Tesla the unexpected

Over the past couple of years electric and hybrid cars seem to have moved further into the mainstream but it doesn’t seem as though many of us are actually buying them. In 2011, almost two million new cars were registered in the UK but only 1,082 of these were electric. Part of the problem is that people are put off by the limited range of electric vehicles, even if many of us only occasionally take journeys of a hundred miles or more.

The other issue is that manufacturers have been focusing their attention on developing more efficient petrol and diesel engines and moving into hybrid technology rather than developing compelling electric alternatives. There are a handful of electric cars available for the environmentally-aware consumer but nothing that is designed to appeal to someone looking for an exciting and dynamically accomplished electric car.

That’s likely to change later this year with the launch of the all-electric Tesla Model S saloon. It is a competitively-priced, technology-laden luxury car with good looks and strong performance credentials. The fact that it is a purely electric car means that the batteries – the heaviest components – can be built into the chassis. This delivers a very low centre of gravity and superb weight distribution. Electric motors can also be designed to be small enough to fit between the driven wheels, so there is no loss of power. This car could transform perceptions towards zero emissions motoring.

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Tesla has been undoing stereotypes since it launched the Roadster in 2008, demonstrating that electric vehicles needn’t be frumpy and boring but could be fast and exciting. For the first time there was an electric car designed to appeal to the performance-minded motoring enthusiast. People were drawn to its looks and its straight-line performance and were also encouraged by Lotus’ involvement in developing the chassis. Only around 6 per cent of its components are actually shared with the Lotus Elise but potential customers approved of the tie-in with one of the most revered sports cars of recent times.

In fact the Roadster has been little more than a marketing exercise for Tesla, a way of showing what the technology is capable of. Only 2,500 Roadsters will have been produced when production comes to an end later this year, with around 200 of these still to find homes. By contrast, Tesla is expecting to build between 20,000 and 40,000 units of the new Model S saloon each year. This is the first step to making the technology more accessible, with prices expected to begin at around £50,000 as opposed to more than £85,000 for the Roadster.

It won’t stop with the Model S. The company plans to build on the new platform over the coming years with SUV and GT derivatives a strong possibility. More certain are plans for the Generation 3 – or Bluestar – a car that will rival the BMW 3-series and Audi A4 and bring Tesla further into the mainstream.

There is no plan to develop a city car at the moment. Strategic partnerships are already in place and this means that Tesla technology will be used by the likes of Toyota and Daimler, the latter using it in the upcoming Smart ForTwo Electric Drive. This ensures that Tesla’s influence goes beyond its own models.

Tesla isn’t embarrassed about its ambitions, and company boss Elon Musk has already stated that the Model S will outperform all of its competitors. Until that car comes to the UK in late 2012 the Tesla Roadster is the only real option for any petrolhead looking to make the switch to an electric performance car. But at more than £85,000 is it good enough to entice you away from your Porsche or Aston Martin to grab one of the remaining cars?

As strange as it is to have a sports car approaching you in complete silence, my first impressions of the Tesla Roadster are positive, even if the Lightning Green paint wouldn’t be my first choice. You don’t see many of them around and that rarity value will appeal to some buyers. It is a striking car and very much its own design. Once you’ve squeezed yourself between the roof and the large door sill and down into the sculpted, leather-trimmed seats, you find yourself in a smart and functional cabin. It’s what you would expect in any modern sports car, but look closer and you’ll spot some differences. Where you would normally see a gearstick there are simply four buttons – P, R, N and D. Simply turn the key, put your foot on the brake, press the D button and you’re ready to go.

It’s hard to know what to expect as you lift your foot off the brake but the car creeps forward slowly and without drama, much as it would if you were driving any modern automatic. Give the throttle pedal a prod and things get interesting. The electric engine gives you instant power, meaning that you have all 400Nm of torque and 288 horsepower available from standstill. In this Roadster 2.5 Sport, the latest version of the car, that equates to 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds and a top speed of around 120mph.

It certainly feels that fast. Whenever you find a bit of space the car shoots forward and continues to accelerate until you run out of road. It is a different sensation from driving a manual sports car, in which there is a pause every time you change gear, but it is quite similar to some of today’s dual-clutch supercars which also build speed relentlessly.

It is not completely silent from the driver’s seat even if it appears to be from the outside. There is a little road and wind noise once you get moving but most prominent is the jet-like whirring sound that comes from the engine behind you. It is particularly evident when you are travelling at speed. It might not be as intoxicating as the sound of a V8 or V12 petrol engine but there is a certain appeal once you come to associate it with the significant performance of the car, particularly if you are impressed with its zero emissions credentials.

Lack of engine noise and eerily effortless acceleration aside, the Roadster handles as a sports car should do; it changes direction sharply and feels taut and responsive. It also feels remarkably analogue. Its unassisted steering is heavy at low speeds and requires a little bit of muscle when on the move but it is sharp and positive and certainly adds to this Tesla’s credentials as a driver’s car.

Body control is also impressive. The car feels incredibly stiff yet pulls off the trick of not being too firm over the bumps and broken surfaces that characterise the average British road, even if it doesn’t feel quite as pliant as something like a Lotus Evora. It’s a car that inspires confidence from the outset and allows you to throw it into corners knowing that it won’t bite. The regenerative braking system means that the car slows as soon as you lift your foot of the throttle pedal, forcing you to recalibrate required braking distances. This is one thing that might take a little getting used to.

The Tesla Roadster is a remarkable car and an intriguing ownership proposition, particularly when you consider how efficient it is from a wear-and-tear perspective (one German owner has apparently clocked up 130,000kms in the course of just one year of ownership!).

I’m told that many owners use their cars for their daily commute and little else, but the Roadster is clearly much more at home on the open road. The claimed 211 miles per charge seems more than sufficient for most journeys and the growing network of High Power Wall Connector outlets across the UK and Europe means that a well-planned road trip isn’t out of the question. And these vehicles are hugely efficient in maintenance as well as energy terms.

An electric motor can go for up to 800,000 miles without needing any attention, there is no clutch to replace, and regenerative braking means that the brakes last three to four times longer than in a petrol or diesel-powered car. With a fixed-price service of £500 per year – which Tesla will do on your driveway – the Roadster begins to look good value for a rare, high-tech, carbon fibre car that can hit 60mph in under four seconds. It also has zero emissions.

The biggest compliment that I can pay the Tesla Roadster is that I wanted to take it home, and if the Model S is as good as Mr Musk would have us believe, then electric motoring is about to take another big step forwards this year.

Alex Christou is a freelance writer based in London. Follow his motoring adventures at www.irresponsiblecitizen.com