2009 model "comes with a removable soft-top (a carbon fiber hardtop is optional)."

Despite the car's undeniable stage presence, the Tesla Roadster is actually quite small. The Detroit News marvels that the 2009 Tesla Roadster "is only 155 inches long (that's 6 inches shorter than the 2009 Honda Fit) and only 44 inches tall—and that's including the roof." Nobody seems to mind the tiny dimensions, however, and The Detroit News in particular feels "there's a minimalist approach to the car's body that combines form and function into fine art."

The understated style of the Tesla 2009 Roadster's exterior carries over to the interior, which is sparse but pleasant. Car and Driver reports that the Tesla Roadster's cabin "is efficiently trimmed with a glossy carbon-fiber console with buttons for the cabin-temperature controls, seat heaters, and air conditioning." The main screen you'll find in this high-tech marvel is the "Vehicle Display System," which Road & Track says is located "down to the left of the steering wheel and, among many other features, has touch-screen settings of five operational modes." Cars.com notes the "minimalist design" of the 2009 Tesla Roadster's interior, but reviewers once again find it more futuristic than annoying.

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2009 Tesla Roadster

Performance

Driving the 2009 Tesla Roadster brings thrills unmatched by any other sportscar available today.

Back when Tesla first announced the Tesla 2009 Roadster concept, they made what were, at the time, some pretty outlandish performance claims. Now, however, reviews read by TheCarConnection.com support each and every one of those claims, confirming the 2009 Tesla Roadster as one of the most exciting vehicles on the road today.

The Tesla Roadster is a wholly unconventional sportscar. When most people think of electric vehicles, they picture the dual-mode hybrids popularized by the Toyota Prius, but the Tesla Roadster is different in that it is powered solely by an electric engine, with no gasoline alternative onboard. Autoblog states that "mid-mounted in the chassis [of the Tesla Roadster] is a 248-hp electric motor" that drives the rear wheels and provides explosive acceleration. Motor Trend says that "the performance is an extension of your brain: the amount you've squeezed your foot is directly related to the proportion of its surge the motor delivers." The Detroit News reports that the engine produces "more than 276-pound-feet of torque" and that "full torque kicks [in] instantly." The instant torque delivery is unique to electric vehicles because they don't need to spool up into a power range to deliver peak power.

Tesla says that the Roadster will hit 60 mph in roughly four seconds and travel well over 200 miles on a charge. Road & Track reviewers say that their "testing confirms the first and strongly suggests the second."

The first versions of the Tesla Roadster to come out of Northern California featured a two-speed transmission that has since proven incredibly problematic. Fortunately, Tesla addresses that issue on the 2009 Tesla Roadster by replacing it with what Autoblog calls a "new single-speed fixed-gear Borg-Warner transmission." Motor Trend is pleased to report that the Tesla Roadster's "single-speed finally realizes the dream of the electric car: absolutely progressive, smooth, transparent acceleration."

So the 2009 Tesla Roadster is clearly a blast to drive, but just how long can you drive it? TheCarConnection.com's research shows that the number varies according to driving style, but Autoblog says that "the company is quoting a range of about 244 miles per full charge." Unlike a conventional vehicle, the Tesla Roadster actually gets better mileage off the highway, as Car and Driver reports that highway driving "drains the pack fast, as it sucks amps and there are fewer opportunities for brake regeneration." No matter how you drive it, though, the Tesla Roadster is cheaper per mile than a conventional automobile. According to Car and Driver estimates, charging the Tesla Roadster costs "about $4 to $7 worth [of electricity] for a single fill-up, depending on your local electricity rates."

The sleek little Tesla Roadster looks like it should carve canyon roads with ease, and early reviews of its handling show it won't disappoint. Autoblog says the "non-assisted steering is perfectly-weighted once rolling," while Car and Driver reports it "drives like a slot car." Motor Trend raves that the steering is "direct, light under way and utterly precise. Most of all, it communicates road feedback in a league ahead of the usual big-gun sports cars." Braking performance is impressively strong as well; Autoblog reviewers declare that the Tesla Roadster's "strong brakes boost confidence during short stops," while Car and Driver informs us that the "regenerative braking...slows the car so sharply that you can sail down mountain roads without touching the left pedal."

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2009 Tesla Roadster

Comfort & Quality

Cargo space and passenger comfort are both negligible on the 2009 Tesla Roadster, but at least the interior materials feel right.

The 2009 Tesla Roadster surprises many in reviews read by TheCarConnection.com with its commendable build quality, but overall driver comfort is a sore point.

The Tesla Roadster offers seating for two inside its rather cramped cabin, which requires some tricky maneuvering to enter. Owners of other small sportscars will be familiar with the requisite contortions, but for the uninitiated Car and Driver says that "yoga moves [are] needed to get in and out of a Tesla." Once inside, The Detroit News observes that "the bucket seats hold you tightly in place," while Cars.com reports that the 2009 Tesla Roadster's buckets are "standard heated leather seats, but cloth seats are also available." Road & Track feels that the Tesla Roadster's cabin "is rather more habitable than an Elise's," but it's still far from spacious. One problem area for potential Tesla 2009 Roadster passengers and drivers is the rough ride afforded by the seats; Car and Driver reviewers manage to travel "only about 160 miles before total failure. Not of the battery pack but of our lower backs," thanks to the fact that the Tesla Roadster's "seats seem to consist of little more than black paint on the fire wall."

The cramped interior quarters put quite a damper on overall cargo space, which is close to zero. The interior doesn't offer any door pockets or cup holders, with just a tiny compartment in front of the passenger for small-item storage. Behind the engine, Car and Driver says you'll find a "five-cubic-foot, carbon-fiber bucket that serves as a trunk," and that represents the extent of the Tesla Roadster's storage space.

Early reviews of the 2009 Tesla Roadster note the somewhat unfinished look of the interior, but with the latest single-speed versions of this Tesla 2009 speedster rolling off the assembly line, the tune has changed. Motor Trend says "the interior finish is now pretty convincing," while Road & Track reviewers proclaim that the "fit and finish of our Tesla [Roadster] were exemplary, seemingly rather more tightly assembled than the last Elise" they drove in. Motor Trend points out the "naked structural aluminum" used in parts of the Tesla Roadster's interior "feels good to the touch," and the "full, high-quality carpet" that covers the floor is a nice touch. On certain interior elements, Road & Track contends that "the leather trim [contributes] an upmarket feel appropriate for a car of this price range."

Anyone who has driven a hybrid vehicle, or even been around one that's in operation, knows that electric propulsion isn't completely silent. Such is the case with the 2009 Tesla Roadster—Car and Driver says that the engine itself makes a low whir, "especially while hurtling BMW M3-like to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds," and the Tesla 2009 Roadster's "targa top is a roll-up canvas hankie that holds back wind noise about as well as a beach towel."

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2009 Tesla Roadster

Safety

Small, light, and fragile are promising, but the 2009 Tesla Roadster's handling should help you steer out of troublesome situations.

The small, carbon-fiber frame of the 2009 Tesla Roadster doesn't inspire the most confidence in the world when it comes to crash-test scores, but until we get official results, it's hard to know just how well this Tesla 2009 sportscar will hold up. Unfortunately, in an effort to keep weight down, the Roadster doesn't offer many of the latest safety gear options, either.

With all the money that the federal government seems to be throwing around these days, maybe it's surprising that NHTSA hasn't been given a couple hundred grand to crash test the Tesla Roadster. Then again, with a base price tag north of $100,000, perhaps it isn't that shocking. Either way, the 2009 Tesla Roadster has not yet been crash tested by either NHTSA or the IIHS, and chances are good it will be a long time before this low-production model sees a crash-test dummy sitting in the driver's seat. As soon as results for the Tesla Roadster are available, however, TheCarConnection.com will bring you the updated information.

The Tesla Roadster is still more an experimental vehicle than a mainstream one, so you can’t expect the latest safety gear. According to reviewers at The Detroit News, the Tesla 2009 Roadster does feature "4-wheel ventilated disc [brakes] with ABS," which are a virtual necessity given the Tesla's performance aspirations. Cars.com adds that "standard [safety] features include...traction control and a tire pressure monitoring system." TheCarConnection.com's staff of experts is pleased to note the availability of a Valet Mode on the Tesla Roadster, which keeps both parking lot attendants and teenage children from enjoying the Tesla too much.

One of the major knocks on the 2009 Tesla Roadster's overall safety rating is the lack of rearward visibility. One quick look at the styling of the 2009 Tesla Roadster is enough to explain this criticism, and Autoblog reviewers lament the "absence of visibility past the B-pillar," where the Tesla's carbon-fiber bodywork creates significant sightline barriers.

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2009 Tesla Roadster

Features

The 2009 Tesla Roadster's interior features don't stack up well against those in a Porsche, but that’s not why shoppers are looking to it anyway.

For $109,000 you can buy a vehicle with a helluva lot more features than you'll find on the 2009 Tesla Roadster, but nothing on the road today offers quite the same "wow factor" that accompanies the Tesla Roadster.

The base Tesla Roadster is somewhat Spartan, but as long as you realize that you're paying for a high-powered sportscar and not a luxury cruiser, then you won't be disappointed. Reviews read by TheCarConnection.com show that the base Tesla Roadster boasts some features you might not expect; Motor Trend reports that the Tesla 2009 Roadster "has cruise control, heated seats, air-con, remote locking and electric windows—they might be standard on any Korean econobox, but not always on hardcore quasi-track cars, so they're worth noting." Other standard features on the Tesla Roadster include a "leather-wrapped steering wheel, [and] a CD stereo with iPod connectivity," according to Cars.com.

If you're already considering splurging on the 2009 Tesla Roadster, you might as well go all the way and add what few options are available for this Tesla 2009 model. Unfortunately, you'll be forced to add at least one, as TheCarConnection.com's editors note that even the most basic recharging cord is not included in the base price. The singular option package on the 2009 Tesla Roadster, according to Cars.com reviewers, is the "optional Electronics Group [that] includes Bluetooth cell phone connectivity, a navigation radio, Sirius Satellite Radio, and a subwoofer."

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