Small Electric Roadsters just aren’t ready yet

I’m a big proponent of roadsters. Little British cars, convertible sports cars, even (you’ll be shocked to hear), Miatas.

The reason enthusiasts love them is for a series of what I like to call, “Automotive Intangibles”. It’s what all gearheads love about their vehicles, and small convertible sports cars have in spades.

I could finally grasp what these intangibles were after renting an MX-5 for a bit of a road trip from central to southern Germany. However, when I went to pick up the car from the rental area, I realized how stupid the Miata really is.

There’s no space for anything–barely enough for me and my girlfriend’s things. Then, after folding ourselves into the car, I let it warm up and then, on a stretch of German highway, put my foot down.

And I waited.

And waited…

As we got further and further from the airport in Cologne, I quickly realized that:

  1. This car is not fast
  2. This car has no space for luggage, people, or precious large capacity soft-drinks
  3. The navigation system was in German

After a haul down the highway, the car was nothing to speak of.

Hitler’s house was closed.

After a significantly greater amount of highway, we ended up down south, reaching into the alps to visit Hitler’s Eagles Nest. When we got there, there was snow on the road up to it, so it was closed. This was annoying, but luckily Salzburg was only a few miles over the mountains. A plan was hatched to go there instead, so I found the twistiest possible road I could to reach Austria.

That’s really when the Miata completely came alive. Describing it in words reminds me of when they used to have a swear jar on Top Gear during reviews of Alfa Romeos. I’ll spare you the gushing details, but I realized that, after putting the top down, this was the perfect car for the situation.

It didn’t matter about the horsepower, I didn’t stop to think about, “Oh another seven foot-pounds of torque would really do me well here!”

All of the reasonably mundane engineering underneath me just didn’t matter. The right wheels were driven, it was light, I was choosing my gears, and with the top down I was hearing the right things–feeling the right things. A previously unremarkable induction note made it’s way boldly into my ears via a thin, sort of “alpy” air.

It didn’t matter that it wasn’t well suited for carrying luggage, or people, or grain silo-sized cups of Pibb. It really didn’t even matter to me that it wasn’t fast. It wasn’t supposed to do those things. It was a car, that you drove. That’s all it was for.

Electric cars lack the same intangibles

Ever notice how people who are very enthusiastic about Tesla (don’t use the word cult, don’t use the word cult) love to run numbers by you? You leave a mind-numbing meeting with your accountant and get lunch with a friend who has just taken delivery of a Model 3. You wonder if you’re about to receive more information about deductions.

It’s all about range, the foot-pounds of torque (quoted at the wheels, of course), the zero-to-sixty time, the quarter-mile, the kilowatt-hours, and charging durations.

I remember when I was in high-school and all of that was just the end of the world. Your friend’s car was quoted on an obscure automotive statistics website as to be one-tenth slower to sixty? Scum! Peon! Forget about life! Drop out!

Thankfully, I grew up, and realized automotive enthusiasm–for most people– just isn’t about the numbers. However, what tangible thing is it about?

Weight

I’m not going to get the scales out here and argue another ounce here or there makes all the difference in the world, because that’s pedantic.

A thousand pounds is not pedantic.

Volvo’s new Polestar 1, their flagship hybrid-electric sports car, weighs an absolutely bovine 5100 pounds. The Model S is up there too, at near five-thousand. Model 3, the lightest of the bunch, can weigh as little as 3600 pounds, or as much as 4000.

Batteries just have to get lighter before you can get a nimble little car like an MGB or an Alfa Spider. Of course, you could just fit a massive tire and hefty springs to belt up the car’s bulging waist, but when you do that, is it really a little sports car anymore?

Why do you think Tesla’s new roadster is nothing like the less-than noteworthy first generation?

Sound

Electric motors don’t sound like anything. Manufacturers have to add noise so pedestrians know they’re about to be run over. If you’re Ford–and at this point quite literally have zero shame–you pipe engine noise into the cabin to get that back.

If you’ve never driven a convertible sports car, you may be shaking your head right now at my immense, thick-skulled stupidity. However, don’t knock it until you try it. Thanks to the lack of a roof, convertibles just offer sweeter, fuller, louder sounds into your eardrums. It’s another intangible that’s essential to the small sports car that electric vehicles lack.

Involvement

Most electric cars have no gears. Porsche’s Taycan has two gears, but you cant shift them yourself. Also, if you could, it would be boring.

Even a great sports car can be spoiled by the wrong transmission. Ever driven an automatic Miata? It’s like about half the car just went missing. I know everybody rags on about “oh manual transmissions, save the manuals, manual transmission preservation society”. Frankly, that gets so irritating sometimes, it’s tough for me to put it into words.

Manual transmissions don’t belong in a 4400 pound M5, you aren’t going to buy a big six-figure AMG Mercedes, please stop. Get some help. Stick shifts don’t have any business in most cars. They do belong in little roadsters.

Feedback

Things, ‘by-wire’ are all the rage. Steer by-wire, drive-by-wire throttles, even brake-by-wire. Let me be clear, I have no issues with electric steering racks, as long as there’s actually a column hooked up to the wheel. These systems today are nearly as good–if not just as good–as hydraulic is, and putting hydraulic steering in an electric car doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Drive-by-wire throttles are also just as good as cable throttles. Don’t give me this bullshit about some pico-second latency time, or the feel through the gas pedal. I know what that feels like, it’s pleasant to the most anal and insufferable enthusiasts, but it really doesn’t matter.

Brake pedal feel does matter, as does steering feel. Driving a car with mushy brakes, or a totally wooden pedal just feels like shit. Stopping predictably is just as important as going predictably, and steering feel (I’m certain that I’m preaching to the choir at this point) can make or break any enthusiast car.

Electric cars are vainly attempting to scrape back all of these attributes via eerily silent sub-three second zero-to-sixty times. That horse is a bloody pulp.

The good news

A few things about electric motors and batteries make them very well suited to roadsters, however. Especially a weekend car you don’t drive much.

For instance, the range doesn’t really matter. I imagine electric Corvettes would just be perfect, as one with a coin cell could manage the haul out onto the driveway, and back into the garage at night. Even a small, 100-mile battery would probably do for most spiritedly-driven adventures.

The fluids would also never go bad. You could theoretically let your electric roadster sit for months as your spouse tries to pry it out of your hands-on account of their desperate need for new kitchen countertops.

The cost of maintenance would also be slim, as the number of moving parts amounts to… Uhm… Not a lot.

Battery technology is also bound to improve, and as they get lighter and more energy-dense, I’m certain somewhat more enjoyable electric roadsters will start cropping up.

But…

This really only solves some of the (from an enthusiast perspective) inherent issues with electric cars. Also, all of those reasons I previously stated are just… Boring!

It would be more reliable, but the same things that make cars unreliable are what gives them character and makes them interesting. If you just want a car to sit in your driveway and cost you nothing, you shouldn’t get a roadster.

Small roadsters aren’t about making any sense at all. They’re morally bankrupt. There is no carpooling happening, no dining room tables can be brought to your in-laws, they just aren’t doing anything–or anybody–any favors. Besides, of course, hairdressers.

It’s for one, or two people to get in and enjoy themselves at the cost of just about everything practical, including a roof.

They’re stupid, irresponsible, impractical, amazing, fun, and special vehicles. Over the course of a week, they can treat you to a great time, and at the end of it, when you have to bring it back to the airport, leave you a little distraught. They won’t, without care, be here forever.

For the love of Christ, go buy one.

29 Comments

  1. This so perfectly sums up everything I feel EVs have to achieve to be enthusiast cars.

    In a weird way, a world of Miatas is a more ecologically sound one than a world of Teslas and Leafs – because it means society has got to a stage where driving is primarily for pleasure and not commuting.

    1. I was enjoying decent public transit in a large American city. Nice little 40 minute ride. Then I made the mistake of looking at the scale (5 miles). So I got off and downloaded an app (5 minutes.) Walked to a dockless electric assist bike (10 minutes.) Started riding with 350W assistance on top of my own constant 100W (25 minutes.) Passed multiple spandexed Cat 6 racers headed upwind. Realized I’d exited the service area a very large distance back. Looked for a place to re-enter the service area (5 minutes.) Rode-ish towards the appropriate area and my destination (25 minutes.) Found an app approved random place to park and walked to my destination (5 minutes.)

      Electric assist bicycles, if they had weather protection, would be the perfect form of transportation. Later, visiting family wanted to try out the local scooters, and I still have trouble putting into words how offended I am that such shoddy, unstable, slow, dangerous vehicles generate more enthusiasm than a swifter, smoother, easier version of the already nearly perfect bicycle.

      Of course, you don’t have to pedal a scooter.

      1. For me, it’s the difference in physical size. With a bike you have to find a place that’s nearby, securable, yet accessible with the bike. A folded electric scooter can go with me just about anywhere.

        Also, there are shoddy, unstable scooters and decent performing scooters. As with many consumer products, the good and wretched don’t look much different.

      2. For me, it’s the difference in physical size. With a bike you have to find a place that’s nearby, securable, yet accessible with the bike. A folded electric scooter can go with me just about anywhere.

        Also, there are shoddy, unstable scooters and decent performing scooters. As with many consumer products, the good and wretched don’t look much different.

      3. For me, it’s the difference in physical size. With a bike you have to find a place that’s nearby, securable, yet accessible with the bike. A folded electric scooter can go with me just about anywhere.

        Also, there are shoddy, unstable scooters and decent performing scooters. As with many consumer products, the good and wretched don’t look much different.

      1. So, as my daughter likes to remind me, I’m old. Fully realized it when I found myself tapping my foot along with Yes’ “Perpetual Change” in the supermarket. This was funny when I read it in Car and Driver thirty or forty years ago, maybe it’s still funny now:

        http://www.angelfire.com/fl/ricestuff/pickup.html

        This is pretty good too:

        https://www.caranddriver.com/features/a15142347/ferrari-reinvents-manifest-destiny-pj-orourke-and-a-ferrari-308gts-archived-feature/

  2. It’s a bit of a paradox. An electric Miata would not be the ideal Miata, but it would be the ideal electric car. The ideal electric car does not need a lot of range. Most households are not single-vehicle, and would be well-served with at least one low-range electric car dedicated to the daily commute. The average commute is only 15 miles or so. A 30 mile round trip doesn’t need a 100kWh battery. And you probably don’t need much cargo space for your trip to work.
    With limited cargo and range needs, why not focus on making it fun? Something like a Miata would be perfect.

  3. I love nearly everything about the Miata (er, MX-5) except for the open top and the ND’s styling. I have no interest in convertibles. Yes, there’s the RF, but it’s still ugly. I could go for an NC with a fixed fastback roof, though.

    1. Shooting brake, and solve the luggage issue too IMO.

      Noise can be part of an EV with straight cut gears and a hum from the motor, but an area where the lack of noise would be an advantage is a small offroader, to be able to drive through a forest and not be the noisiest thing.

      Maybe EV conversions of 1980s Suzukis will become a thing?

  4. As much as I love exhaust sound, and shifting… there is a bit of magic in zipping along with the relative silence of an EV. Especially at night. It kind of feels like you’re getting away with something. The mass thing is fairly inescapable at least until battery tech gets better, but that big chunk of mass is nice and low. So give it a lively chassis and you have a quiet dancing partner. Drop the roof, dial up some good music, and smile.

  5. Worth noting that the reason why drive-by-wire is associated with so many bad engine behaviors is emissions control. Automakers went to drive-by-wire partially because it let them do the bad thing that they needed to get emissions compliance. …of course, an EV has no such need to artificially add throttle lag, unless the manufacturer wants to make it feel more like an ICE. So, some don’t, and end up having better throttle response.

    And steering and braking feel, thankfully, aren’t necessarily ruined by an EV (as long as the electric power steering is tuned properly, and they either don’t try to blend regenerative braking into the brake pedal, or do it well), although the pad compounds tend to be awfully soft on hybrids and EVs to get fast activation on ambient temperature brakes.

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