It’s low and aggressive. A gaping, purposeful grille draws your eyes to the shark’s gill hood louvers, then along the flanks to the deep intakes on the rear fenders and to the integrated rear spoiler. The covered multi-unit headlights glare at you menacingly through iridescent lenses. Step inside and punch it. The space-age banshee wail emitted by the huge hand-wound electric motor will prick up the hair on the back of your neck. Put your hand on your neck later and you shouldn’t be surprised to find the seatback stitch pattern etched into your skin.
You see, the Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5 is good for a 3.7 second moonshot to 60, and just like igniting a solid-fuel rocket, every single one of the 295 ft-lbs is available from the moment your sole hits the accelerator. Go rent “The Right Stuff” or “Apollo 13” and watch one of those rockets lifting off on a pillar of fire. Interested in experiencing a similar sensation without having to wear a space diaper? Tickle the go-pedal of a Roadster and watch the Earth’s rotation slow and then reverse. If you were speaking your voice slurs, slows, and then stops altogether as the neurons in your verbal cortex shut down one by one from overstimulation, and divert their processing power to figuring out how to keep the Tesla from entering low earth orbit.
Once your velocity flags and the surroundings stop red-shifting, you may hear a strange noise. That’s you, laughing maniacally.
So we’ve established that the electric motor—providing 288 HP and gobs of thrust—hooked up to a massive 56kWh battery should launch the diminutive Roadster like it’s been fired from a railgun. So what prevents you from becoming bug spatter on the Hubble’s lens? Actually, it’s the electric motor, too. Simply lift off the throttle and it cycles into regenerative mode, strongly but smoothly decelerating the car before you even get to the brake pedal, and turning on the brake lights in the process. It has to be felt to be understood. A bonus? According to Tesla, the regenerative mode extends the brake life considerably, and so unless your Roadster sees extensive track duty the brake pedal is used mostly for keeping the car motionless at a light.
The Roadster, then, is basically a one-pedal device. Was this boring? Does one miss the clutch, shift lever, or even flappy paddles? (The George Jetson approved buttons on the center console activate the single-speed transmission’s various modes.) Not a bit. It’s such a different experience from a traditional car that—and I cringe to say this—that it really does make the manual transmission seem anachronistic. Any interruption of the power delivery would kill that delicious hyperspace feeling. If it troubles you that I am not pining for a manual, my only recommendation is to drive one.
At this point it’d be easy to write off the Tesla as a one-trick pony. So it can hit warp factor 8, but if you were looking for a simple straight-line thrill you could pick up a Viper SRT-10 for about $10,000 less (despite it being 0.3 seconds slower to 60). However, the Viper is a brutal, merciless plunderer, just as likely to kill you as to flay the competition. The Tesla? It’s not as one-dimensional as the mind-bending thrust would have you believe, because under the skin it shares a lot of DNA with its kissing cousin, the Lotus Elise.
That shared ancestry means that Lotus has applied their dark arts to the Tesla with a characteristic mastery. This is a car that legitimately understands the difference between dampening, rebound, and spring rate. This isn’t praise lightly given; it’s a rare car that masters even two of the three variables. Cornering was flat and supple—only the largest potholes seemed to disturb the Roadster’s composure. For the most part it rode much like a contemporary BMW. And despite the weight out back and wet tarmac, the rear end never wiggled in our brief back-road foray, and only the barest hint of understeer showed during a particularly fast and wet corner.
If there’s any complaint to be had, it’s that the interior fit and finish was—for lack of a better word—disappointing. The Alpine-sourced touch screen audio/satnav unit was functional but looked like a tuner crowd afterthought. Plastics had significant flashing and were hard to the touch and hard on the eyes. The Tesla also suffers from some of the same issues that the Elise does – there are wide sills that impede entry and exit to and from the pilot’s chair, and also encroach on your footwell space.
Cheapness and compromises be damned. These are sins easily forgiven each time you grab the perfectly sized and shaped steering wheel. Just like fingertips can read Braille, the leather-wrapped helm allows your hands to read every nuance on the road. While heavy at low speeds, it becomes perfectly weighted once you pull away from your parking spot. Other little touches, like the multifunction display down below the radio and the surprisingly supportive seats, helped to enhance the driving experience.
It’s a complete package, devoid of balky driver interfaces, bad habits, or confidence-killing quirks. If it wasn’t so intuitive or engaging to drive, I’d say so. But it was both. The damn thing just made sense.
Back behind the wheel of my old, creaky, gasoline-burning Miata, I remembered the subtle charms and idiosyncrasies of a traditional vehicle. But strangely, the things I used to think fundamentally engaged me in the operation of the car, the sounds and smells and mechanical feel of the shifter, were not so indispensable. You don’t have these things in a Camry, my reasoning went, and driving a Camry is a numb and disengaged experience. So wouldn’t the shiftless, noiseless Tesla be a soulless exercise in boredom? Not at all. The absence of “traditional” feedback, like my Mazda’s exhaust burbling on the overrun, wasn’t a downside because I enjoyed being able to hear birds and running water while the near-silent Roadster cruised with the top open to the elements. And if listening to the birds chirp isn’t your cup of tea, then the Tesla’s other charms are still lurking under your right foot.
It sounds like I’ve bought the “car of the future” bait dangled by Tesla’s PR department, but the truth of the matter is that they didn’t dangle anything—the car speaks for itself. If you like something, if it works, and if the ethos behind its creation is palpably present in its physical manifestation, then you’re going to say what you mean. The Tesla is not a super-golfcart squeezed into a Lotus frame, coated with carbon fiber, and passed off as a half-baked novelty. It’s also not the messiah come to cleanse our Petroleum Gomorrah with electric fire. If the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5 is anything, it’s considerably different that you’d imagine. Sometimes things have to be experienced to be understood. Drive one and not only will you understand what I’m preaching, you may find yourself on a street corner spreading the gospel of Tesla yourself.
Edit: In response to some comments, I wanted to clarify that the claimed range is 245 miles on a full charge. While I didn’t take note of the state of the battery when I took delivery, after wringing it out for more than 40 miles in “sport” mode, we still had 130 miles of indicated range to “limp home” on. We weren’t concerned about range after this two-hour drive … so should you be? If you like to drive 1,000 miles a day, probably. I think most users will be perfectly satisfied with its range.
All images copyright Alex Kierstein 2010 unless otherwise specified.