EV, electric vehicle, is starting to enter our mainstream vocabulary. Although the technology has been around for over 100 years it is only now that faced with the ‘end of the world as we know it’ do we see fit to revive the technology and harness its full potential. Ironically, yet fittingly, at the forefront of this revival are individuals and not the conglomerates, and as individuals we can make a difference and force the hand in trying to clean up our act as well as those of the world’s car manufacturers.
Enter Elon Musk, a Gen-X over-achiever with that special gene that cares about and is genuinely interested in the world we live in. Early on in his career he identified 3 areas that he thought needed problem solving, the Internet, clean energy, and space. What later happened you can find out on his Wikipedia page but get ready to be blown away! Musk is not yet 40 and is worth over 300 million dollars, all made by his obsession to address the above 3 issues – the one we are interested in is of course his company Tesla Motors and their new 2010-11 model Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5.
Tesla’s goal is to advance the electric vehicle revolution by building the most efficient and fun to drive cars.
Picking up the test car at Tesla’s Knightsbridge showroom is a different experience already. Tesla has decided to create a friendly atmosphere in their showrooms with wireless internet access, espresso bars, snacks and a lounge feel which is what we were greeted with. In fact the ambience is more a cross between car garage and coffee lounge, which is perfect for people to hang about and learn about EV technology while secretly glancing at the sexy cars on offer on the showroom floor. Tesla’s jargon about the car and ideology sways between product and automotive and for good reason. Their electric roadster operates like an electric appliance (albeit super sophisticated and fast!) and feels like a real sports car. All the body panels are made from carbon-fibre that can be order painted in any colour. The one we were about to drive came in a the two-tone version of glow green with clear carbon-fibre roof and accents.
Gurgle gurgle gurgle…what is that sound?
Inspecting the boot area a little fountain sound catches my attention, as well as noticing that there is enough space to store one golf bag but more importantly for us camera equipment and charger. The car is not on; nothing is on, so where is the noise coming from? It is the overflow from the coolant that keeps the 6,831 lithium-ion battery cells cooled at all times. Packed into a stylish box with a discreet white plastic cap the batteries get cooled whether the car is on or off for safety and performance, if the ambient temperature is slightly warm it turns on automatically. Tesla’s ‘most energy dense pack in the industry’ stores 54 kWh of energy and powers the cars for over 200 miles of driving…bye bye range anxiety.
Next to that lies the Power Electronics Module, PEM, that connects the motor to the battery pack and contains the onboard charger. It basically translates and directs energy to where it is needed for acceleration and torque or to where it needs to be stored. It converts the electricity from the source that is AC into DC voltage to be stored and then back to AC voltage when the motor needs juice, achieving a blinding 0-60 in 3.7 seconds. The charger within the PEM allows the car to be recharged virtually anywhere in the world from a grid between AC 90V and 256V and only needs a top-up every now and then as the energy does not drain.
Enough technical jargon, you can always get more details on their very well presented website. We want in and out on the road…but new technology means new rules. Key goes in pretty standard and on the UK version you have an anti-theft alarm you have to deactivate before the motor starts. Deactivated. No noise. Is it on? Yep, you just have to accelerate. But before I do I need a place for my phones and I quickly find one on the right hand side of the steering wheel. For those interested there is also a little attachment where you can recharge your iPhone in the centre console just above the hand brake. Left to my own devices I adjust mirrors, seat (only front and back), and prepare for take off. Yeah, its like flying a plane, the noise is akin to a plane taking off, specially if you do it with speed.
Once I am around Belgravia I get a little free road and wing around Belgrave Square Gardens like a madwoman…and it holds, in fact it doesn’t give. Unlike the combustion engine where torque is distributed and negotiated in the digital world of the Roadster Sport everything is precise, you don’t have to give or take anything, it just is…perfect. Tesla’s sensors accurately predict how much traction control you need before you can even adjust your acceleration; you just have to hold on tight. And the feedback is magnificent, so much fun, because there is no engine noise all you hear is a whizzing electric sound and the gravitas of the road.
If you thought you had driven everything, think again!
The model we tested was the latest 2.5 version, Tesla’s fourth generation, which does not refer so much to major exterior design changes as much as it does to software developments and upgrades; model changes happen in batches produced. When production started the vehicle was heavily based on the Lotus Elise, but Tesla estimates that the percentage of original Lotus engineering still carried over is about 5 %. The chassis is very important as it provides the car with safety measures that has allowed the Roadster to pass crash and stress tests both in Europe and US. But unfortunately it eats up the interior space and makes it difficult for passengers taller than 6 foot to enter and exit the vehicle.
Looking at the exterior of our green specimen it was easy to appreciate the simplicity in design from the moulded headlights that flow to the rear touch of a tail to the signature product design looking rear end. Visual speed icons such as the wide low grill in the front and grand air vents characterise the car, and give it that Tesla. The new spoiler in the front rounds off the face nicely in contrast to the previous 2.0 version, making it feel less like a gaping whole and more integrated into the body. There is an overall feeling that the front and rear have finally been balanced out and a more proportionate stance achieved. New wheel design fitted with Brembo brakes puts the finishing touches on this sporty delight. Despite its petite footprint she still carves out some nice shapes!
The interior is small, the foot well is narrow but aren’t most sports cars? In terms of design the interior is more of an exercise of fitting existing off-the-shelf parts in a harmonious manner rather than a design revolution. The R&D money has been spent in developing the technology that makes this beauty affordable only to a niche in the auto market. However, it’s comfortable for me, I am 5 foot 7. Heating on the very cold day that we tested the car worked quickly as did the two levels of seat heaters. All the electrics were pretty standard except for the quirky console where lettered back-lit buttons show you what gear you are in (this same layout was featured on the Tesla Rav4 shown at LA Motor Show). Warning! There is no power steering, it caught me by surprise, so reversing can involve muscles you had forgotten about. The trick is to give it a little current and immediately you can park easily with the help of a reverse camera built into the ALPINE entertainment system.
At night the luminosity can be adjusted creating a very colourful display of lights in an otherwise minimalist interior. There is one funny detail that I must mention…the size of buttons, be it the button to open the boot or the buttons for the seat warmers, or even the tiny button to disarm the vehicle…they are all small…whilst the gear buttons are quite large in contrast. This quirky design choice admittedly added charm to the all-new experience of driving a Tesla.
There is a method to Musk’s madness. By establishing Tesla as a performance driven company with credible, tangible, and powerful machines, such as the Roadster Sport, they can win the EV battle, convincing consumers that electric powered vehicles can perform. From here Tesla can continue to expand its fleet with the forthcoming Tesla Sedan S and supply other companies, such as their stakeholders Mercedes and Toyota, with their technological know-how to further the EV movement and make a mint of money in the process. There has been trouble getting here, no-doubt, but once the sceptics get over their hang-ups they can get in line because Tesla was here first.
If you ever get the chance to drive one of these paradigm shifters be prepared to be noticed. Not only was our car brilliant green in colour but it looked different as well, perfectly it looked ‘eco-green’. Other drivers will let you pass just to get a look at the car, and don’t be surprised if you are tempted into a drag race at the traffic lights if a Porsche Carrera 4S sneaks up next to you. They might be under the illusion that they can win, but trust me, he didn't!