Today we’re reviewing something outside the immediate BMW world to give you a bit more insight into the increasingly important electric car market.
Nothing prepares you for the feeling of a really fast car. Hitting 60 mph in anything under four seconds is a sensation that is both riveting and alarming (at first). But take away the sensation of that expected engine sound and your notion of speed is completely re-written.
Over the years I’ve personally had an opportunity to drive a number of fascinating cars. But nothing has prepared me for what I’m behind the wheel of while snaking through the abandoned West Loop streets of Chicago. The Tesla Roadster Sport is that good. This almost iconic electric sports car based on the Lotus Elise is both a game changer and a nod to the past in all the right ways. But more than anything it represents some part of a very bright future.
This isn’t some eco-friendly commuter car that tries hard to remind you that you aren’t driving. The Tesla represents eco technology on our terms as enthusiasts.
Of course Tesla doesn’t have a monopoly on electric cars. Last summer BMW delivered the first tangible product in its Project i program with the MINI E. While the car is merely a test bed for what comes next, MINI E is impressive considering it’s a platform that was retro-fitted into an electric vehicle. But the electric part is where the similarities end. The MINI E has a range of just 100 miles and in the real world that can be less than a 100 due to how you drive and the climate you live in. The Tesla on the other hand can eek out as much as 250 miles (some have seen more). I saw close to 200 driving it in anger around the cold February streets of Chicago.
While I haven’t driven a MINI E yet (MINI USA hasn’t made one available to anyone outside the east or west coast) I can tell you from Michael’s MotoringFile review that the car doesn’t quiet possess the go-kart agility that MINI is known for. The problem? Weight. The reason? Lots and lots of batteries. To get a decent range out of an electric vehicle manufacturers have to pack thousands of battery cells into cars. In Tesla’s case it’s 6831 located where the Elise would have an engine. For the MINI E it’s 5088.
All this adds an enormous amount of weight. The Elise weighs in at 1,984 lbs. Comparatively the Tesla tips the scales at 2,723 lbs making it both a really heavy Elise and the lightest electric car we know of. The MINI E? It’s downright portly next to the Tesla at 3,230 lbs .
But the Tesla is no Elise. There has been a surprising amount of re-engineering of the Elise chassis (lower door sills for instance) to better suit both the clientele and the ultimate purpose. The suspension has been replaced with electric dampers created for Tesla by Bilstein and the interior has been complete redesigned to create a much more rich experience. The sills were lowered for easier ingress and there are countless changes to the chassis to accommodate the batteries and other carious technology coursing through its veins. The result turns the familiar Elise shape into something that approaches day to day livability.
The fit and finish of the interior and exterior are miles beyond what I’ve seen in an Elise and is flat out better than any small automaker’s products I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t quite rival Porsche or BMW but there’s almost a Germanic quality to the leather dash and the aluminum center console that bely the size of Tesla. The interior above all else is a triumph for those who have spent time in an Elise.
Exterior design can be subjective in some cases. This is not one of those. The Tesla is gorgeous. There is no room to argue that this is a sleek sports car that will turn heads for 50 years to come. But what’s under the skin is even more interesting. Every body panel save for the front and rear bumper is completely carbon fiber. Despite the price (MSRP: $124,000, as tested: $144,000) this is easily the cheapest production vehicle on the planet finished entire in carbon fiber – one of the lightest yet strongest materials that exists.
Despite the lightweight tech, Tesla couldn’t get around adding 739 pounds to what a stock Elise would be. And as you’d expect the increase does dull the dynamics of the Tesla a bit. However diluting the dynamics of a car like the Elise still makes for an experience that most sports cars can’t match. Yes the Tesla Roadster Sport lacks the delicacy of the Elise’s steering and the fluidity of the chassis’ response to inputs. However it’s still a first rate sports car in the corners.
However the straights are a different story. Lets look at the numbers. Zero to sixty comes up in 3.9 seconds on the standard Tesla Roadster. On the Roadster Sport we tested it’s a mind numbing 3.7 seconds. Read it slow and the Tesla will be at sixty before you’re done: three point seven seconds. That’s a full second faster than a BMW M3 and half a second faster than an M6. Want to compare the quickest MINI? The JCW does the same trick in a little over 6 seconds. The MINI Cooper takes double the time.
That’s not to say it’s the perfect drivetrain. The engine (if you can call it that) runs out of rpms at the highend and will never be able to give you the thrill of a high revving four and eight cylinder. But this is a different kind of experience. Even the traction control is from another planet. There is no detectible loss of power when the TC light flashes. The engine simple (and imperceptibly) reduces torque to the wheels according to the traction that is available.
3.7 seconds to 60 mph literally forces you to recalibrate your idea of fast. But it’s not just the acceleration. The feeling of the torque and the sound are what make the experience completely earth shattering. This is the future I was promised as a kid growing up in the 80’s. It’s the sound of space ships.. It’s the acceleration of light speed. This is what I expected 2010 to feel like. Why is Tesla the only one who gets this?
It’s been up and down for Tesla over the past few years. There have been triumphs (the product) and there have been low points (the loss of three key employees in a plane crash last week). But the company looks to be financially well positioned having just secured a government loan along with other private backing that it’s relied on to date. Then there’s the model S coming in 2011. A seven passenger sedan that is nothing less than revolutionary in its packaging and performance.
Where does that leave us? There’s little question that the internal combustion engine isn’t going away. While Tesla is clearly creating one flavor of future of automotive transportation, BMW is at the other end of the spectrum doing the little things that allow for mass adaption of fuel savings measures. In fact the BMW Group (which of course includes MINI) has been named the most sustainable automaker for the 5th straight year because of the efforts currently in place. But even a longstanding automaker like BMW can clearly see the need for a pure electric vehicle. They have gone on record in saying that they will have an all electric vehicle available for the mass market in the middle of this decade.
However that doesn’t mean that they have a monopoly on ideas. With the Roadster Sport Tesla has created something that introduces the world to pure electric vehicle in the most exciting way possible. It’s new, it’s fast and it’s as electric as they come.
Special thanks to all those at Tesla Chicago for their hospitality.
This review was written before the recent plane crash that resulted in the death of three Tesla employees. We’d like to dedicate it to their memory.