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First drive: Tesla’s quiet achiever

Green lightning: The Tesla EV Roadster gets a workout on Australian roads.

Tesla breaks new ground as Roadster becomes the first factory EV on sale in Aus

15 Mar 2011

ELECTRIC sportscar crusader Tesla Motors has blasted into Australia with its ballistic Roadster, heralding a quantum shift within the traditional performance car landscape and shunning traditional automotive sales and servicing techniques.

The Californian company has already sold seven of the all-electric models that offer stunning acceleration and a reasonable driving range, despite the Tesla franchise operating without a single Australian dealership.

Tesla has one local service centre, based in Sydney, while customers in other states are charged a fee to cover the travel costs of technicians who come to service the vehicles.

The Tesla 2.5 Roadster is the fourth iteration of the pioneering electric sportscar that was first introduced in the US in 2008.

It demands a premium price in Australia, with the standard model costing $222,995 and the higher-performance Sport version priced at $260,535. Both figures are NSW driveaway prices.

GoAuto drove the Tesla Roadster S this week in Melbourne and can attest to its fantastic acceleration and excellent handling, although the experience was not blemish-free.

While Mitsubishi has arranged leases of its i-MiEV electric city car for a limited group of ‘foundation’ customers, and other aftermarket operations convert petrol models to electric power, the Tesla Roadster is the first all-electric production model to go on sale in Australia.

55 center imageLeft: Tesla national sales and marketing manager, Jay McCormack. Below: Local pics of the Tesla Roadster.

The ground-breaking model uses the Lotus Elise platform as its base, but is fitted out with new-age electric technology including an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack mounted behind the driver and passenger seats.

Tesla insists just seven per cent of the donor Lotus model is retained, including the chassis, dashboard, fabric hard-top and windscreen. The Roadster has a mixture of plastic and carbon-fibre body panels, while naked additional carbon body accents are available as a $13,398 option.

The Roadster Sport weighs around 1200kg, but is capable of blasting to 97km/h (100mph) in just 3.7 seconds and on to a top speed of 212km/h.

The number of most interest is probably the range, with Tesla claiming an average range of 394km, although it stresses this figure depends on the way the vehicle is driven.

Customers can recharge the vehicle using a traditional power plug but would need to allocate 15 hours to fully recharge the battery. Tesla says most customers, those with a daily commute of up to 150km, would only need to ‘top off’ the battery overnight and not require the full charge time.

An optional universal mobile connector, available for $2513, can draw from three-phase outlets and cut the charge time to around 6.5 hours.

Additionally, a Tesla-specific high-power wall unit charge system is available for $3000, not including installation, which cuts the charge time to just three hours.

The Roadster runs a lithium-ion battery pack with 6831 cells that are packed up into 11 sheets inserted into the battery casing. All up, the battery pack weighs 450kg.

The power is fed to an AC motor, which weighs 52kg, and spins from zero to 5100rpm. It generates 215kW between 5000 and 6000rpm and all of its 400Nm are generated between zero and 5100rpm.

That sounds impressive on paper and it is out on the road, too, with the Roadster’s near-silent acceleration pinning you to the backs of its wrap-around sports seats.

The Roadster’s ever-ready acceleration is most outstanding when the car is already rolling and the accelerator pedal is stomped on, as in an overtaking situation.

That’s when it slings forward like a conventional supercharged V8 engine – without any of the fossil-fuelled thunder. You can hear a slight whine from the spinning electric motor, but that’s it.

It’s the sort of thrust that reminds us of the launch phase of a roller coaster at a theme park, but the pioneering Tesla’s standing-start acceleration is not quite as remarkable given the torque needed to overcome the weight of the vehicle and get it going, but it still feels very quick from any speed.

The lack of noise is good and bad. It allows for a peaceful, serene driving environment, with no engine noise, transmission whine or gearbox step changes to spoil the relative tranquillity it offers in stop-start traffic.

That peace can also be disconcerting for performance car fans like us, who when it comes to sportscars at this price are more accustomed to the fabulous noise of combusting fuel under the bonnet, rather than just mere tyre and wind noise.

Few people would put up with the compromises that come with owning a Ferrari unless it sounded so intoxicating. The Tesla’s near-silence also creates a problem in the city, with several careless pedestrians ignoring red signals and walking out in front of the Roadster we drove because they didn’t hear us coming.

Our test was brief, but long enough to know the Roadster handles quite well in sportscar terms – although it took us a while to adjust to the fact it’s not as light as the compact Lotus upon which it is based.

The steering is direct and gives good feedback, although it doesn’t have any power assistance, while the lack of electronic stability control (ESC) might be of concern to some people, even if the Roadster is not caught up in state and federal laws mandating ESC, as it is a low-volume model.

Our test car had a noticeable clunking noise at low speed when the throttle was opened then closed. It felt like there was slack somewhere in the drivetrain, mimicking a regular car with a driveline problem.

Tesla Motors technicians have since made an assessment, and advised that the noise was characteristic of on/off throttle inputs at low speed. Tesla insists this is no cause for concern.

A more serious problem would have required us to either drive the car home – or organise a tow truck through Tesla’s roadside assistance program – and then wait for an available service technician to head down the Hume Highway (guaranteed between 24 and 48 hours) to work on the vehicle.

Tesla national sales and marketing manager, Jay McCormack, said the company’s service infrastructure would be restricted to the Sydney operation to start with.

“What is very important for us is service infrastructure, so our first focus is in Sydney, where we have a dedicated service facility. Our NSW customers will obviously benefit first hand,” he said.

Mr McCormack said that having an electric motor instead of a fossil-fuel powerplant, as well as reduced wear and tear on the brakes, meant the Tesla required less attention. Tesla says the Roadster requires annual servicing, but points out that much of the work is related to installing new software.

“With the limited service requirements of the car, our service technicians would attend an owner’s residence or business in another state,” he said.

Globally, Tesla has introduced more than 17 factory-owned dealerships – or stores, as it calls them – in 30 countries, but none are planned for Australia in the short term. Instead of buying a Roadster from a traditional dealer in Australia, Tesla customers will purchase online.

Tesla expects to only sell around two to three Roadsters a month in Australia. Interestingly, however, Mr McCormack says most customers here did not own a car before they purchased the Roadster.

2011 Tesla Roadster EV pricing:
Standard $222,995
Sport $260,535
*NSW drive-away prices

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