When you hear the term electric car, what pops into your head? You probably think of some bland compact with styling that resembles a mailbox, a drivetrain that is silent but certainly not inspiring, and a driver with a full complement of reusable grocery bags and a worn Greenpeace sticker on the rear bumper.
This stereotype has arisen because the electric cars we’ve seen so far (with the possible exception of GM’s ill-fated EV1) have been well intentioned, but crude in execution, with bodies better left ignored, and less-than-stirring performance. Another sad fact was that most electrics were nothing more than vehicles with their gasoline engines yanked out and an electric motor dropped in for propulsion. Even worse, battery packs were huge and heavy, range was so limited as to make them impractical, and charging times were obnoxiously long. Given these flaws, it’s not hard to see why they weren’t exactly popular.
When Tesla Motors was created in 2003, the founders decided to address the shortcomings of electric vehicles in a very cool way: by building a true supersport automobile that would have blistering performance and a decent range between charges, with the ultimate goal of proving a zero-emissions vehicle could be delicious to gaze upon and wicked-fun to drive. The result was a performance ride like no other, or, as the company likes to put it, “A Tesla can be charged with electricity created from 100 percent renewable energy—no other sports car can say the same.”
In 2008, the first units were delivered, and these unique Roadsters were (and still are) expensive because they incorporated the best available technology, including lighter, state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries and a sophisticated motor that uses regenerative braking to charge the batteries when the car is coasting or braking. The body comes from Lotus as a glider (no power train), and features monocoque construction with an extruded aluminum subframe and carbon-fiber body panels. Tesla then adds its wonderfully potent electric motor system, which drives the rear wheels with a single-speed transmission. Reverse is supersimple: The motor simply reverses direction. With impressive torque available instantly and 60 mph arriving in less than four seconds, thrust is the Roadster’s middle name. The fun can continue for a range of nearly 250 miles, and then, just plug in this seductive car for approximately six hours or less, depending on voltage (four hours with a special high-speed charger).
This is socially responsible entertainment, for the Tesla makes cutting down on oil use and being gentle on the environment completely painless. Impressive suspension compliance and control, along with excellent brakes and advanced safety features, put the Tesla on par with any other car in the performance class. That said, it easily trumps the competition in terms of the unique sound of the electric motor (and the fact that you’ll only need to stop at a gas station for snacks or personal maintenance).
Tesla Motors has had its share of challenges, such as lawsuits between early partners and some recalls, but the company has weathered it all; now, with more than 1,000 Roadsters zooming cleanly across the tarmac all over the world, the company is accelerating into much greater market presence. The new Roadster 2.5 adds additional refinement and features, including a more potent Sport model with adjustable suspension and enhancements for better response in extreme heat and cold. A more practical (and less expensive) “S” sedan is set to launch in 2012, and both a successful stock offering and a new alliance with Toyota (Tesla will build the drivetrain for an electric RAV4) proves the company with the earthfriendly automotive engineering is no fluke. Better yet, thanks to such crisp performance and alluring styling, zero emissions no longer means zero sex appeal. Oh, and full disclosure: I say no emissions, but these things have been known to smoke the rear tires on occasion. It’s all part of being a mean, green eco-machine.
|Body style||Two-door roadster|
|Engine||375-volt AC induction, air-cooled electric motor|
|Torque||Roadster: 273 foot-pounds; Sport: 295 foot-pounds|
|Transmission||Single-speed fixed gear|
|Front tires||175/55 R16|
|Rear tires||225/45 R17|
|Curb weight||2,723 pounds|
|0–60||Roadster: .9 seconds; Sport: 3.7 seconds|
|Top speed||125 mph|
|Fuel capacity||Lithium-ion battery pack, 245-mile range|
|Fuel economy||No fuel used|
|Price (as tested)||Roadster: $109,000;
Sport: $128,500 (both before $7,500