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Is the Tesla Roadster a short-lived novelty or the future of performance motoring?

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“Most electric cars were designed by and for people who fundamentally don’t think we should drive,” says Martin Eberhard, one of Tesla’s founders. Tesla set out in 2003 to change that with the Roadster.

It took until 2006 before the Roadster was unveiled. Production started in earnest in 2008, with 10 production cars reaching California by the middle of last year, and 150 by the end of the year. The Roadster is the first Tesla, but it won’t be the last; more models arrived in the shape of the Model S and Model X.

The Tesla Roadster is fascinating, totally relevant and revolutionary

Ever since carriages dispensed with horses there have been electric cars, but for much of the past century they’ve been relegated to niche vehicles, performing at low speeds over short distances. Even supposedly radical recent ones do little else.

The Tesla Roadster aims to change that. It’s not just an electric car; it’s an electric sports car, and a very expensive one at that. It is Tesla’s attempt to glamorise electric motoring and, as we’ll discover, it’s fascinating, totally relevant and revolutionary.

Buyers can choose between the standard car and the Roadster Sport, which gets lightweight alloy wheels, more performance-oriented Yokohama tyres, 10-way adjustable Ohlins dampers, adjustable anti-roll bars, and a more powerful electric motor.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Tesla Roadster charging point

If something about the Tesla Roadster looks familiar, there’s a clue on the business cards of Tesla’s UK employees, which read: Potash Lane, Hethel. Not coincidentally, it’s the home of Lotus. Beneath the pretty body of the Tesla Roadster lies the chassis layout of a Lotus Elise

Note layout, not the actual chassis. The Lotus Elise’s passenger tub, famously, is a bonded and riveted extruded aluminium monocoque, flexible enough (in the design rather than physical sense) to accommodate different powertrains, configurations and set-ups and be built in different styles. As a basis for a low-volume electric car, it was the obvious choice. 

Most of the Tesla's bodywork is constructed from carbonfibre to save weight

There’s no space under the nose for luggage — just cooling fans (electric motors need to be cooled too) and something that looks like it could give you a very interesting hairstyle if you touched it.

Halogen headlamps are standard. They’re perfectly adequate for a car of this type; the lights draw a couple of amps. Exposed LED rear lights look distinctive at night, but during daylight they appear rather conventional for what is an entirely unconventional car.

Behind what looks like a conventional fuel filler cap nestles the Roadster’s charging point. When connected it glows white, then pulses orange if it’s being recharged. The pulses come quickly if it’s nearly out of juice and more slowly once it’s approaching full charge.

The exquisitely finished roll bar is not the only carbonfibre to feature on the Roadster; all of the bodywork apart from the bumpers is constructed from the material to save weight.

Alloy wheels come as standard — 16s at the front, 17s at the rear. Although there is no choice of style, you can opt for chrome or black.

Signature Edition Roadsters get a body-coloured hard-top as standard, with the alternative of the classic Lotus soft-top, which, with a bit of practice, is easy enough to remove/fit in a hurry.

INTERIOR

Tesla Roadster dashboard

The Tesla Roadster shares the dashboard, steering wheel, windscreen and canvas roof with the Lotus Elise, and while it’s slightly easier to get in and out, the rest of the cabin looks pretty similar, too.

They even use the same switches, although the Tesla’s are arranged neatly on a floor-mounted console. Here you’ll find switches for heating and ventilation systems, while to the outside of the driver is the powertrain control system. 

You engage the Roadster in the same way as a regular Lotus: key in, turn on

The dials sit on the dash top, beneath which are the two most important readouts in the car: remaining battery life and current power use. The latter is a meter that swings right and left depending on whether you’re draining or charging the batteries.

The steering wheel is the same as an Elise’s; the instruments are similar, too. Cruise control switches sit on the end of one of the column stalks. You engage the Roadster in the same way as a regular Lotus: key in, turn on. The aftermarket stereo’s reception is as typically useless as an Elise’s.

The powertrain management screen will be relocated to the middle of the centre console after the Roadster’s restyle. Minor switchgear and materials will also change.

The gearlever and handbrake are all pretty conventional. Reverse just spins the motor backwards.The heater, air conditioning and battery-sapping heated seats are controlled from here. The traction control button won’t be used much.

The Sport model came with lashings of attractive carbonfibre trim, more leather than the standard car, and a more expensive-looking button-style gear selector.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Tesla Roadster rear quarter

The way the Tesla Roadster delivers its performance runs contrary to a conventionally powered sports car. Mechanical sympathy would normally prevent us from pushing a car hard from cold, yet this is exactly what the Tesla demands, delivering optimum performance with a cold motor but warm batteries. Which means hitting the throttle immediately after a full recharge.

Then there’s the way the motor delivers its power and torque. The Tesla produces its full torque the instant it starts spinning. It does not have a completely flat torque curve; torque stays constant until 6000rpm, nearly halfway through the rev range, before starting to fall away linearly. The power, by comparison, builds gradually to an 8000rpm peak before tailing off. 

The Tesla demolishes each 10mph increment up to 40mph in less than eight-tenths of a second

The effect of all the Tesla's instant torque is off-line acceleration that’s exhilarating, but strangely undramatic.

Release the brake and the Tesla creeps forward like a conventional automatic, but hold its brakes while building some driveline tension and when you release the brakes the Tesla simply goes. Even on a damp surface with the traction control disabled it wouldn’t break traction. The nature of the drivetrain means power is introduced so smoothly that there is no jolt to unstick the tyres.

It’s properly fast, too. Even the standard Tesla demolishes each 10mph increment up to 40mph in less than eight-tenths of a second, the delivery is exceptionally linear and, with no gearchanges to punctuate the acceleration, you’re left to marvel at the forces acting on your internal organs. Although we were unable to match Tesla’s claimed 0-60mph figure of 3.9sec (our best, in the cold and two up, was 5.0sec), the Roadster’s eerily smooth, fuss-free performance still impressed us. Tesla claims a 0-60mph figure of 3.7sec for the Sport.

Brake pedal feel is accurate enough for road driving, but for track work it could be more precise. The stopping distances, even considering a damp track, are on the long side, too.

RIDE & HANDLING

Tesla Roadster rear cornering

Compared with the radical power delivery, there are fewer novelties with the Tesla Roadster’s ride and handling. In short, it behaves very much like an Lotus Elise carrying an additional 385kg.

While it is fair to say this certainly doesn’t benefit the magic Lotus blend of suppleness and agility, the end result is not the disaster you might expect. The Tesla will still canter around any given bend at considerable pace, with outright grip levels not far short of that produced by an Lotus Elise, and its behaviour is reasonably docile for a mid-engined car.

The Tesla demands a different, more measured driving style to that of the Elise

Where the Tesla struggles is through sudden direction changes, where the transferring weight is all too obvious. The additional mass is also evident through the steering, which is markedly heavier than in any Lotus product, and not just when parking.

As a consequence, the Tesla, while still brisk cross-country, demands a different, more measured driving style to that of the Elise. Where the Lotus can be worked through a corner, fluidly balancing grip with power, the Tesla benefits from a ‘slow in, fast out’ approach. Try too hard and it feels like you’re fighting the Tesla Roadster

Weight also takes its toll on the Roadster’s ride, which, although not uncomfortable, has none of the suppleness of its Lotus relatives.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Tesla Roadster 2008-2012

Look at this purely objectively and it’s here where things begin to get tricky for the Tesla Roadster. It is slower than the Lotus Elise SC, heavier, has a shorter range, takes longer to refuel, is vastly more expensive… you get the idea.

But we’ve said it before and it’s bears repeating: the Tesla Roadster is a classic early adopter’s car. If we all waited until prices fell on new electronic equipment (which, like consoles, phones and computers, it certainly will), they’d never fall.

The Tesla Roadster is a classic early adopter’s car

Tesla claims the range is up to 220 miles (on an American EPA combined highway/city cycle) but, as with combined fuel consumption figures, don’t expect to match it.

The range depends on how you drive it – although with the Tesla there are modes you can select while recharging and driving that can substitute range for power, and vice versa, improving the Tesla's flexibility.

Over a steady but not slow touring route of motorway and A-road, we managed more than 150 miles on a single charge. At the test track we drained the Tesla in 75 miles. Typically you’d see around 130 miles on a single charge with a mix of leisurely and spirited driving. Limiting, but far from poor considering the performance.

The batteries have an effective life of five years/100,000 miles, beyond which their performance will tail off. At the moment replacement cost is high, but by the time large numbers need replacing it’s likely to have reduced or a next-gen pack may be available.

Besides, the actual running costs (apart from buying new batteries) should prove very low. It costs pennies to charge, there are fewer moving parts than in an internally combusted engine and, because it has no tailpipe emissions, its road tax is free and it’s exempt from the congestion charge.

VERDICT

4 star Tesla Roadster

Is the Tesla Roadster the future of performance motoring? Not quite.

But Tesla knows the Roadster’s limitations. It’s a vehicle for technology and ideas as much as a vehicle in its own right. And it is a landmark: when we’ve all but forgotten about electric Smarts and G-Wizs, we’ll remember the Tesla - a car with supercar acceleration, motorway ability and the capacity to take you 150 miles in a hop. It handles and is a fine convertible, too.

The good news is that electric motoring can still be immensely enjoyable

Not that the Tesla is without significant drawbacks - namely its price, battery life, range and downtime (and all the other inadequacies associated with the Lotus Elise’s build and packaging).

If you have the sort of money to indulge in this kind of car, chances are you'll dig deeper and opt for the Sport model. Because if you’re the kind of early adopter who likes to indulge your whims, you might as well have the best of what's on offer.

And, rest assured, more improvements will come; the first electric cars looked shabbily inefficient next to a horse that could walk miles on a bag of hay. Batteries need improving, but the electric drivetrain is here to stay. The good news is that motoring with it can still be immensely enjoyable.

Tesla Roadster 2008-2012 First drives