TESLA TEST DRIVE: Silence is golden

BY Matt Nauman. Apr 17 01:00 am

By Matt Nauman

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- What defines a sports car? Until recently, it was design, performance and sound -- the deep, throaty rumble of a Corvette's V-8, for example, or the machined purr of a Porsche 911 Turbo.

Then came the electric and electrifying Tesla Roadster. A half-day spent thrashing a Tesla on the curvy ribbons of road above Palo Alto and Woodside, Calif., was enough to convince me that silence is golden.

And breathtaking. And scary.

The Roadster, in production since mid-2008 and now equipped with a re-engineered transmission, makes a strong statement about the future of driving.

Here's a car that can go very, very fast -- 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds with a top speed electronically limited at 125 mph (201 km/h) -- yet all of its power comes from electricity. For a starting price of US$109,000 -- the one I tested was about US$122,000 with options and delivery charge -- you can get a two-seat machine that you can drive nearly 400 km bet ween charges.

Starting from Tesla's Menlo Park showroom, which ironically used to be a Chevrolet dealership, I headed for the hills. Sand Hill Road is nearby, a neat juxtaposition as some venture capitalists were early backers of Tesla. The Roadster, painted a shade called electric blue that might be found on a Prada handbag, oozes athletic elegance, not AIG bonus excess.

Then it was heading to mountain roads. In all, I spent more than three hours behind the wheel, logging about 160 km.

When I handed the keys back at the dealership, the range estimator said it had enough juice left for about 128 more km. But I'm guessing the kind of aggressive driving that the Tesla encourages might have led to a small reduction in range.

Using a 220-volt charger that most owners have installed at their homes, it takes about four hours to fully charge Tesla's battery pack. Owners get a small extension cord for quick "fill ups," although it would take about 36 hours to charge from empty to full using a standard household 110-volt outlet.

Built on the chassis of the Lotus Elise, the Tesla Roadster is a small, low-to-the-ground ride. Its rounded front end features hood louvers and jewel-like lights under a large covering. The rear is similarly subtle, with an unobtrusive spoiler and three round lights on each side. Neither the Tesla logo on the hood nor the TESLA in block letters on the trunk lid scream for attention.

Getting inside the Tesla's cabin required a bit of acrobatic skill that I'm surely missing. Think Steve Wozniak on Dancing With the Stars. You step down and into the driver's seat, while sliding under the steering wheel. Getting out is easier, but not much.

Once inside, though, I found a comfortable seating position that fit with the sporty nature of the car. Our tester had microfibre seats and on this sunny afternoon, they were a better choice than the standard leather chairs that can make for a hot ride.

The interior design reflects a car that's functional, rather than overly luxurious. Four round air vents. Two gauges easily seen through the three-spoke, leather-wrapped Momo steering wheel. The JVC stereo/navigation system had good sound, but an aftermarket feel with its tiny buttons. I switched it off, and concentrated on the driving experience.

Between driver and passenger, knobs control temperature and air flow. With the Roadster's top down on this sunny afternoon, I ignored these functions as well. The shifter is remarkably simple -- up for reverse, the middle notch for neutral and down for drive.

Spend some time on the Tesla's informative www.teslamotors.com site, and the simplicity of electric driving is revealed. While an internal-combustion engine might have 100 moving parts, the Tesla's powertrain has one, its rotor.

Indeed, four components move this machine. The battery pack contains 6,831 lithium-ion cells, which I'm sure are happier here than running some spreadsheet on a laptop. The 52-kg motor is designed to be efficient, making sure 85 to 95 per cent of the car's power goes to moving its wheels. The transmission, which was an early bugaboo for Tesla, is now finalized as a single-speed gearbox. Finally, the power electronics module is the big brain in the trunk, managing acceleration, torque, regenerative braking and charging.

For a driver, it all works seamlessly. Put key in ignition, check your mirrors, stomp on what used to be called the gas pedal and drive. There's no clutch pedal, nor any feeling of changing gears. Torque is outlandish, and instantaneous.

Instead of a roaring V-8, you hear mostly road noise -- air rushing around you, tires on pavement, an occasional "wow" or "whee" from your passenger. Indeed, the high-pitch whine from the electric powerplant reminds some of a washing machine on a full spin cycle.

To me, it's a pleasant reminder of driving a car without a gas tank, without a tailpipe, without a need to be smog checked.

Handling was precise and the ride was tight, as you'd expect from a six-figure sports car. I'm not sure the brakes were as muscular as on some other cars in its class.

I was the first newspaper reporter to drive a Tesla back in 2006 when it was a novelty, an electric car that wasn't ready for prime time. Back in a finished version, I quickly appreciated the advancements, including working gauges, door handles and a sound system.

But my first impression didn't change. Fast? Check. Good looking? Check. Silent? Check. An afternoon drive? I'll take it.

-- San Jose Mercury News

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