The following review is a continuation in our series (that goes back to the beginning of the site itself) of looking at some of the more interesting cars in the broader automotive landscape. A huge thanks to Tesla Chicago for not only giving us time with the Roadster Sport but pretty much carte blanche for the time we had it. If you’re in Chicago be sure to check them out. If you’re not you can find an entire list of Tesla Stores worldwide here.
It was the smell. More specifically, the smell of melting rubber that caught my attention. So like you will do, I began to slow and was on alert. And there it was, around a blind corner — a tanker truck that had just locked up the rear to avoid an unexpected traffic tie-up. It was an accident waiting to happen and I smelled it.
The Tesla does many incredible things. But none more than amazing what it doesn’t do. perhaps More specifically, what it doesn’t make you live with. There’s no smell of fossil fuel burning. No sound (except a subtle Jetson’s like woosh on take-off) No pings, no vibrations and nothing to ever worry about other than the road ahead and the remaining range in the batteries. People talk about range anxiety, but consider that a tradeoff for all the other typical driving concerns a Tesla lacks.
All you end up with is the purity of speed and the feel of air and movement around you. It’s a magical thing that defies what we expect in a car. The experience is liberating because you take away the noise and rattle of an engine, transmission and exhaust from the equation. You end up focusing on the things that matter in any situation. On the road, on the track, stuck in stop and go traffic. The sound of silence allows you to see and hear a world that had always been masked by the modern car.
And it’s the track where this profound difference changes things the most. The sound of wind and your tires dominate the experience. In fact the whoosh of the wind is the only thing that gets in the way of me understanding exactly what the car is doing at each corner. Entirely blissful.
In our first review of the Tesla Roadster Sport I talked about the similarities and differences between the MINI E and Tesla’s approach to the electric vehicle. This review is meant to move past that and report what it’s like to live with a Tesla (and 100% electric car). The charging, the commuting and even how it is on the track.
But let me back up a bit. A few weeks ago I got a call from my friends at Tesla Chicago asking if I wanted to test a brand new Tesla 2.5 Roadster Sport for the weekend. Around the same time I got an email from my friends at the Autobahn Country Club (just outside of Chicago) to see if I wanted to come out for a tour and some track-time. The lightbulb snapped on and next thing I know I’m behind the wheel of a 2011 Roadster S heading towards Joliet and Autobahn.
Some of you may remember our review of the first Tesla Roadster Sport earlier this year. We said it was like driving the future. If that’s the case the Roadster 2.5 Sport is like driving a more fashionable and refined version of the future. The 2.5 features a revised front and rear facia along with new wheels. Inside there’s an optional Alpine navigation system standard and revised seats meant for more comfort on longer journeys. But seat snobs need not worry – these are still the same aggressive looking Recaros that most mass produced cars could only dream of.
The $19,500 Sport package has the same positives as it did in the previous iteration of the Roadster. Under the hood features a hand-wound electric motor that produces 23 lb-ft (totaling 295 lb-ft) more than the standard Tesla. In addition to the extra power the Sport comes standard with lighter forged black or silver wheels and an adjustable suspension.
Of course none of this changes the core DNA of the world’s first electric sports car (some would argue supercar is a better term). The 3.7 seconds to 0-60 remains. As does the Lotus derived chassis and handling. The battery count hasn’t change either with the same 6831 battery cells nestled where the Elise would have an engine as it in the standard Roadster. So it’s more speed, better looks without any less efficiency.
In either form the Tesla Roadster has an incredible (best case) range of around 240 miles. But the downside is an extra 739 lbs of weight that you feel the second you enter a corner. Located as centrally and as low as possible Tesla does an admirable job of masking that weight gain but the manual steering can’t quite hide the extra effort required to maneuver the car at low speeds.
Tesla Roadster Sport at the Track
All this is swirling in my head as I enter the grounds of the Autobahn Country. After topping off at the track’s 220 volt power outlet and answering a barrage of questions from club members and track-day junkies, I grab a helmet and line-up for a few laps.
Now at this point it’s worth noting that I expect to only go out for a couple of laps to be on the safe side. I’ve never driven an electric car in anger much less on a four mile road course. And the Tesla is fast enough to easily get yourself in trouble so I was in the most conservative of moods you could imagine.
And with that I was off in a noiseless whoosh into the first corner. Within two corners I had caught the Z3 M Coupe that was ahead of me. The acceleration off the corners and down the straights was nothing short of phenomenal. Braking was adequate but nothing that gave me supreme confidence (not that I was planning on late braking on my first lap.
Going into the back portion of the four-mile track, I start to stretch the Tesla’s legs a bit and begin feeling the effect of the battery weight. The suspension has clearly been tuned for more comfort than the Elise. And the 739 lbs of batteries give the car more roll than you’d expect. But the Yokohama ultra high performance tires holds on admirably as the weight, the speed and the side-to-side motion all fight for control. In fact the car never feels anything less than predictable and completely transparent in every motion.
Turn in is good but not has quick as an Elise or even as an M3. The rack clearly has been made slower to better manage the dirtiness of the Elise and make the Tesla more approachable by the ordinary socially responsible millionaire.
Traction control on the Tesla is one of the most brilliant bits about the drivetrain. it doesn’t cut power as you lose traction but merely adjusts power output. It’s a seamless way for the car to maintain grip and control and it makes all other system seem nothing less than archaic.
Through all my time on the track there was nothing but the whoosh of air and the sound of the tires working their magic. Driving a Telsa on the track is like listening to the Beatles’ White Album and being able to turn down all the tracks until you just get George Harrison’s lead guitar. The lack of peripheral noise allows you to focus on the tires, chassis and ultimate grip around corners. In my case it also gave me a chance to hear that Ferrari F430 and Porsche GT3 coming up fast from behind (yes the Tesla is fast, but not that fast).
What you lose in the Tesla’s electric powerplant is the ability to ring out the last ounce of the power at the top of the RPM range and the ultimate top speed that goes along with it (125 mph is all you get with the Roadster). Don’t get my wrong, it’s immensely fast. But just up to a point. The good thing with that point is that it’s almost never reached on public roads.
All too soon it was over and I headed back into the pits. As I exited the track and entered the pits I noticed a Power Reduced warning light had just turned on. A quick scan of the manual indicated that the car had gone into some sort of limp mode. I didn’t notice a change in power but as I was heading back (to the 220v outlet I got to know well during my stay at Autobahn) it didn’t real matter.
Living with the Tesla Roadster Sport
Do not assume you can buy Tesla and live a life of anonymity. Your car will be noticed by two kinds of people. First there are the uninitiated who just think it’s “just” an impressive looking sports car. This is usually followed by a positive or negative reaction depending on where you live. The second (and more interesting) response comes from those who know what you’re really driving. In place of all the normal questions they ask you about charging, how the motor functions and if they’re really laptop batteries in there. Inevitably the conversation focuses on what it’s like to live with a Tesla.
They want to understand how this technology changes the life we’ve all known for as long as any of us has been alive. It’s a great question and one that points towards the radical nature of what the Tesla actually is.
All these questions are interesting because people look at you not just as a sports car owner but a sport car owner with eclectic and socially responsible tastes.
But once the conversations are over, you still have to get from point A to B from. And in this day in age a certain amount of comfort is expected. First first iteration of the Roadster was known for un-American sized seats that some found less than accommodating. That now is fixed with a slightly wider Recaro that offers great support for a variety of sizes.
Storage space inside the cabin is limited to two oddly shaped compartments under the air vents on both sides of the car. Unless you’re planning on storing playing cards they are pretty much useless. And even for that a stab at the go pedal is all it takes to send them flying into your or your passenger’s lap. Otherwise if you need a place for sunglasses I suggest your face. If you need space for a latte, I suggest a careful wedge between the bolsters of the driver and passenger seat. And if you need room for anything else I don’t suggest a passenger.
All that said I did manage to pack a rather large carry-on suitcase and a computer back in the trunk. No I didn’t leave the Tesla at the airport.
Aggressive brake regeneration is one thing that MINI E drivers have learned to live with and one thing that shocked me on my test drive earlier this year. And it’s one area the Tesla excels. The Tesla learns how you drive and adjusts the level of regeneration accordingly. It’s a subtle difference but one that makes the Tesla feel much more sorted and more like a normal car.
Our Roadster Sport came very well equipped with almost everything available from the factory:
The Tesla Roadster retails for – $109,000. After the $7500 Federal Tax Credit that drops to $101,500. All told our loaded Roadster Sport test car rung in at $154,595 and included the following options:
- Fusion Red – $0.00
- Roadster Sport Package – $19,500 (Forged Wheels, Higher Torque Motor, Adjustable Suspension)
- Paint Armor – $1,495
- Carbon Fiber Accents – $8,000
- Solar Guard Windshield – $400
- Executive Leather and Carbon Fiber Seats – $11,700
- Infotainment Group – $4500
Yes it’s pricey. But remember you’re getting a Carbon Fiber bodied electric super-car that out-performs almost anything (up to 125 mph) on the road.
Charging (and Charging and Charging)
I can sum this up quickly; 120v is bad and 220v is good. However here’s the interesting thing. Even with 110v as the only power source in my garage (yes that’s the common power outlet set-up) I was able to commute into Chicago and back (about 25 miles in total) and keep the levels almost topped off every night. Granted a 220v (what washer and dryers use) is a mandatory if you own a Tesla, you can operate on 110v in a pinch. For the record it takes around 32 hours to charge on 110v. 220v takes only 3.5 hours.
The Tesla uses Lithium Ion batteries like the MINI E and the forthcoming BMW ActiveE. However similarities end when talk turns to power and range. Both the ActiveE and MINI E get around 100 miles on a charge where the Tesla gets around 185 in real word driving (245 is technically possible).
Some of that is due to the engine at the heart of the Tesla. The other is due to the weight. At 3,900 lbs the BMW Active E weighs in 1,200 pounds more than the Tesla. Even the MINI E is 600 lbs more at 3,300 lbs.
Charge time is similar with a 220v charging both BMW and MINI electric cars in around the same 4 hour time it takes to charge the Tesla.
When plugging in the Tesla the plug begins to pulsate orange. At that point cooling fans turned on in the front of the car to the point that you could hear it from 30 feet away. The fans are designed to cool the circulating coolant that trickles around the car keeping the batteries from overheating as they charge.
Then once done the Tesla can actually tell you cost of the electricity it used to charge the car. Typically an overnight top-off using 110v cost around $1.20. Not bad for an open top sports car with a 3.7 zero-sixty time.
The Executive Summary
The base Tesla is $121,000 of electric sports car goodness. As equipped our test car was $154,595. Yes there is never a proper justification for a car that expensive. But then again this isn’t a car as we known it. Yes the body is entirely carbon fiber. And yes it has super car like stats. But the Tesla represents the future much more than an ordinary super car. It also represents a company and a few bold people who have said they want to do it differently and better than it’s been done before. They wanted to create something truly new and in doing so, change the world we know. The surprising thing is that they’ve managed to do it while keeping the thrill of driving alive and well. And with the Roadster 2.5 that thrill has gotten even better.
Special thanks goes out to Ron at Autobahn Country Club who helped coordinate this test and allowed me complete access to literally everything at the track. For those who would like to know more Autobahn, check out their site. Individual and corporate memberships are available (and are less than you might think) and the track hosts many events and races throughout the year. If you have a chance to ever make it out for any of them, definitely do so.