Arguably the most forward-thinking sports car on the road, the battery-powered Tesla Roadster comes from a relatively small startup company located in the Silicon Valley city of San Carlos, Cal. One of Tesla’s co-founders and its Chairman is Elon Musk, who made his fortune establishing, and later selling the online-payment company PayPal.
The industry’s first all-electric high-performance coupe, the Tesla Roadster attracted interest almost immediately from ecologically minded Hollywood types and affluent auto enthusiasts. A lithium-ion battery pack powers an emissions-free aircooled 375-volt electric motor that generates the equivalent of 248 horsepower. It’s claimed to take the low-slung open-air two-seater to 60 mph in just 3.9 seconds with up to a 244-mile range.
Those performance numbers are nothing short of unheard of – by comparison the all-electric Nissan Leaf can muster an EPA-rated 73 miles on a charge, with a top speed that’s nearly a third of the Tesla Roadster’s. While the car has been well reviewed by the motoring press, the story of the Roadster’s long-term viability is still being written, particularly in that relatively few of the cars have been produced. Part of this is due to the car’s exclusive low-volume nature and part because of engineering problems early on.
A Tesla Roadster Sport variation was added for model-year 2010 with its engine tweaked to result in a slightly quicker 3.7-second 0-60 mph run. That model also rides on an adjustable suspension. Changes for 2011 include a slightly revised front-end look outside, and new sport seats inside. A touch-screen navigation system with a backup camera, Bluetooth mobile-phone interface and a 400-watt audio system with HD and satellite radio is newly optional.
Unfortunately the current version will likely be discontinued at the end of the 2011 model year, with a maximum of around 2,400 units built; the Lotus Elise upon which it’s based is undergoing a redesign and Tesla will be unable to receive further chassis and other components. A redesigned model may come for 2013 or later, but in the meantime Tesla is concentrating its efforts on readying its new Model S sedan for an expected launch during the 2012 calendar year.
At least on paper, the Tesla Roadster is an amazing vehicle. Designed with input from Lotus and assembled at its factory in England, the Roadster certainly looks the part of a high-tech European sports car inside and out. Its sleekly sculpted carbon fiber exterior would be at home taking up prime valet parking space outside a swank nightclub alongside Ferraris and Lamborghinis.
One of the benefits of electric power in an automobile is that the motor can deliver 100 percent of its power on a continuous basis – in the Roadster’s case that’s all the way up to an astounding 14,000 rpm (most cars top out at nearly half that figure). Linked to what is now a one-speed gearbox, this means the car can deliver a forceful launch with a continual onslaught of acceleration without pausing for shifts or being subject to a torque curve.
What’s more it delivers the goods not with a gas-guzzler tax and single-digit fuel economy, but with comparatively low operating costs. The company claims this can be as little one cent per mile (though as the EPA always says, “your mileage may vary”) based on current local electricity rates. And no fluid changes are ever needed.
Unlike the so-called “extended-range” Chevrolet Volt, which packs a small gasoline engine to run its electric generator when the batteries run out of juice, like the Nissan Leaf the Tesla Roadster needs to be recharged when its power cells are depleted (as in most hybrids, the battery recovers some power from regenerative braking to help maximize its range). The company says a full charge takes about 3.5 hours using the supplied High Power Connector, and only around two hours after 100 miles of driving.
An optional Mobile Connector lets road warriors charge their cars from most standard electrical outlets while away from home, provided there’s someone generous enough to let an owner connect his or her car to their end of the power grid. Tesla says the lithium-ion battery pack is good for at least five years or 100,000 miles of “peak performance driving,” after which its range will begin to wane on the road to needing eventual – not to mention costly – replacement.
The Tesla Roadster rides on an aluminum space frame to help keep its mass to a minimum, with fully independent front and rear suspension designs to aid its cornering abilities. Given a relatively small electric motor/generator and no need for a fuel tank, the car’s battery pack is its heaviest component, accounting for an estimated 1,000 pounds of its 2,690-pound curb weight. Traction control and antilock brakes are included, but neither power steering nor stability control is available.
The Tesla Roadster’s tight two-seat cockpit is straight out of Lotus’ design playbook and includes straightforward gauges and controls. Optional amenities include leather seats, a premium audio package, Bluetooth hands-free cell phone integration and a matching body color hardtop.
While it’s certainly an impressive achievement, in reality the Tesla Roadster remains an unproven possibility, even as a low-volume niche vehicle. As with any seminal electric car just hitting the market it’s ability to deliver the promised performance and range on a sustained basis without long-term reliability issues has yet to be proven. History will ultimately decide whether the Tesla Roadster is truly what the industry likes to call a “game changer,” or is inevitably just another spectacular false start in the history of the electric car.
Tesla Roadster Quick Facts
Engine: Electric Motor
City/Highway: MPG 244-mile range
Transmission: 1-Spd Automatic
Wheelbase: 92.6 in
Overall Length: 155.4 in
Width: 73.7 in
Height: 44.4 in
Curb Weight: 2,690 lbs
Did You Know?
Tesla is named after the famed inventor and pioneering electrical engineer Nikola Tesla (1856-1943). Tesla’s body of work included conceiving the basis for modern alternating current electric-power systems and the AC motor. According to Wikipedia, the scientific community largely considered Tesla to be a mad scientist because of his eccentric personality and wild – and often unfounded – scientific claims.