The dead-sexy Tesla delivers on its promise

Times Staff Writer

ALL right, no beating around the high-voltage bush: What is the Tesla Roadster, the dead-sexy, six-figure, all-electric sports car prototype like to drive?

It’s hard to be definitive, since the company could only allow me a 45-minute romp around Marina del Rey earlier this week and also because the prototype I drove has been loved half to death since the car was unveiled at the Santa Monica Airport in July.

The first gear of the two-speed Xtrac gearbox was closed for business, bits and pieces of the interior were worn, and the car’s maroon carbon-fiber body panels had to be retouched recently -- I suspect because of all the suction mounts of all the cameras of all the news crews that have made the magi-like pilgrimage to Silicon Valley to adore this revolutionary machine. Simply put, the Tesla Roadster -- which will be on display at the L.A. Auto Show -- has been a media sensation. Among its honors, the Roadster was named one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2006 in the transportation category.

But I can tell you, even from my brief spin in this dog-eared prototype, the Tesla Roadster delivers on its promise, which might be summarized as “stupid fun for smart people.” I think the Latin translation of same should appear on the company crest.


It takes a slight leg hoist and wriggle to get into the car and strap yourself into the thin carbon shell of a seat -- a holdover from the Lotus Elise on which the car is based. The seat will change in the production car since its narrow width doesn’t exactly accommodate “American butts,” according Mike Harrigan, Tesla vice president of marketing.

The cabin is tight and narrow, with driver and passenger as shoulder-to-shoulder as striking Teamsters. But the view over the hood is good and the sightlines from the rear mirrors are adequate. I turn the key. The instrument indicators wink, the bar-graph display by my left knee scales up and there’s a gentle clunk in the rear of the car, somewhere in the neighborhood of its climate-controlled 50 kilowatt-hour battery pack and the 248-hp electric motor.

I slot the gearshift into the aluminum shift gate and pull away from the curb, as smooth as Astaire’s exit, stage left. Because the car is based on the capering sport-sprite Elise (and assembled at the Lotus factory in Hethel, England), the initial sensation, sans engine noise, is that of being towed off-track after an engine failure. The impression fades, replaced by the weird feeling of sports-car agility and thrust, only with severe hearing loss. You never appreciate how much sound plays a part in performance driving gestalt until you drive in the Tesla. The only aural clues are the rising and falling whine and the variable insistence of the wind’s buffeting. I suppose you could download a soundtrack of popping and gargling Lake pipes to play loudly on the stereo.

Once the transmission is warmed up a bit (by the way, Tesla will use a dual-clutch gearbox instead of the Xtrac-supplied unit, which has proved balky), I nail the throttle. It’s not the violent, near-breakaway acceleration of a Porsche 911 or Ferrari F430. It is, instead, an instant, fluid, irresistible surge that doesn’t hesitate for mechanical housekeeping like gear changes. The oft-quoted number of 0-60 in 4 seconds is impressive but unfairly limited, since the real heart-flutters begin after that. The motor torque (about 205 pound-feet) stays constant until about 6,000 rpm then gradually falls off until about 13,500 rpm, which is dentist-drill territory.

I only dared a few short bursts up to 85 mph before having to choke off the electrons, but clearly, this car will sling itself up to three-digit territory like a ride at Six Flags Over Hell.

It’s over too soon.

When last we met the Tesla Roadster, it was in July, at a Santa Monica Airport hangar, where Tesla Chief Executive Martin Eberhard and Chairman Elon Musk, the deep pockets, threw a party to unveil the prototype -- and pre-sell the first 100 cars for $100,000 a crack. The plan was to sell these “Signature” edition cars, then offer the rest of the 2007 model year cars at $89,000. But not everything went according to plan. In short order, Tesla had pre-sold 220 cars with the $100,000 price tag. “Nobody wanted the base model,” said Tesla’s Harrigan.

Showroom fever lit up the crowd like St. Elmo’s fire. Even Chris Paine, director of this summer’s sleeper-hit doc “Who Killed the Electric Car?” ponied up. “I don’t even own my house,” says Paine, who is a familiar figure driving his Toyota RAV4 EV around Santa Monica.

“Now I’ll have a $100,000 car in the driveway,” he says. “I wouldn’t ordinarily own a car like that -- that’s so, you know, look-at-me -- but I figure if I was going to talk the talk, I should walk the walk.”