Wealth Creator steps behind the wheel of the brand new Tesla Roadster supercar. By Duncan Ross
Test driving the world’s first production electric super car is one of those experiences that was not about to be wasted on Wealth Creator’s luddite editor, although I did allow him to come along for the ride! And, oh what a ride. This thing would put a horn on a jellyfish. No, really, I’m serious.
The Tesla borrows design lines off many of its traditional supercar peers and certainly wouldn’t look out of place in any movie star or internet billionaire’s driveway. It has air dams, curvacious lines and flaring in all the right places along with lots of carbon fibre. In fact, the car is made almost exclusively of carbon fibre. The design fits the car well inside and out. Only obvious things missing were foot bracing plates for driver and passenger and something to take the stupid grin off my passenger’s face.
The cockpit was well laid out with minimal gadgetry distracting the driver. A control screen tells you how far you can travel before needing to search for a power point and the transmission buttons are pretty self explanatory. Red for Park and Reverse and a big green ‘D’ for Drive. There is also a traction control button that was quickly turned off so as not to ruin the test drive.
The tachometer is replaced with a kilowatt meter - the harder you push the accelerator the more it moves into the ‘Using Power’ section, rated in kilowatts. Conversely, rolling down a hill, gliding to a stop or using the brakes the gauge moves into the green zone indicating the car is actually producing electricity through a regenerative engine braking system. All rather clever.
The power train is a 375 volt AC electric motor mounted into a single-speed gear box that drives the rear wheels. The motor is fed by around 6,800 lithium ion PC batteries. Tesla’s really clever bits are the electric motor, battery charging technology, the speed controller and the engine management system. In fact, these bits are so clever that Tesla has been contracted by mega brand Toyota to produce the power train for its electric RAV4 due for release in the US market later this year.
Unlike hybrid electric vehicles like the Toyota Prius, the Tesla is a dedicated electric vehicle, it does not have any alternate means of propulsion. If you run out of juice you are stranded. However the range is more than adequate for either a weekend jaunt or a commute with more than 350km in the battery pack. Driven carefully (but frankly why would you) some owners have reported ranges just over 500 km. Until such time as high-capacity charging stations become common, electric car owners will need to be opportunist grabbing a charge when they can. The Tesla can connect to both 3-phase power and the standard 10 amp home power socket. With a 3-phase connection the Tesla can be charged from flat in under four hours. Typically owners ‘top up’ by connection to a standard power point when they can. An increasing number of businesses ranging from the Rialto Hotel in Melbourne to supermarkets in Dural NSW now provide car parks reserved for electric cars with free power.
Tesla’s green credentials make the Toyota Prius look like a gas guzzling Yank tank from the ‘50s. Tesla claim the Roadster is twice as efficient as the Prius. It is also likely that the embodied energy equation (comparing how much energy went into actually making each car) is better being a substantially simpler car. Best of all the Tesla has zero carbon emissions (not surprising considering it’s not actually got an exhaust pipe) but if charged with green energy its total carbon footprint is zero. The cost to “fill the tank” I hear you ask? A modest $9.
Not without some commercial growing pains and with some government grants to help them along the way, Tesla have rewritten many of the rules on how cars are designed, powered, sold and serviced. More than a few lessons for Detroit there. About 75% of Tesla drivers buy their car online and most services are carried out at customer’s homes or work. Software updates and fault diagnosis can be carried out over the internet and because of the modular construction of the electronics and mechanics, workshop service is simplified. By comparison to petrol engines with hundreds of moving parts, the Tesla has just one.
One of the characteristic of electrics motors is that they have maximum torque at zero revolutions (215kW or 400Nm) to be precise. This means if you put your foot down hard you take off really really fast, potentially propelling your grinning editor’s wallet and sunglasses that were moments before resting comfortably on the dash into his chest. Unfortunately, the stupid grin got bigger.
While initially feeling more like a rally car stuck in low gear, after only 15 minutes you quickly got the hang of the Tesla. You’d expect it to drive well being that it was based on the DNA of a Lotus Elise, although insiders claim that because of the large number of modifications done to that design it would have been simpler to start with a clean sheet of paper.
Steering was Go-Kart like and pickup at all speeds was impressive, especially from a standing start where the specified performance is 0 – 97 km/h in 3.7 seconds. Tried that and believe it. Top speed is a non too shabby 212km/h. Didn’t get to 212 but gave it a good shot. Typical distance on a full charge is just below 400km, although with heavy driving that shortens up considerably – did that also.
What seems a little unusual about the Tesla, and electric cars generally, is that there is no engine noise. It looks and performs like a super car but there is no power cackle or appealing engine note. Just the sound of rubber on the road. Odd, but I expect you get use to it.
The Roadster is the first of a number of electric vehicles planned by Tesla, which listed on the Nasdaq in July 2010. Now capitalised at a few electrons under $2.5 billion with major shareholders Toyota and Panasonic – each contributing over $40 million to the Tesla coffers – the company appears well positioned to take a leading role in the electric car market.
Our demo Roadster was tricked up with most options including leather interior, carbon fibre wings and dash and industrial strength sex appeal. The price was a shade off $290,000, which sounds expensive at first blush but you get a lot of car and technology for that, not to mention a very, very small carbon footprint, which is important for the green vote.
Despite the price, around half a dozen Roadsters have already been sold in Australia. These owners join a growing list of over 1,500 owners internationally including Flea from the Chilli Peppers, George Clooney and the ‘Google guys’. Would I buy it? Yep, in a heart beat if I had a lazy $290,000 and somewhere else to live (the wife still doesn’t understand).