REVIEW DATE: 08 Sep 2008
Electric cars often get a bad press but the Tesla Roadster sets out to inject some fun into proceedings. Steve Walker reports.
Golf carts, milk floats, the Sinclair C5: these typify the kinds of electric vehicles that most people will have encountered up until very recently. Today there are quite a few of the things either on sale or in the pipeline but the majority don't look or feel a million miles away from the aforementioned battery-driven classics. Electric power just isn't very sexy, or at least it wasn't before the Tesla Roadster.
Global warming; you may have heard of it and there's a decent chance that you'll even have an opinion on it. It's arguably the biggest issue concerning the automotive industry at the moment with the pressure from legislators forcing manufacturers to green-up their act. The demand from consumers for green cars is there but in the main, it isn't derived from an urge to do the right thing for the planet. People will often have the best intentions but they'll only purchase environmentally-friendly cars in big enough numbers if these vehicles are preferable to the less green alternatives. Until the Tesla Roadster came along, car manufacturers had been focusing on making cleaner cars appeal on financial grounds riding on the back of Government legislation. With the Tesla, people might just go green because it's more desirable as well.
The Tesla Roadster is an electric sports car and a quick one at that. There are advantages inherent in electric propulsion systems that actually lend themselves to their use in performance vehicles and while even the fastest milk float in the west was still distinctly pedestrian, the Tesla can glide unerringly past 60mph in less than four seconds and on to a 125mph top speed. Electric cars don't work like petrol powered ones which take time to give the best of their performance. In the style of your favourite light switch, the Tesla's 250bhp 375 volt air-cooled electric motor with variable frequency drive is either on or off with very little subtlety in between. 100 per cent of the car's 375Nm torque output is available from 0 to 4,500rpm and it makes for a quite otherworldly driving experience. As soon as you feather the throttle, an inexorable surge of acceleration is produced and with just a single gear to worry about, the Tesla has the capacity to out sprint all but the most lunatic supercars.
"Electric cars used to be the preserve of golfers, milkmen and eccentrics but the Tesla Roadster is one that you'd want to drive just for the sheer fun of it."
Riding on a modified Lotus Elise chassis and with the Norfolk firm having had a major hand in its development, the Tesla Roadster promises driving dynamics that do justice to its formidable drive system. The car's lithium-ion battery pack is positioned over the driven rear wheels and at 450kg, it does much to push them down onto the road to aid traction. As a whole, the Tesla tips the scales at some 300kg more than an Elise but it makes up for this relative lardiness with its supernatural grunt.
The Tesla looks a lot like the Lotus Elise but there are a number of key differences. The most notable is the fact that the body is formed from carbon fibre which helps to offset some of the additional weight of the electric drive system. The rear of the car is elongated to accommodate the batteries and while the front suspension is carried over wholesale from the Lotus, the rear set-up has had to be modified to free-up additional room.
The seats and the dash will be familiar to Lotus Elise owners as will the Spartan feel of the cabin. There is a slightly classier feel to the inside of the Tesla, however, with less exposed metal than in the Lotus and more attention paid to the detailing. The biggest differences are the minimalist gear lever with only forward and reverse gears to choose from and the screen on the dash to how much charge is left in the batteries.
At this point you may well be wondering why we aren't all driving electric vehicles. The Tesla Roadster is certainly an attractive proposition but it's not without its downsides and chief amongst them is a price tag that's north of £90,000. Admittedly, the Tesla's performance credentials do make it a match for metal in that kind of illustrious ball park but it's still a lot of money for an electric Elise. The environmental conscience of its buyers will be sorely tested when they realise they could have an Aston Martin Vantage Roadster for a similar sum.
Tesla is being realistic about its sales prospects and only a limited number of vehicles will initially be available. The list of buyers who've already signed up both here and across the pond on Tesla's home turf is said to read like a who's who of the great and the good so the brand should have plenty of celebrity endorsements to stimulate interest.
The Tesla might not be cheap to buy but it has the potential to be very cheap to run. A fully charged car has a battery life of 3.5 hours but it takes 16 hours plugged into the mains via Tesla's High Power Connector to top up the batteries and driving the car like you mean it will most likely deplete the batteries faster. Still, at current electricity prices, it means that the Tesla costs around 1.5 pence per mile to run and that there are no emissions of anything coming from the car itself.
The question of how environmentally-friendly the Tesla actually is depends on where the electricity used to charge it actually comes from. The fossil fuel power stations that supply the national grid pump out CO2 like nobody's business while the nuclear power that also chips in has its own issues. If the Tesla is charged with power generated from renewable, emissions free sources like wind or solar power, then it becomes a genuine zero emissions car. Unless of course you count the greenhouse gasses released during its development, production and transportation. Going green can be a complex business.
The Tesla Roadster is a very appealing prospect but just as its looks, its running costs and its handling will win it sales, its pricing and impracticality could certainly have an adverse effect. What's not in doubt is that the Tesla is the first electric vehicle to be both aspirational and genuinely desirable. Its supercar performance will generate headlines as will its potential for zero emissions travel but the technology will need to filter down to more affordable, mass market products if it's going to have much of an impact on the environment.
Electric cars used to be the preserve of golfers, milkmen and eccentrics but the Tesla Roadster is one that you'd want to drive just for the sheer fun of it. There are undoubted obstacles to it becoming a common sight on the roads of the UK but as a step in the right direction, it's hard to fault. There's no magic formula to making green cars popular. Build them cheaper and more desirable than conventional cars and the customers will come. The Tesla Roadster suggests that in the future, that might be possible.
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