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November 30, 2009 - Autos

Robert Eckaus
Tesla Roadster Sport - Driving Impression

If you like your head getting snapped back with turbine-like smoothness while removing your dependency on fossil fuels, the new Tesla Roadster Sport is your sports car. This higher horsepower Sport version of the Tesla Roadster, new for 2010, is even quicker. Skipping the '09 model year, the 2010 Roadster model has multiple improvements vs. the first generation, including the Sport model. I'll refer to the '08 and '10 as T1 and T2, pun intended.

The Roadster Sport is a $19,500 option over the standard $109,000 Roadster. Adding 40hp, a total of 288hp, the 2,690lb car is very quick. Tesla reports a 0-60mph time of 3.7 seconds which is entirely believable. Considering the power delivery from a dead stop and rear-biased weight distribution, owners can expect this with regularity as traction is excellent.

The "Very Orange" model I drove also had the $9,000 Clear Carbon Fiber Accent Group which made for a very sporty appearance. This paint would be perfectly at home on a Lamborghini. The carbon fiber on the rear spoiler, hood vent and roof cross piece were nice accents complimenting the black finished forged alloy wheels.

The drive selection lever from the T1 is has been replaced with lighted buttons; park, reverse, neutral, and drive. At low speed, the first thing noticed is the silent and smooth drive-off, much like a golf-cart. Turn the steering wheel at low speed and you immediately notice the unassisted effort. A larger steering wheel would probably work if the extra leverage could be felt.

Eerily quiet at first, punch the accelerator (no longer the gas pedal!) the response is immediate. This is truly a point-and-shoot type of car. There is no build-up of acceleration, no downshifting, no lag, no hesitation, nothing. It's like always being in 1st gear. The 3.7 second 0-60mph is so easy and even turning off the traction control, I couldn't get the aggressive Yokohama A048s to break loose on dry pavement. Believe me, I tried. A brake torque doesn't do anything either.

Like the Lotus, the steering wheel wiggles over bumps but smooths out at speed. However, when the speedometer hits triple digits, it loosens up again. But this car isn't about high speed cruising. The motor whine is noticeable and a little loud but what I found more disturbing was the excessive wind noise around the A-pillars and removable soft-top. I'm told the hardtop reduces the noise considerably.

I've seen a Tesla T1 crack off a 12.9 1/4 mile run at 103-105mph. The T2 Sport is quicker but probably won't pick up any mph. I say this because acceleration noticably falls off after 75mph due to the nature of the engine and powerband. An owner has ran a 12.643 ET, but at only 102.89mph. See the slideshow for a horsepower and torque graph.

To put it in perspective, a Ford "Terminator" Cobra with bolt-on modifications and stock pulley caught up from a 2 car length deficit at low speed and streamrolled past me once it hit 3rd gear. This car rocks up to legal speeds though. To be honest, that's all most people really need on public roads.

The ride is very compliant and quite comfortable. The body roll is minimal and despite the weight distribution, this one was tuned to predictable understeer. The Sport model includes 10 level shock adjustments, 3 position anti-roll bars and a remote shock fluid reservoir. It has very high cornering limits, the non-Sport model recording .90 and .92 on the skidpad so despite nice seats, better side bolstering is needed.

Braking is quite good and I would be curious as to how the Sport model compares in an instrumented test with it's softer, more aggressive tires. The brake lights activate automatically because the car will decelerate at a rate to activate energy regeneration when off the throttle. Apply the brake pedal for a quicker stop or modulate the accelerator. Again, like driving a car that is permanently in a lower gear.

Getting in, despite a .5 " narrower sill, cover, now carbon fiber, is still quite difficult for a 6-footer. Literally climbing out is hardly easier. A side-by-side comparison would be needed with the Lotus Elise, but I seem to remember it being a little easier. Remember, the Tesla has major structural revisions to cope with the battery weight (you can read my review of the Lotus Elise here) and keep in mind that it's based on a very small car. My left calf rested against a support structure on the left side and the lower center console on the right.

When my pretty navigator, who is used to large sedans, first saw the car she asked, "Where is the rest of it?" And then during the walk-around said, "Oh honey, it's so cute!". But that isn't so bad because when you really like your passenger, sitting shoulder and hands on thighs is kinda nice.

The view of the ventilation controls was partially obstructed by the dashboard ledge under the radio. One advantage though is the immediate response of the heater - you don't have to wait for engine coolant to warm up since an electric heater starts producing heat immediately.

Having driven about 60 miles with a lot of full-throttle bursts and 75mph cruising, despite the limitations of a very small car design with weight concessions such as soundproofing and wind noise, Tesla has done an admirable job modifying an existing platform and developing a powertrain that is undoubtedly functional, fun, and reliable for everyday transportation. As of the writing of this article, Tesla Co-founder Elon Musk's '08 Roadster has over 13,000 miles on it.

Keep in mind no gas station fill-ups, no oil changes, no engine warm-up, minimal maintenance (no spark plugs, belts, air filter, pcv valve, etc.), electric vehicles are here to stay. This one is groundbreaking and may be the most fun EV for a long time.

Stay tuned for a future article on Tesla and the improvements made for the 2010 model year.

Instrumented tests with spec sheets: Car & Driver and Road & Track

Keywords: Tesla, Roadster, Sport, Very, Orange, Carbon, Fiber, Mustang, Cobra, Lotus, Elise, Elon, Musk
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