We may never know who or what killed the electric car. The real question now is whether PayPal founder Elon Musk can revive it.
Author Jonny Lieberman Photography DAVID DEWHURST / COURTESY OF TESLA MOTORS
I HONESTLY WASN’T OUT TO PLAY BOY RACER in someone else’s hundred-thousand-dollar car. But what was I supposed to do when I pulled up at a stoplight next to a BMW M5, with its snarling 507 horsepower V10, in a Tesla Roadster, the all- electric sports car I had on loan from a dealership? The race was on. But it quickly became more like a chase as the mighty Bavarian was bested by the fleet Tesla. With my opponent far behind me, I hit the regenerative brakes, which sound strangely similar to the Millennium Falcon exiting hyperdrive. I pulled over to give my now bloodless knuckles a rest, and so did the vanquished M5. The driver walked up, mouth agape, and exclaimed, “Wow!”
I couldn’t agree more.
The Tesla Roadster runs $109,000, and for that handsome sum you get a lightweight carbon-fiber body atop a slightly stretched, bonded and extruded aluminum chassis. Underneath sit 6,831 lithium ion batteries. Plug the car into a wall socket, wait a few hours and drive until it needs another charge 220 miles later. No gas, no spark plugs, no timing chains and no oil changes. Just one tom-tom-size, 375 volt electric motor hooked up to a one-speed Borg Warner transmission. Best of all, the Roadster can rocket its way to 60 mph faster (3.9 seconds) than the track weapon Porsche 911 GT3 (4.0 seconds).
And Porsche has been working on that for more than 45 years. This is Tesla’s first go at it.
As you can tell, I dig Tesla’s freshman effort, but it’s the Roadster’s successor that’ll soon have the rest of the world giddy for a test drive. At a relatively cheap $49,900 (after tax rebates), the seven-seat Model S sedan aims to be the Tesla your aunt will drive. And with a 17-inch internet-capable dashboard display and acceleration that will get you from zero to 60 in under six seconds, it will turn your uncle’s head too. But as with most revolutionary technology, there are hurdles to clear before the Model S is sitting in suburban driveways, mainly the hundreds of millions in government loans the company is after. As of press time, it’s anyone’s guess whether the money will actually come through.
Originally conceived by Silicon Valley all-star Martin Eberhard, the Roadster was supposed to be an electric sports car — built on the stretched chassis of a Lotus Elise — and nothing more. Trouble was, cofounder Elon Musk had more ambitious ideas. The Roadster couldn’t just be an electrified Elise, it had to be original, which meant more development money and a higher purchase price. This led to some nasty infighting and Eberhard’s eventual ouster.
The Model S, then, is Tesla’s design all the way. And if Musk has his way (he usually does), it will be the Tickle Me Elmo of Christmas 2011.
In another life, Musk, the billionaire founder of PayPal, could have been a Bond villain. Considering his other business involves attempting to build a private rocket ship, he still might be. At the unveiling of the Model S sedan, I sit down with the seemingly good- natured mogul and ask if he was a “car guy” before taking up the Tesla flag. “No, I’m more the engineering type,” he replies. “But I used to own a McLaren F1.” That’s like saying you’re lukewarm about modern art, never mind the Jackson Pollock above the fireplace.
When he’s not driving his Roadster, Musk whips around in a Porsche Turbo and likes that he can toss his kids in the back. But don’t think he’s going completely domestic; he says Tesla will always offer a sports car. In fact, he’d like to build a full range of electric Roadsters. “From a base model to a GT version,” he says.
The next generation Roadster will be “more unique, more flexible, offer more functionality” and “more avant garde, aggressive styling,” he promises. In the meantime, the Roadster’s getting an improved interior this summer, when Tesla will also launch the Roadster Sport. Buyers can expect a faster, more powerful car with liquid motor- cooling technology, assuring greater performance across a longer range.
The original Roadster is an athletic and elegant creature. Of particular note are slab-sides that give it a British roadster look — an essential attribute for any sports car. Despite sharing a chassis with the Elise, the roadster is almost buttoned down in the looks department, avoiding the insect-on-amphetamines appearance of its second cousin. Still, there’s enough swoop, scoops and rounded edges to convince those in the 12-to-15-year-old male demo to hang posters on their bedroom walls.
Inside’s more of a mixed bag. Sure you’ll find aluminum panels and beefy knobs, but where’s the feng shui? Nothing goes with anything else. It’s all just sorta… there. In fairness, the Roadster’s cockpit has the look and feel of most low-volume, hand built, first-generation high-end sports cars. Besides, they got the important stuff — steering wheel, racy leather seats — just right.
Punching the throttle, meanwhile, is a wondrous event. The brushless twin ceramic bearing motor sports not only a 14,000 rpm redline, but the inherent advantage of producing 100 percent of its torque at zero rpm, meaning you get full power the instant the light turns green. The acceleration can only be described as boundless, and the car is uncannily quiet. While the Tesla’s motor does whirl and whistle, it lacks the explosive rat-a-tat soundtrack found in other performance cars. Remember, the Roadster doesn’t have a tailpipe.
Back at Tesla’s West Hollywood store, I notice that the 11 Roadsters on hand have signs in the windows reading CUSTOMER CAR. DO NOT TOUCH. According to Tesla’s Southern California general manager, Jeremy Snyder, there’s a “six-month process from reservation until delivery.” Meaning they’re sold out through October — not bad given the auto industry’s current woes. Then again, there’s a mountain of difference between selling 500 tiny sports cars and 20,000 Model S sedans a year, as Tesla is planning.
At the moment, they’re taking reservations for the Model S at $5,000 a pop, and those willing to fork over $40,000 can get in line for the “Signature Edition” series, picking up one of the first 1,000 cars sold — that is, if the cars actually make it to market. For now the Model S concept remains, well, a concept. There are plenty of hairpin turns ahead for Tesla — and the entire U.S. auto sector — between now and the finish line.
Jonny Lieberman lives in Los Angeles, where he enjoys writing about cars and tending his vegetable garden.
Ford’s newest is a sporty alternative to electric
If you can’t afford a $109,000 cramped electric two-seater, yet you still want a car that’s way fun to drive and gets good mileage, try the new European-designed Ford Fiesta. Winner of the highly coveted 2009 Red Dot Design Award, the sub-$15,000 Fiesta comes complete with classy chrome trim and wraparound headlights. Its engine is so economical it’s almost green (expect mileage in the mid- to high 30s). Crucially, Fiesta owners wont be subjected to the “penalty box”: The snug interior is outfitted with high- end materials and controls, rather than the bargain bin pieces you typically find in this price range. Stylish, practical, economical and loaded with kick, the Fiesta is close as you can get to electric without getting shocked. — JL