Flying cars don’t yet exist. And even if they did, their owners would be subjected to environmental guilt trips on a level currently reserved for people who hunt endangered Bengal tigers from moving Hummers. We live in an era when many purchases—cars, light bulbs, fish filets, cleaning products—are viewed as geopolitical decisions, so it’s not exactly seemly to drive powerful, jet-like vehicles for fun. Thankfully, Tesla Motors makes a guilt-free jet-like vehicle.
Based in Silicon Valley, Tesla Motors was founded in 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning and is currently led by Paypal inventor Elon Musk. It’s the only company in the world that creates 100-percent electric cars. Consisting of 6,831 fused laptop battery cells, the Tesla Roadster is the company’s electric sports car. Although it has an unassailable techie pedigree, there is nothing nerdy about the Roadster. It is the only electric sports car that exists, and this makes it something of an indomitable chick magnet: a beautiful, unique, environmentally-conscious vehicle with an engine that has a world-class ability to make blood flow to its passengers’ nether regions.
Driving the 2010 Roadster Sport through Manhattan, the car receives a number of stares, more than a few of them from the sort of lovely, high-heeled boot-wearing, purse-lipped, New York fashionistas who appear habitually unimpressed. Turning these particular heads is no small feat, and the Roadster does it not only because it’s easy on the eyes—it has a Lotus Elise chassis and looks very similar to the Elise—but because it’s fully electric and sightings of it are rare.
Like many sports cars, the Roadster is very low to the ground, with a tight suspension. The Sport has 10 suspension settings; the standard Roadster has a non-adjustable suspension. Driving the Sport on a middle suspension setting would work well on an open highway, but can be a little unforgiving on the many variations of urban concrete. The Roadster also has rather tight steering at low speeds because it’s built with extremely accurate manual steering. The manual steering becomes useful at higher speeds and when accelerating, but gives one a sense of having driven a racecar off the track and onto roads too slow for it when turning at city stop lights.
That said, the Roadster’s agility and quick acceleration and deceleration make it great for darting around taxis and other assorted city traffic. The Roadster goes from zero to 60 in just under four seconds. (The Sport model does this two-tenths of a second faster.) In addition to having a very responsive braking system, the Roadster doesn’t coast. It has regenerative braking, so if you take your foot off the “gas,” the car will quickly slow to a stop because it’s trying to capture some of the kinetic energy you’ve already generated. This lack of coasting doesn’t take long to get used to and can be helpful when skirting traffic on city streets.
But it’s on the highway that Roadster really shines. Its rocket-like acceleration is a revelation. The Roadster has one gear. Some drivers may become nostalgic for the feel of transmission shifts, but the Roadster’s acceleration should destroy these worries. And on the highway, the manual steering begins to feel like a good idea. The Roadster can go up to 160 miles per hour and sustain speeds of up to 120 miles per hour.
For an average-sized male, the interior of the Roadster is surprisingly comfortable. A larger-framed person may be mildly uncomfortable when stepping up and out of the vehicle. Women in short skirts notoriously have similar problems exiting low-seated cars without exposing themselves. Although the Roadster was given a lower door sill than the Elise to make entering the car easier, Tesla thankfully has not solved the short skirt/low-seat conundrum.
Despite its good looks and performance, what might be most noticeable about the Roadster is not what you see or hear but what you don’t hear. Because it has no combustion engine, it’s extremely quiet. This silence combined with the quick single-gear acceleration makes one feel as if he’s driving something from a science-fiction film.
If the steep price tag ($128,500) scares you or you find driving a two-seater impractical, Tesla has something else in mind. The sleekly designed, four-door Model S sedan is scheduled for delivery in late 2011 and will sell for a relatively affordable $57,400 ($49,900 if you include a $7,500 tax rebate in the price). The Model S is expected to go 300 miles without a charge and accelerate from zero to 60 in six seconds.
The biggest question surrounding the Model S and its success may be how well Tesla makes the shift from personalized boutique-like service to large-scale manufacturing and sales. If you purchase a Roadster, technicians will come to your home to install a charging unit. A mechanic will also come to your home for repairs. Or, if the job must be done off-site, the car will be picked up in a trailer fit for transporting a NASCAR vehicle. Tesla cannot offer this level of service for the Model S, but the technology involved is so new that exceptionally elegant engineering will be required to help drivers solve minor problems on their own. Presumably they will get a little help from one of the dealerships Tesla plans to open to give the public access to the Model S.
Oregon native David Dames lives in Long Beach, New York, and has more education than he knows what to do with. He also writes restaurant reviews for Examiner.com.