First Ride: Tesla Roadster



The driver squeezes down on the accelerator pedal, and the little roadster responds like a racehorse at the starting gate, launching aggressively down the pavement.


Twenty, forty, sixty, we’ve gone extra-legal in little more than a heartbeat, and yet something is wrong. Something is missing, and it’s precisely the heartbeat, the resonant roar you expect of a high-performance sports car pushed to the edge. But with the little Tesla roadster, all we hear is the wind in our hair, tires slapping pavement, and a surprisingly gentle whine.


Then again, that’s really no surprise, because instead of a traditional internal combustion engine, Tesla’s two-seat offering is driven by a slick 250-horsepower electric motor. Weighing in at a mere 77 pounds, the motor is powerful enough to help launch the electric Roadster from 0-60, company officials claim, in barely five seconds.


That’s if the Tesla Roadster actually ever makes it into production, something many skeptics are questioning. But despite a series of delays, work goes on at a hectic pace in the suburban San Francisco complex that is home to the potentially revolutionary start-up company.


“We’re getting there,” insists Dave Vespremi, the young and enthusiastic executive who does double-duty – like many Tesla officials – as public relations chief.


The electric warehouse


After months of calls and e-mails, Vespremi has finally agreed to let us visit the nondescript San Carlos warehouse that’s serving as Tesla’s development center.  Inside, a visitor passes first the full-size clay model that stood in during aerodynamic testing, as well as an assortment of running prototypes, some newer, some older. The latest, dubbed VP10, a verification prototype we’ll get to drive, reveal the changes – both subtle and substantial – that the roadster has been undergoing in its drive to market.


The fundamentals are largely the same as they were when the high-tech start-up made its debut, several years ago, promising to show how electric power could not only be green, but lots of fun. Unlike a conventional automobile, the heart of Tesla’s beast is its battery pack, which actually consists of 6831 individual computer-style lithium-ion cells, each about the size of a prescription pill bottle.


According to Vespremi, a disproportionate share of engineering work, and “the lion’s share” of the cost of the project has gone into developing a sustainable battery pack. While lithium-ion technology today powers plenty of consumer electronic devices, from cellphones to laptop computers, it’s another thing entirely to drive an automobile, a high-performance one, at that.


To survive the tough automotive environment, Tesla had to devise a slick climate control system, maintaining steady room temperatures and low humidity in everything from snow to sandstorms. And considering lithium-ion’s volatile nature, a sophisticated interconnection system was developed to prevent the failure of one cell from crashing the other 6830.


While performance and mileage numbers – over 200 miles per charge – have been gaining most of the public’s attention, what is perhaps even more significant is Tesla’s decision to warrant the car, and especially the batteries, for a full 100,000 miles of driving.


A web of wires links the pack to the Taiwanese-made motor. The size of a watermelon, it can rev to 13,000 rpm.


“It’s got the low-end torque of a truck,” explains Vespremi, “and the top end of a super-bike.”


Mounted amidship, it’s mated to a two-speed, clutchless transmission that can hit 65 mph in first. There’s no reverse. The electronics just change the polarity of the motor, which drives the rear wheels.



Lotus alike


The carbon fiber body that envelops the electrical and electronic systems was developed in cooperation with the British engineering firm, Lotus, so it’s not surprising that the roadster resembles the U.K. firm’s little Elise, down to its 48/52 front-to-rear weight balance.


Tesla’s offering is actually about ten inches longer – the wheelbase is three inches longer – and a hair breadth’s wider. But for anyone but a teenager or a yoga practitioner, they’re equally difficult to get in and out of, as we discover when Vespremi finally dangles the keys and offers a chance to take VP10 for a spin.


As we get up close, we discover a range of modest updates compared to the early engineering prototype, EP2, parked alongside. The rear brakes have been bolstered for better performance, and the rear grille breathes more easily, now. The matte upper wing has gone from matte to glossy carbon fiber. And the location of the recharging plug has been moved so it’s clear of the driver’s door. The seats have been improved, and so have the gauges.


There are classic sportscar read-outs, as well as a slick LCD panel, to the left of the driver’s knee, that track all the basic operating parameters. Tesla has also been adding an array of creature comforts, including navigation and a high-end sound system.


A spin in the Tesla


But what matters most is the ride.


As with any EV, you have to look for clues when you hit Start to confirm it’s actually running. Gauges jump to life and there’s a gentle hum as the battery pack’s climate control system goes active. But the soft morning breeze is nearly as loud.


The driver finally shifts into gear – second, in this instance, because we’ve been advised there are some issues with the VP10 gearbox. Not that it matters, we quickly discover. Yes, the roadster is a little slower, this way, but if we didn’t tell, you wouldn’t know. With a soft whine, that pint-sized motor spins up fast, and we charge out of the company parking lot, feeling the slap of acceleration pushing us deep into the Recaro seats.


You could run all day in second, we learn, and even then, with 0-60 times of barely six seconds, you’ll outrun most of the other roadsters on the market.


We’d have liked to have gotten a more complete feel for the Tesla, taking it back into the hills, blasting down the freeway, but for our first run, we had to settle for some limited seat time.  Even so, the overall feel of the prototype is tight and exhilarating, though in our brief run around the back streets of San Carlos, it’s difficult to say what Tesla’s creation will be like to live with every day.


That is, of course, the $100,000 question being asked by anxious buyers and curious observers alike. Tesla claims to have more than enough orders on hand for the roadster’s first year of production, and well into year two. So far, though, that production date keeps slipping, from summer 2007 to fall, and now, well, we’ll believe it when the first car actually rolls off the line and into private hands. And by then, we hope, we’ll have a much more extensive experience of our own behind the wheel to report on.



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