Tesla Roadster

As the all new Tesla Roadster makes its surprise reveal, we’ve raided the MR archives and discovered this review of the original model written for Performance Car magazine in 2009. The electric sports car was the first all-electric production car capable of travelling more than 200 miles but sold in very small numbers here in the UK.

This review on the Tesla Roadster was first published in Performance Car in 2009.

Electric car motoring is not for those terrified by the sound of silence. Gone is your V8 blare, your straight-six growl, replaced by, well, a faint whine. A distant hum. There’s nothing to report on how an electric ‘engine’ sounds. It doesn’t.

Surely that’s missing half the fun of a performance car? Well, hang on. Think of the alternative.

The ‘green’ 30-plus mpg biodiesel supercar. It fills enthusiasts with dread. Sure, we buy TDIs, i-DTECs, CDTis as our everyday cars. But really, who’s going to idolise a poster of a Ferrari JTDm? Will Mark Hales ever record Into The Rev-Restricted Red to support his words on the most iconic diesel machines? Does Nick Mason even own a classic oil-burner? And, judging by the aurals at BTCC meetings, or at Le Mans, would car nuts want to buy it?

No, for petrolheads, diesel isn’t the prettiest path to environmental righteousness. But we need one. It’s a valid point, saying supercars’ impact on global warming is invisible. Ferraris saving fuel is going to change the situation of dwindling oil supplies not one jot. Nevertheless, fuel will, soon, either run out, or become both economically and ethically unviable. Like chain-smoking in kindergarten. Then what? It’ll be no good proclaiming single-mpg petrol is the only way then. No, we need to find an alternative for our supercar sporting thrills, that doesn’t involve refined chip fat. That uses no fuel. Tesla may just have it.

The Tesla Roadster is something of intrigue. We know Lotus build them, and that it’s a bedfellow of the Elise. But until now, nobody’s got their hands on one in the UK. That’s why I was buzzing like a dodgy transformer to be stood outside the SMMT’s Central London base, with the keys to a pre-production Roadster.

I’d already been briefed, and my head was spinning. An electric car’s spec sheet is certainly different. Top speed of the Roadster limited to 125mph; an issue for track-dayers, but not generally on backroads. 0-60mph, though? 3.9secs, or hypercar-fast. It’ll do the quarter mile in 12.9secs, too. That’s made possible through 280lb/ft of torque at… well, zero rpm. Electric motors’ maximum twist action is there right away, which makes it fortunate Tesla’s fitted traction control.

Tesla Roadster

It rotates at up to 14,000rpm – which means you still get a rev counter in the dash. And it operates at 87 per cent efficiency, which is something regular combustion engines can only dream about. Further losses are saved by the use of a single-speed gearbox. Don’t worry about supercar servicing bills here: it’s all dead simple. Compare, if you will, to the complexity of even a basic 911…

The 250hp AC three-phase induction motor, mounted between the rear wheels, is a bespoke design controlled by a Power Electronics Module – that’s the bit you can see when the wobbly rear panel back-hinges up. This contains the DC-AC inverter and charger. No regenerative braking, but lifting off the throttle turns motor into generator, putting up to 100amps back into the batteries.

Ah, the batteries. Here’s the really clever part. They’re lithium ion, meaning, at last, mobile phone batteries have come to cars. Consider their composition in three levels: there are individual lithium ion cells, a bit like ‘AA’ batteries. 621 of these are used to form a single sheet – and, for a truly modular design, 11 are then gathered together to form the battery pack. It punches out 53Kwh and is guaranteed for 100,000 miles; Tesla has prioritised longevity and power output.

Oh, and safety. The trick to making lithium ion batteries that don’t go on fire is managing the energy, ensuring they don’t become too hot or cold, avoiding lithium ‘flare’. The battery pack is even air-conditioned, all as part of the Tesla’s thermal management. This is basically massively complicated software that’s Tesla’s own IP; each sheet has its own ECU, as well as an overall battery pack ECU, which has sensors for pressure, inversion, smoke, accelerometers, temperature and so on. Mobily has none of this.

Finally, I blink into the sunlight. First impressions? Elise. It shares the same windscreen and dimensions (oh, and, eventually, production line), but while every (carbon fibre) panel is different, the profile, stance, height and dimensions are familiar. Not that this is a bad thing – and besides, it does ‘look’ different.

It seems much like what a start-up company’s first sports car would resemble. No classic, heavily influenced by others, but certainly enough to have passing cyclists shouting “nice car, mate”. Air inlets on the rear wings are pure F430 (that’s what you think each time you spy them in the doormirrors), as are the lights and rear buttresses. Spot the cues elsewhere.

Overall, it’s very American and a bit soft, but not inoffensive – and that’s vital when you think of how significant this car is. It needs to be an electric car flag-bearer. And if most of the population think it a pig-ugly brick, flags will soon be at half mast.

The cockpit is Elise. Same massive sills, same dash, but a nicer, swoopier centre console (and full carpeting). Dials are similar but next to the driver’s knee is a touch-screen display. It’s for PIN security, and to monitor the power management of the car. There is even a ‘fuel saved’ meter. Enter the mpg of your ‘other’ car and Tesla will tell you how many barrels of oil you haven’t consumed. Genius.

Turn the key and nothing happens, of course. Save for a ‘wake-up’ bleep, a bit like a computer starting up, that signals you’re ready. Select Drive, release the handbrake; then things become very different.

Attenborough often films weird sea creatures, motionless, which suddenly spear along at comet-like speed in an unfeasible flash. That’s what accelerating in a Tesla for the first time is like. Leaving you suddenly travelling at 75mph in Central London, seemingly in silence, completely at a loss as to what’s going on. Totally baffling. No noise, no vibration, no gearchanges, no sensations – just delirious speed, like being on a rollercoaster.

This is electric ‘go’. It’s soon apparent the switch-like intensity of response to the throttle, and the ensuing reaction, defines the Tesla. It is, I’d imagine, like an F1 car’s. You hear it on Hamilton’s in-camera shots through bends: when he’s back on power, it’s a digital, zero-to-one nose, no fluff or faff. Here, you feel it. Accelerator response is incredibly clean and crisp, and proportional, like very few IC engines. It’s like Broadband. It’s always on. The ‘mid-range’ effect is just sensational.

Tesla Roadster

Don’t forget, there are no gearchanges, either. Just total linearity. The same sustained rush from zero to speed x. In silence. Alien? Totally. Such alacrity infuses the rest of it, too.

Initial dynamic impressions are of familiar Elise-like steering precision and delicacy, firm and lag-free response, a more supple and compliant setup, perhaps – but with a newfound trick: the best throttle-adjustability, ever. Going on the power gives so much force, which can be varied and modulated with unheralded precision and immediacy, it becomes a rear-driver you drive like a front-driver.

Accuracy exudes. Elise-derived kit always does, but the unique drivetrain enhances it here. This is a hi-tech feel, very future-gen. Besides, as there is no engine tune to connect with, here, your emotional hook is even more so with the chassis. It’s the bit supplying all the thrills, so you hone in on it with added intensity. More race car mentality similarities.

Mind you, something else felt is the cleanliness of the drive. Not just in the obvious – but, in lacking oily bits, somehow it becomes easier to grasp, to feel, to sense. All the complexity has been stripped back, meaning you just get in and drive. It just works. It’s like an iPod. They have no instruction book; with this, I got in, was told about the start-up procedure by a sandwich-munching Tesla man, and was away, feeling like a hero. More simple it could not be.

Nor more thrilling. That, in a nutshell, describes the Tesla. It gives the same tight feelings in your stomach as, again, a rollercoaster – such is the intensity of acceleration, the g-laden forces from cornering. It’s as if the electromagnetic impulses are being fed into you, too. It’s a performance car like no other. Which, dammit, works brilliantly.

And no noise? Here’s the elephant in the corner. But, what is noise, but waste? Why do racing car drivers wear earplugs? If you’re really on it, wouldn’t one less distraction be welcome? Great engines sound magic, but did I miss one here? No – because the rest of the car was feeding me so much more. And isn’t driving by tactile sensations, rather than aural ones?

The debate, I know, will run. But our time was limited. Oh yeah, because of a dull range? No – they reckon well over 200 miles. Yes, 200 miles. Sports cars, they say, rarely do more in a day: such a range for something hitting 60 in under 4secs is pretty blistering. They’re some batteries indeed – the ‘fuel gauge’ was still three-quarters full when we brought it back. Battery cooling fans zizzing like a hard-worked PC, I exited the Tesla, bewildered, but still buzzing. If this is the future, then bring it on.

But Tesla has. For £92,000 (make that two elephants), you can take delivery next May, of a 100-run European launch special, with custom leather, bespoke paint colour (any DuPont hue) and other goodies. The series model will be around £88k. If you’re an entrepreneur with a clean tech fund, or a supercar fan with a conscience, you’ll be right there, say the bosses. Buying into the world’s first ecologically sustainable performance machine.

Common sense says £92k is a massive amount to pay for an Elise with doors that clang shut. But is Aston V8 money really that boggling, for what could be the most significant performance car to hit these shores? For that’s how utterly convincing the Tesla seems.

And it doesn’t sound like a diesel. I think it might be time to make some noise.

Tesla who?

Nikola Tesla

19th century brainbox Nikola Tesla began the second industrial revolution by inventing the AC electric motor. Apparently, he’s known as the patron saint of modern electricity. His genius is not required to guess which stall Tesla Motor is setting itself out upon.

It all started five years ago; a true Silicone Valley start-up. Co-founder, Californian Martin Eberhard, had made his fortune, and wanted a sports car to spend it on. But he’s an environmentalist, and was uneasy about the idea of a thirsty Italianate and such like. Luckily, he was rich: I can build the car I want, he mused.

So he did. The rest followed through a mixing of minds, very much right time, right place. “In Silicone Valley, if it’s a great idea, you can attract capital. It celebrates entrepreneurialism,” explained Tesla Europe Marketing Manager, Aaron Platshon. Further cash, for example, came from Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal.

The company’s roots are in consumer electrics, not cars. This gave it a wealth of experience in lithium ion battery technology: “We understood that the batteries give massive energy density – so long as you know how to control and package it.” The automotive expertise? Expert recruitment bought it on board.

“Our worst-case scenario will be that we’re acquired. But we don’t intend for that to happen.” Instead, Tesla wants, by 2010, to make 20,000 £30k+ sub-6sec to 60mph performance 5-Series rivals a year – a five-door coupe-hatch developed (indeed, under development right now) by itself, using suspensions and other components from major manufacturers, but produced in-house. Now that is some undertaking indeed.

Tesla has been run for the past five years on $150m, and reckon it will cost $200m to get the sedan into production. That is not a lot by modern car standards. “We call upon automotive expertise from specialists, but we’re also a Silicone Valley company. We do things more cheaply.” Access to further funds, should they be required, is not an issue.

After that, there will be an even smaller, more mainstream car. All using Tesla’s ingenious and uber-efficient powertrain. We’re not talking millions of cars a year, but enough. No, the mega volumes may come from Tesla licensing its drivetrain to other manufacturers.

So groundbreaking is the performance of the Roadster, other supercar manufacturers simply have to take it seriously. And, if the idea of an electric Scuderia really switches Ferrari on, Tesla will consult. This is where the money will be made.

Tesla (Nikola) was derided as a mad scientist back in the day: fitting that Tesla (Motor) is, by some, suffering the same. An electric performance car? Bloody bonkers. And maybe just as revolutionary.