01
Apr
09

A Substantial Shock

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Arriving in SoHo from L.I. on time for an appointment in the prime hours of the morning is a task left to those with the calculative abilities on par with NASA techs charged with landing mars-bound probes.  I am clearly not one such.

From my subsequent encounter last week, I managed to arrange some actual behind the wheel time with the Tesla Roadster, an experience I approached with equal parts of skepticism, excitement, and worry. Skepticism comes naturally, but the excitement stemmed from the hope that the Roadster would be something exciting, and worry that it might not.

The Roadster does indeed look very lotus-like in the skin and the fact that it’s been developed on the Elise chassis is very apparent. The interior of both cars is nearly indistinguishable, save for Tesla branding and a touch screen interface by the driver’s side door that allows input into different car settings, monitor battery life, power output and so on. There is no power steering, and the electric boy’s toy is expectedly barren, except for a 3rd party stereo system which the roadster will feature as an option over the factory standard unit.

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Crawling in (Elise chassis, remember?), I situate myself and turn the key and hear nothing except a chime that lets me know the car is on, thus being the first indication that this will be an altogether different experience.

A 3-phase 4 pole electric motor sits behind the cabin, which is capable of producing energy equivalent to about 248 hp . It it surrounded by roughly 7,000 lithium ion cells which you’d need someone other than myself to explain to you, as my response, if pressed, would be a distant stare and a crayon drawing.

tesla-math

this is wikipedia's "explanation"

You’re said to get an average range of 300 miles on a full charge and the equivalent of 77 mpg, which doesn’t sound too bad I guess..

With the car now “on”, I put the car in reverse and roll steadily out the door, completely thrown by the absolute silence. Imputing power to a car that gives me no audible response gave me a surprising amount of concern; try pulling a three point turn in your car with earplugs and chances are, you’d feel a little anxious.

The puttering and roaring of pumping cylinders being absent is one of the concerns of the traditionalist as the engine noise and exhaust note are key parts in the symphony of driving. They need not worry as the car does indeed satisfy, albeit in it’s own way. Selecting drive, I stepped on the throttle and launched away to the science-fiction-y “whoooooooop” that increased pitch as I took off. The orchestra is still there, they’ve just replaced the horn section with Daft Punk.

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The Tesla Roadster will catch eyes, being as unique looking and controversial as it is, as well as startle those who are crossing the street that you have essentially snuck up on. it handles well enough on the city streets, having enough maneuverability to weave through traffic and more than enough heft to overtake. The car’s eco-mental attitude began to effect me shortly thereafter, as sitting so low and surrounded by downtown traffic, I was choked by the noxious exhaust fumes from those around me, thinking how gross it was and how my car didn’t do such things. I quickly snapped out of it.

Finally getting on to the FDR, I had the opportunity to see what this motor was capable of and laid the pedal down…. right into the sights of a cop’s radar gun. In situations like these, I try to casually slow down, maybe downshift, but in the obvious electro-car, this wasn’t possible. I braced myself for the inevitable, but it never came. I just rolled silently past the officer who exchanged a stare with me, and I was off.

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Not being able to downshift was a point I brought up up with my Tesla handler, who set me straight: When I first wrote about the Roadster, the plan was to expect a two gear transmission, to add to the handling characteristics of the car, to feel the low end torque and cruise efficiently on the higher ratio. Shortly thereafter, reports came in about the transmissions failing, that the initial set-up was flawed, and once they changed transmission manufacturers, they would be replaced. That apparently didn’t work either. The situation, however, seemed to resolve itself since in the meantime, the motor was developing further efficiency and the torque band was so high, they didn’t need a second gear at all. Now, to get the response of engine braking, the driver simply lifts his foot off the pedal.

The torque is there, by the way. Flooring it from a stop pushes your lunch to the far back corner, with seemingly little to stop it, even the brakes. I’m unsure if it was the regenerative brake system that caused this, but trying to stop at speed, I…had ..to stamp…the….pedal…haaard….for a while…..and I finally came to a halt, just in time.

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The front Louvers hide fans for AC and battery cooling

I became quite used to the Tesla rather quickly, and driving it felt very much like, well, driving. It didn’t feel too unusual or different, it felt like a car, and that’s good. The little nuances, like the jetsons “exhaust” note and motoring away like a golf cart in low speeds, make this driving experience unique but don’t remove you from the situation.

Satisfied with my time in the Roadster, I returned it and lingered around while mulling over what it’d be like to live with. Immediately, the $100,000 sticker price is difficult to ignore. Sure, there’s the cost of maintenance and gas that you don’t have to pay, but it’s a hefty sum to start at, regardless. Charge time, if wired directly into your house takes 3 hours (the addition to your electric bill is around $20 a month, so I guess you are still paying for gas in a way, just at a severely decent discount) which, for the Roadster, at least is acceptable.

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plus there are alot dumber looking electric cars out there...

Anyone who has a Tesla Roadster is in no way dependent on it. It’s a plaything, an addition to the toy collection. Think back to when you had an R/C car and that it took a while to charge, but if you left it overnight, you’d be good to go the next day and have your fun with it. If the battery gave out, it was fine, you just went home and did something else.

The newly announced Model S, however, is not a toy. It’s like your cell phone. You need it. It is essential to your life. if the battery runs out or, like someone I know, forgets to charge it, you’re screwed. The Roadster got the brunt end of the stick when it came out, and I for one wasn’t above taking a few swings in the bashing. Having now spent actual time with the Roadster, I think many of my concerns were genuine, like battery life, efficiency, and so on, but they’re not the Roadster’s to answer. When Shelby squeezes 2mpg extra out of their engine, no one bats an eye, so who really cares what range the Tesla gets if you thrash it? Chances are, you’re not going shopping or taking the kids to lacrosse practice.

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The time will come when the Model S will be pressed with these issues, but right now the Tesla Roadster, with all it’s controversy and quirks, is still car, and a fun one to boot. Is it “the future” and all that noise? I don’t know, and if there’s some petrol Armageddon down the line, it won’t be due to the Tesla Roadster, so gearheads enjoy without fear or shame.

Mind you, I was very happy to climb back into my massive, many geared, many cylindered, noisy, polluting beast.

Hey, I’m open minded, but I’m still me.

-Alex K-

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1 Response to “A Substantial Shock”


  1. April 8, 2009 at 2:06 AM

    Reading this, I felt like I was right there, sitting next to you, bracing nervously, making more noise than the car as we cruised by the cops.

    And thanks for the link shout-out. I promise if you get me a Roadster one day, I’ll charge it. And if you get me a Lotus Exige, I’ll make extra sure to charge my phone and keep it on at all times.

    Now check out my blog =)


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