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Car reviews - Tesla - Roadster - convertible

Our Opinion

We like
Point-and-squirt power and handling, battery range, future classic status, very cool for an eco-car
Room for improvement
Interior not brilliant for the price, pedals too close together, having to give it back

18 Aug 2011

THIS is our part in a little piece of history, driving the first factory EV offered to Australian customers and the first car to show the world that zero-emissions driving is viable – and more importantly, fun. Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you the Tesla Roadster.

Our meeting with the Roadster was like one of those dates on which everything goes wrong you break out in pimples, public transport is late and the normally great venue uncharacteristically sub-standard.

OK so our Tesla time wasn’t as bad as the above example but when one envisages driving an expensive convertible sportscar, the mental picture is of warm, sunny weather and deserted, twisting coastal roads.

We were faced with a cold and rainy hour or so dodging the luxury SUVs that proliferate around Melbourne’s Bayside suburbs, so at least we got a bit of coastal road – which due to the inclement weather was for once free of the usual packs of cycling enthusiasts in their multi-coloured Lycra.

The Roadster we sampled was the more expensive and torquier Sport variant, priced at around $260,000 on the road and fitted with optional wider, semi-slick tyres.

In other words, on a cold wet day this was like wearing stilettos to play footy because wide tyres are more prone to aquaplaning and semi-slicks, while amazing on warm dry days when some temperature gets into them – especially on a race track – are notoriously marginal in the wet.

However like those dates that start off badly and are saved by the chemistry between the couple participating, the Tesla managed to shine through the wind, rain and inappropriate footwear.

First impressions of the silver example with naked carbon-fibre hard-top tested were that the Roadster is a great looking car, far better in reality than in photos.

Just as we were getting giddy from admiring the lightweight carbon-fibre body’s flowing lines we were surprised to be handed an old-fashioned key, especially for a car packing so much futuristic technology.

A quick look under the rear deck-lid revealed the battery pack, control unit and a peek down the side of a bulkhead offered a view of the electric motor.

Behind all of this is a 170-litre storage bin running the full width of the vehicle. No room for suitcases or golf bags but enough to carry a weekly shop for two or an overnight bag each for a weekend away. If you travel lightly – the Roadster’s raison d’etre was never practicality!

Being based on a Lotus Elise (although Tesla claims only seven percent of components are shared between the Californian car and the British one) the Roadster requires a little technique and a lot of finesse to climb into gracefully but once settled in the supportive leather sports seats, grasping the small and softly leather-trimmed Momo steering wheel it is surprisingly comfortable.

With no adjustment of the seat we were happy to drive, although a height-adjustable steering column would have improved the view of the dials for your taller than average correspondent. The cockpit of leather and suede is not cramped, but intimate.

Tesla has tried hard to dress up the dated dashboard of the $70,000 Lotus Elise donor car to befit a car costing a quarter of a million dollars with the use of leather trim. The fascia’s humbler Hethel beginnings can be further obscured with an optional carbon-fibre trim.

Fit and finish was acceptable, although the console containing the push-button gear selectors (park, neutral, drive and reverse) did not feel a 100 per cent solid and the rainy conditions uncovered a small roof leak of the type that is usually rectified by opening the door and slamming it closed, or winding the window down then up to re-seat the seals – but even so, this is not expected from a brand new example costing this much.

Turn the key in the time-honoured fashion and there is no indication that the ‘engine’ has started other than a loud chime and the illumination of the various instrument displays.

Because the Roadster has a single-speed transmission, the speedometer also displays numbers for the rev-counter (which goes all the way up to 14,000rpm) while the right-hand side dial shows how much energy is being drawn from the battery (or returned to it under deceleration).

There is a seven-speaker Alpine audio system that combines touch-screen DVD, satellite navigation and reversing camera plus highly effective air-conditioning that according to the energy usage readout, saps less power than expected.

A small second lower-level touch-screen offers battery consumption and range readouts plus a G-force display for when the going gets twisty.

Tesla’s national marketing and sales manager Jay McCormack said the battery range display is so accurate that for someone to run out of juice it would have to be intentional.

As expected from a car of this type, all-round visibility is restricted by the super-low ride height and the buttresses that block an over-the-shoulder glance. However the rear windscreen offers a good blind-spot view with a turn of the head a few degrees further than normal.

Push the D button to engage forward drive, release the brake and the Roadster creeps forward like any automatic, but with eerie silence. On the move down a busy shopping precinct the first sound to enter the cabin is from the tyres.

On this occasion the other sounds included rain beating down on the car and of course the windscreen wiper motor – which ironically was louder at this speed than the one providing us with propulsion.

From inside the Roadster it is far from silent at speeds of 60km/h and up and the motor can be heard under acceleration or deceleration – its pitch much deeper as the regenerative braking kicks in while slowing the vehicle down.

Surprisingly, rather than lament the absence of a fruity exhaust note or be put off by the unfamiliar noises entering the cabin, we felt reassured by the level of feedback.

Tesla’s regenerative braking system can return a claimed 10 per cent of energy back to the battery on average, manifesting itself in a ‘engine braking’ effect approximately four times stronger than a conventional car.

The zero-throttle deceleration takes a little getting used to but once accustomed, driving round town we barely touched the brakes – a good thing as we found the pedals to be a little closely placed.

The regenerative braking could be useful in an emergency, a decent amount of deceleration already achieved in the split second between moving the foot from one pedal to the other.

Tesla says regenerative braking reduces brake maintenance costs and that servicing duties for an electric vehicle are significantly reduced compared with internal combustion.

The Roadster’s annual service schedule requires no oil changes for a start, the equivalent being software upgrades for the car’s electronic brain – which can in some cases be done by the owner or remotely over the internet.

The main mechanical tasks are safety checks concerning brakes and tyres, cleaning any dust that might have entered the motor area immediately behind the driver and making sure the battery’s liquid cooling system is topped up and functioning well.

For customers not within range of Tesla’s Sydney base, these tasks are performed by a Tesla engineer who will fly out to the customer’s location at a cost of “around $100 more than a standard Tesla service” according to Mr McCormack.

The Roadster’s electric motor offers 215 kilowatts of power, with the Sport version tested having the torque output boosted by 30 Newton metres to an impressive 400Nm, all of which is available from the instant the accelerator pedal is pressed – unlike internal combustion engines, which must first reach their peak performance rev-range (without taking into account any lag created by the presence of turbochargers).

Run in charge-conserving ‘range’ mode the Tesla is a pussycat in the urban environment, with a smooth, gentle launch feel but plenty of poke to dart out of junctions and duck into gaps in traffic.

Switch to ‘performance’ mode and the Roadster’s famed acceleration is on tap, with 0-100km/h is dispatched in a claimed 3.7 seconds. Even in the wet and slippery conditions full-throttle forward thrust felt immense and response immediate.

A subtle hint of traction control could be felt when taking off from traffic lights on drenched bitumen but it let the tyres do their best job rather than heavy-handedly killing power like some systems.

Planting the pedal once on the move provided an addictive amount of acceleration that feels even more impressive than the standing start. It’s similar to the instant, madcap acceleration obtainable from say, a 600cc sportsbike.

The Roadster’s lack of power steering made low-speed manoeuvres a little tricky and more twirling than expected was occasionally required to turn into side streets but on the move it lightened up and remained communicative in a way that has been almost completely lost in modern cars.

Ride comfort over poor surfaces was surprisingly good too, although riding over cat’s eyes or deep potholes could be jarring – forgivable considering this is a sportscar agile enough to avoid such obstacles.

On the subject of agility, the driver almost wears the Roadster and its quick responses both to steering and throttle inputs made it huge fun to dodge in and out of multi-lane traffic. This car almost defines the term point and squirt and is so involving that it feels fun even at suburban speeds.

It is a shame we did not have time to visit our favourite set of twisties, where we are sure the car would have provided plenty of smiles per gallon, if it was possible to measure electricity in gallons.

Talking of fuel consumption, in May 2011 Mr McCormack drove a Roadster Sport from Melbourne to Port Douglas, consuming $213.40 worth of electricity over the 6187 kilometres covered – the equivalent cost to driving a car that averages less than 2.4 litres per 100km assuming a petrol price of $1.45 per litre.

Recharging can be done overnight using a household 10-amp socket (unlike say, the altogether less glamorous Mitsubishi i-MiEV) but there are further options including a 32-amp and 63-amp connectors, which require costly specialist wiring at home but charge the batteries up in 6.5 hours or three hours respectively.

Mr McCormack said the Tesla’s battery management system works to prevent frequent fast charging from reducing its lifespan – which is quoted as an average of 5000 recharges – but conceded that a combination of all charging methods would yield the longest life.

Our time with the Roadster was short but it was enough to tell that while providing acceptable levels of comfort for such a driver-focussed vehicle, it puts the driver in touch with the road like an old-fashioned sportscar, while containing so much technology that will take personal mobility into the future.

With a maximum of just 50 Roadsters expected to make it to Australia out of a production run totalling 2500 units, the Tesla’s rarity and desirability virtually guarantees it to become a collector's item.

However it is not only guaranteed to be a good financial investment, it is an investment in the future of motoring because Tesla is using the proceeds from this car to pay for the development of new products and EV technology is it selling to companies like Toyota, giving them a fast-track to launching their own zero-emission vehicles.

The best bit? With battery technology advancing rapidly and becoming ever cheaper, in years to come the Roadster’s performance can be enhanced with retrofitted lighter batteries that offer an even greater range.

In fact, Tesla is offering buyers the chance to pre-buy a battery pack so that in seven years’ time the Roadster’s battery, which will by then have reduced to about 70 per cent of its original capacity assuming the vehicle has covered 160,000km, can be re-used in the owner’s home and rigged up to solar panels during daylight hours to provide enough power for night-time, to top-up EV batteries or used as backup if there is a power outage.

It’s a win-win situation: buyers get a fun-to-drive sportscar with the cachet of environmental responsibility while being part of a larger push to cure the world’s addiction to dwindling resources of planet-damaging fossil fuels. Coupled with a renewable energy plan or roof-mounted solar panels the Roadster ensures true zero-emissions driving.

The Roadster is not perfect but its foibles are forgivable due to its role in raising the profile of EVs while pushing the technology forward. Its outstanding character and ability shone through the sub-par setting for our date, and like the best first dates it left us with a skip in our step and a hankering for next time.

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