If we want to discuss the history of the electric car, it’s necessary to travel back to the early 20th century, where the first examples were actually produced. But I’m not in the mood for a history lesson right now. Not after having driven what I would consider the most, dare I say, electrifying car in my recent memory.
The ’11 Tesla Roadster Sport is an amazing machine, to say the least. There’s something about this car that just makes me smile — I think it’s the nearly 300 ft-lbs of torque, delivered instantly from the hand-wound 375-volt electric motor that’s the root of it all, combined with the fact that it all happens without spewing out a single molecule of dangerous gas into the atmosphere. But there’s more to the car than the simple fact that it not only is fast but also produces zero tailpipe emissions. In fact, the Roadster doesn’t even have a tailpipe to emit from.
On the surface, the Roadster Sport is a small 2-seater sports car, based around the design of the Lotus Elise. Small and sleek in appearance, the Roadster is a truly striking vehicle. The outer body panels are all constructed of lightweight carbon fiber, a familiar material for sports cars, and with the Roadster, shedding weight is especially important when considering the battery cells that power the car. The louvers in the hood provide not only a great aesthetic addition but also aid in cooling the vehicle’s extensive electrical systems. The Roadster’s rear end design is pure sports car — angular aerodynamic lines and a low profile leave little to be desired visually. Design cues have been taken from many places — I personally see a lot of Lancia Stratos in the Roadster — and that’s a good thing.
After basking in the Roadster’s exterior beauty, a stark reality sets in: I have to figure out a way to stuff my 6-foot, 1-inch, 190-lb body into this tiny car. After a few moments of planning (and a couple of awkward attempts), I find myself snugly tucked into the low bucket seat and ready to go. Saying the Roadster has a spacious interior or ample cargo capacity would be a lie, but that doesn’t matter with a car like this — no one would own a Tesla Roadster as his only car. (No sane person, at least.) I found that after a few adjustments the seats are quite comfortable and supportive, and the steering wheel feels right at home. This is all that really matters to me from the interior of a sports car, and the Roadster is exactly that.
The dash is elegant and modern, with a simple function-based design; you won’t find too many extra gimmicks in here. The SAT NAV is easy to use and the dash display is clear and concise. Where you would expect to find a gear selector in a normal car, the Roadster instead features four simple buttons: park, neutral, reverse and drive. Since the electronic motor powering the Roadster delivers linear power, the transmission is a fixed single-speed. This is a bit strange at first, but once you get settled in, the car is truly a blast to drive.
As I pulled out of the Newport Beach, CA, Tesla dealership, I knew I should try to contain myself. It’s just so hard, though, and I gave into temptation almost immediately. As I put my foot down, the Tesla rushed forward with such urgency with what feels like a metric ton of torque, unleashed with no delay thanks to the single-speed transmission. The power and instant torque are enough to send the Roadster Sport flying from 0–60 mph in 3.7 seconds, which is almost as fast as a Porsche 911 Turbo. When you approach a corner, the Roadster holds itself with great poise and control, just as you would expect from a small, nimble, mid-engine sports car. Only one thing is missing: the noise. (And I guess, technically, the engine.) The only sound you’ll hear, aside from a slight electrical whine, is from the Yokohama Advan A048 tires, protesting as you push the limits of grip, which seems to have no end in the Roadster. It’s an amazing performance machine, and I can only hope to someday get to drive one on a racetrack, which is where the Roadster feels like it should call home.
This Roadster can certainly move, no one will contest that. But interestingly enough, one of the car’s biggest drawbacks comes on the opposite end of the spectrum in the braking department. One of the very first things I noticed after driving like a complete buffoon was that when it came time to slow down, the Roadster is very unimpressive. In fact, it’s almost scary trying to perform an emergency stop from any sort of medium to high speed. Under normal driving, the electric motor exhibits what can be described as “engine braking” when you let off the throttle. This is all well and good — again, it’s a strange sensation to get used to, but all is well once you’re in the groove. Until the need to stop quickly arises. Even when I stood on the center pedal with all my might, I felt that sinking feeling in my gut, knowing that I wasn’t going to stop as soon as I needed to. The Roadster would benefit massively from some sort of electronic brake booster; the fact of the matter is the existing setup is simply not enough to make a quick stop.
Aside from the marginal braking department, the other main drawback to the Roadster is, interestingly, in the efficiency department. Because the car runs exclusively on electrical power, it’s not possible to do certain things because of the limited mileage range you can achieve out of a single charge. Take a track day, for example. If you want to bring the Roadster to the track and thrash about, you’ll have to do one of two things: take the car to the track on a trailer, or allow an extra day on both ends of your track time to allow your batteries to recharge. Tesla advertises a range of 245 miles from a full charge, but we’re certain that number would decrease by a staggering amount when the car is driven flat out on track. And unlike a gasoline-powered car, if you run out of juice in the Tesla, you can’t simply refuel and run off on your merry way. There’s no option for any sort of replaceable battery pack (yet), so the only thing you can do is plug in and wait 4–12 hours for the car to charge up again (depending on the type of charging station available). Talk about a buzz kill! However, it should be noted that if you plan to just drive around town and occasionally carve up the canyons, the Roadster would probably never leave you stranded. “Topping off” by plugging the car in at home each night is how Tesla recommends maintaining a charge in any of its vehicles.
All said and done, the Tesla Roadster Sport is a fantastic car and an amazing feat of engineering prowess. Possibly most important of all, the Roadster is a solid statement that Tesla is a company that isn’t afraid to forge the way for electric vehicles, proving that they can be fun and seriously quick. That said, this being the first sports car of its kind, there are some obvious issues. I have no doubt in my mind that these problems will be addressed and fixed by Tesla over time. And who knows, maybe by the time the Roadster Sport is completely sorted out, I’ll actually be able to afford the $130,000 price tag!