Tesla Roadster 2.5 Test Drive

September 19, 2010

The Story

I’ve been keeping an eye on Tesla and their two cars: the Roadster (currently in production) and the Model S (deliveries start in 2012). The idea of an all-electric car that looks great, is fun to drive, and is practical is really exciting to me. If you want to read my thoughts on the test drive I had this past Wednesday, keep … well … reading!

My Background

I’m a 35-year-old technical professional — hence this blog. I’ve been into technology all my life. From childhood where I had the Radio Shack all-in-one kits where I built circuits from scratch, to electrocuting myself on household 120V electricity with my crazy science experiments, I’ve lived and breathed this stuff for so long that it’s first-nature to me. I find it fun and fascinating, and have no trouble experimenting or trying different things. That’s how I learn.

I also love acceleration — I’m sort of a “G-Force Junkie.” Even more exciting to me is the smooth acceleration of a jet (unlike feeling the explosions behind the piston of a 4- or 6-cylinder car).

I’m 5’3″ tall — and the reason for sharing this will become evident as you read on.

One final thing you should know, I’ve never owned, let alone driven, a sports car like the Roadster. There are aspects of a sports car which I will probably write about as if I’m expecting this to be a useful sedan. It’s my explicit intent to point these things out anyway in case any readers are like me and wondering about how practical the car is.

Cars and Me

I get the new car itch every 2-3 years. I’ve pretty much always had a car loan. Even more unfortunate (for my wallet), each car “must” be at least as fast, if not faster, than the last.

I dislike traditional automatic transmissions. I’ve generally not driven super-fancy automatics (e.g. dual-clutch), but I’m sure I’d still hate it unless my daily commute was 30 miles of stop-and-go traffic. There was one exception to this: The Nissan Murano which had the CVT transmission. This was pretty cool because it was very smooth and not jarring at all. However, there’s still plenty of lag between flooring the accelerator and getting power to the wheels as the CVT adjusted. I really hate that lag.

As you can infer, I’d rather drive a vehicle with a manual transmission. This means I have much more control over things, and I don’t have to deal with the effects of the torque converter slipping and not providing me direct and immediate input from the engine. However, it does mean a few things:

  1. Pulling out into traffic when fully stopped in first gear requires some skill and is not a relaxing procedure
  2. Transitioning from acceleration to deceleration (engine braking) is a jarring experience, especially if tooling around in traffic in first or second gears
  3. Your left leg can get really fatigued dealing with the clutch in traffic

The reasons for mentioning the items above, even though I prefer a manual transmission, will become evident as you read on.

I currently own a 2007 Subaru WRX STi (limited edition), modified to what’s known as “stage 2.” Stock, this car is a lightweight 4-cylinder turbo-charged 300-HP/300 ft-lb all-wheel-drive rocket. A skilled driver should be able to 0-60 in less than 5 seconds. At “stage 2,” which includes an upgraded exhaust and flashing a new “program” into the car’s computer, it’s more like 350-HP/370 ft-lb. Unfortunately, this upgrade made the car considerably louder — much more than I wanted. It’s still fun to drive, and you can easily pass cars on the highway in 6th gear. It also has a top speed of 160 MPH (I’ve never come close to this. I refuse to go that fast on a public road and haven’t taken it to the track). It also has plenty of “turbo lag” — which means two things: 1) I need the engine to be above 3,000 RPM if I want the performance and 2) there’s a pretty big delay between flooring it and getting full power. I’ve managed to live with that for 4 years now. And I’ve somehow managed to keep the car for this long (remember how I have the new car itch every 2-3 years?)

As I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve been keeping my eye on Tesla for some time now. I’d convinced myself I’d hold on to my STi until the Model S was ready. However, their “normal” models (not the Signature Series) probably won’t deliver until 2013. And I just couldn’t hold out any longer. I pretty much decided to live my life and go for the ridiculously-expensive Roadster (base price: $109,000). I’ll just sell my left kidney first. Or maybe my left leg. Or an arm.

The Car

Before I begin, you should know that I’m not going to go deep into the history of the car, it’s various revisions, the plethora of features and options, etc. There’s plenty of that to be found all over the ‘net. Start with Tesla’s specs area and browse/search the forums that I frequent.

I work for Intuit QuickBase (a highly customizable online database) in their Boston-area office. A few weeks ago, I visited corporate headquarters in California. I had no idea that I’d selected a hotel literally down the street from the Menlo Park Tesla showroom & final assembly plant. As I drove around to check out the area I was staying, I saw the Tesla building and was compelled to stop by. I’d not seen a Roadster in person yet. Long story short, I got to chat a bit with the sales associate there and sit in the car. I was in such a state of shock that I didn’t even think to ask for a test drive. Woops. At this point, I assumed I’d have to visit the NYC store for a test drive. Little did I know, they have a Boston rep who would drive a Tesla Roadster to me for a test drive! That’s what I arranged for this past Wednesday.

The model that I drove was the Sport version with a few amenities, including the electronics package that includes a better sound system and an Alpine double-DIN touchscreen head unit with most (all?) of the options providing features like bluetooth, iPod integration, and GPS/Nav. I personally won’t be getting the Sport version, but will be sticking with the better forged wheels (rotational mass is bad) and the electronics package (I really don’t feel like having someone install a head-unit or speakers of my choice into a really expensive car that I’m not even sure is designed to be taken apart and upgraded). The default soft-top was installed.

I’m sure the head unit (and all the options like bluetooth and iPod integration) and the speakers aren’t the best I can get for $4,500, but it’s surely the best-sounding system I’ve ever had in a car! I had a song queued up on my iPhone before the test drive which had plenty of bass to it so I could make sure I cranked it. I couldn’t get the volume over 15% without blowing an eardrum. There was plenty of bass, and that bass didn’t cause any rattling that I could discern. I was happy.

The car comes standard with heated seats. They worked quite well as I drove at 80 MPH on the highway. They don’t cycle on and off like almost every other car I’ve driven so my butt wasn’t going from cold to hot to cold. Again, I was happy.

Being that the car is electric, the heat and A/C are electric — which should mean instant heat and A/C without leaving an engine running. The controls are very basic and a little awkward but they do the trick. The heat came on slowly but surely (much slower than I expected, but still very reasonable). The A/C I couldn’t particularly test because it was 65 degrees outside. I turned it on anyway to get a sense of it. I could definitely hear it turn on (which is fine — it wasn’t loud). And to cool off the condenser, an electric fan soon turned on, which was louder than I expected and had a minor high-speed vibration to it. Nothing that truly concerned me, however.

When I first sat in the car in Menlo park, I took note of the glove compartment (true to the meaning of the phrase — you can fit a pair of gloves in it and not much else) and the trunk space. Sure, there’s very little storage space in the car, and I’m fine with that. I’m single and have no children, and I don’t put much in my car. After driving it around for an hour and spending another 30 minutes talking to the sales associate, I came to discover plenty of other nooks and crannies to put things in. There are a couple of small cubby-holes on the driver’s side and passenger’s side dash. There’s a spot underneath the “gear selector”, there’s plenty of leg room (so without a passenger, plenty of space for stuff, and with a passenger, definitely places to stick things underneath or to the side of their legs), and there’s some room behind the seats — depending on how far back they are. The trunk was a little bigger than I remembered. Two medium-size golf bags can apparently fit in there. I’m not concerned about fitting my groceries in there. Oh, and there is a cup-holder. Very important. It slides out from the center console (next to the e-brake) towards the passenger area.

The button-selector for Park/Drive/Neutral/Reverse screams “hey, I’m not a normal gasoline-driven car!” — and I like it. Putting the car in park activates a locking pin in the gearbox which you can actually hear click into place when you press the button.

In addition to the (optional) touchscreen on the head unit, there’s a small touch screen at the bottom of the center console which can be used to control various aspects of the car itself (what time to start charging, estimated range left, current battery drain, current g-forces, etc). It’s a little hokey but it gets the job done.

The interior of the car generally looks good — depending on the options you get. I seem to remember the center console being flimsy when I was sitting in the car in Menlo Park, but didn’t get that sensation when I test drove it. Honestly you’re generally paying attention to driving an awesome car more than paying attention to the details of the interior.

The side rear-view mirrors are small (but not terribly so) and require manual adjustment (they’re not powered). I definitely felt like there were two blind spots behind me even when I turned to look in that general direction — probably due to this being a 2-seater. I’ll need to get used to that.

There’s a normal key that’s used to operate the car. It’s odd to have one for a car like this, and to have to insert it into the steering column and turn it like any other car — but the reasons for doing so (the car’s based on the Lotus Elise, and swapping out the steering column for something “cooler” wasn’t high on the priority list) make sense.

The door handle is actually a function of the door’s design. You squeeze the area to cause the latch to open and get in. Opening and shutting the door was a solid experience.

Getting in and out of the car, however, is not particularly normal. Again, this is all about a really low-to-the-ground sports car and nothing to do with an electric car in particular. It takes a little practice and figuring out what works for you, but I found it quite doable. I’m not exactly in shape and would probably find it much easier if I were. This is where my height comes in. At 5’3″, there’s plenty of room for me, it makes it easier to get in and out, and I don’t have visibility issues (e.g. seeing stop lights because my view is obstructed by the short windshield). Most people seem to take off the tiny sun visor for better visibility. I don’t have a problem seeing the instrument display through the (non-adjustable) steering wheel. Many others do.

The seats were comfortable. Your legs are stretch out in front of you instead of angling down. After an hour of driving, I didn’t feel any discomfort.

Placing and removing the soft-top is a snap. After you’ve done it a few times, it should take less than 60-90 seconds to complete. It rolls up and fits easily in the trunk. The sales associate mentioned he’s done it while stopped in traffic from the comfort of the driver’s seat.

The sport model that I test drove includes adjustable suspension. It was set to the middle for me to most approximate the non-sport version. Adjusting it requires jacking up the car so you can reach between the wheel and the wheel well to get to the suspension and rotate a collar on each of the 4 wheels. With the right equipment, this can be done in about 5 minutes.

The Drive

I drove with the top on and with the top off. I describe the experiences specific to those “modes” below this section.

Part of my commute includes a road with 5 large speed bumps, railroad tracks, roads with bridge joints, potholes, frost heaves (New England cold weather = roads needing constant repair), etc. I made sure to drive through these sorts of things to get a sense for whether the Roadster could be my “Daily Driver.” Indeed, it could. While the noise from hitting bumps is louder than my current car (which has a very tight sporty suspension), it handled well and actually took those 5 speed bumps better than the STi. I lost all concern with respect to ground clearance. On the other hand, I was amazed at how loud hitting a rough spot could be and how loud something getting thrown from the tire into the wheel well was. It was somewhat disturbing. The sales associate eased my concern noting how he’d driven over potholes that he thought for sure had ripped the wheel off due to the noise but everything was fine.

There is no power steering and the steering wheel is much smaller than a normal vehicle’s. It required a little more muscle, but it was far from too difficult. In fact, one of the cars I owned many years ago had no power steering, and I remember missing that feeling when I went to power steering because you can feel the road and your tires (and how much you’re taxing them). After the hour of test driving, the power steering in my STi felt too easy!

The control of the car’s acceleration and deceleration is breath-taking. All of the complaints I have about transmissions, shifting, response times, jerkiness, etc. are solved with this car. That’s unbelievably exciting to me. Before I continue, it’s important to know that regenerative braking in this car is accomplished simply by letting up on the accelerator and not by hitting the brakes. Just like acceleration, there’s an infinitely-variable range of regenerative deceleration based on the position of the throttle. The throttle mapping of the accelerator is perfect. It’s so smooth and natural. The transition from slight acceleration to slight deceleration is imperceptible (unlike any other car I’ve ever driven — especially a manual transmission). Transition from full acceleration to full regeneration is quick, but not jarring. I can’t say enough about how well this works.

Acceleration — well, this thing hauls! It’s even more fantastic for two reasons: the electric motor provides 100% torque at zero RPM (no waiting for the engine to rev to it’s sweet spot) and there’s no gear-shifting (to introduce delay). You don’t have to think about shifting at the right RPMs or worry about spinning out (see traction control next). Flooring it from zero is exactly the same as flooring it while cruising at 40. You’re instantly thrown back in your seat. During my test drive I was on the highway behind a semi cruising at ~55 MPH, waiting for a car in the lane to my left to pass me so I could floor it and swing over one lane. Like most people, my natural instinct was to floor it before the car had finished passing me — especially because I have a turbo that needs a little time to give me full power. Well, I followed my instincts and while I was checking to make sure all was clear, I nearly planted the car into the semi and had to swerve into the lane I was aiming for! Yikes!

The Roadster comes standard with traction control. It really needs to! I didn’t try this out myself but you can floor it while at a complete stop and you will spin the tires. Under hard acceleration while driving over some of the imperfections in the road, traction control needed to kick in. However, this is not your father’s traction control which nearly kills all acceleration because it’s a crude system that reduces the throttle to an engine and then increases it (which takes a lot of time). While I could detect it when it happened, it was very adept. I do look forward to occasionally turning it off when I receive mine, however 🙂 One other note about the traction control for those of us who have to deal with snow, I’ve read a fair amount of stories about how good it is in the winter because it’s so precise. In fact, these owners haven’t had any significant problems in the snow with the default all-season tires, even though this is a RWD vehicle.

It got dark about halfway through my test drive, so I got to experience the headlights which I’d read were underpowered. I’ll confirm that story. I had a very hard time approaching the onramp for the local highway because I couldn’t see where it was until I was on top of it. I also couldn’t see whether I was about to hit a pothole (which was a problem in the daylight as well because the car is so low to the ground). The high beams were adequate but I couldn’t use them in the situation I was in (oncoming traffic). I’ll need to do something about that.

Speaking of the low profile — it’s really low! As I was merging onto a local road from the offramp of a highway, I couldn’t see over the jersey barriers behind me to see whether I could merge into traffic. This requires placing the car in such a way that you can see the traffic using your side rear-view mirror instead. It was discomforting (I wasn’t properly positioned) but I’m sure I’d get used to it and figure out what to do in scenarios like those. Again, it also makes seeing what’s on the road in front of you very difficult. I’m used to paying attention to the road in front of me in case I should swerve out of the way of a pothole or a raised sewer structure on a road that’ s under construction. Again, I’m sure I’ll adapt.

After pulling over to take the soft top off, I noticed some fan noise from the trunk area — no doubt cooling the motor off. I didn’t notice it until I got out of the car, and it quieted down pretty quickly and incrementally. Didn’t concern me at all but it was an interesting observation.

What little braking I did (I used mostly regenerative) was fine. They’re Brembo’s (which I have now) and seemed plenty strong.

Soft Top On

With the soft top on, it was a reasonably quiet (although not as quiet as I’d hoped) ride until you reached ~45 MPH. At this point, you could hear wind whirling around in a couple areas where the soft top met the pillars of the car. It wasn’t enough to cause me great concern.

Granted, the car I was driving had the sport tires on, which are noisier than the default tires. I’ll be getting mine with the default tires and I’m told they’re a fair bit quieter.

Top Off

Tooling around with the top off is an amazing experience. I’ve never owned a convertible, but because this car is so quiet (no engine noise), it was a surreal experience to be moving around and yet still be able to hear everything around you. I really enjoyed this.

At this point, the temperature outside was 62 degrees (Fahrenheit). I put my sweater on and turned the heat and heated seat on and took it for a 30-minute 80-MPH ride on the highway. I was comfortable for the entire ride. The wind wasn’t intrusive. The noise was acceptable (I was holding a normal conversation with the sales associate). There was more wind noise with the windows rolled up. That was a great ride.

The buying process so far

I’ve been treated very well and attended to at all hours of the day, including the weekend. I’ve had a million questions, and they’re all getting answered. Those of you thinking that the process of buying a $120k car is only for people who don’t ask “how much?” are wrong. I’m being hand-held through the entire process including how much options cost, whether they’re worth it, what my buying and leasing options are, etc.

Misc

I would normally never spend more than $40k on a car. I’m not a millionaire who’s dropping $120k like it’s nothing. I’m financing 75% of the cost of the car (the max possible) and allocating my money to the car instead of savings or “being smart” — and by no means has this been a “rich people” experience. I’m spending this much money on the car for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because it’s so different than a normal car (in a really fun and exciting way).

One observation I had after test-driving the car is that I wasn’t scared to drive around in such an expensive car. All my previous purchases and test-drives have had their share of fear. I’m sure I’ll be afraid of parking this thing in the wrong area, at least for a while. But I’m not terrified of driving it around. Maybe it’s because I’m older now.

Several people have asked me about the safety of the car. All I can say is that there are videos and documents of the 5-star tests and the car did very well. The battery pack always remained unscathed. Should something go wrong or the car detects it’s flipped, the system disconnects the battery pack to reduce risk of electrocution (there’s ~400 volts DC in there!). However, the motor is directly below the battery pack so it’s not like there are high-voltage cables running everywhere which could cause issues during an extraction process.

I don’t currently have a garage for the car — which bothers me due to the weather here. I’m looking to move to a place with one, but my sales associate doesn’t have a garage and keeps his outside and plugged in (with the soft top — no hard top) and covered using the Tesla cover if it’s snowing. That made me feel a lot better. I still want a garage 🙂

I should have my car in the next 2-3 weeks if all goes well. I’ll keep writing about the car as I drive it, and I’ll be taking pictures and videos as well.

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