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MF Review: Tesla Roadster Sport

2011 Tesla Roadster Sport

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.

2011 Tesla Roadster Sport

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.

2011 Tesla Roadster Sport

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.

2011 Tesla Roadster Sport

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.

2011 Tesla Roadster Sport

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.

2011 Tesla Roadster Sport

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.

2011 Tesla Roadster Sport

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.

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Written By: Gabe

  • rhawth99

    Nice review – sounds like an incredible car.

  • lavardera
    Then there’s the model S coming in 2011. A seven passenger sedan that is nothing less than revolutionary in its packaging and performance.

    Isn’t the upcoming S a 5 seat sedan?

  • http://www.motoringfile.com/ Gabe

    Isn’t the upcoming S a 5 seat sedan?

    No – there are also two rear facing jump-seats similar to old wagons. It’s a bizarre layout but one that was made possible by the battery’s packaging and the lack of an engine and all that goes along with it.

  • hank chinaski

    Well-written, Gabe. Totally jealous here, and gotta hear it’s sound. Any chance you have a clip?

    a week or two back, Autoblog reported Tesla’s 2011 Model S wouldn’t be produced,- citing Lotus’ need to retool their line.

    any of that ring any truth, Gabe?

  • MINIme

    I saw one of these the other day in a mall parking lot. Very interesting. It was a snowy day and the roads were a mess and I was wondering who would drive a $100K+, rear-wheel drive car with this much torque in that kind of weather… Let’s be honest, at the price these are selling for, this is a novelty for the wealthy and not at all an indicator of the viability of electric cars.

    I did enjoy seeing one in person.

  • KPH

    Really enjoy the return of MF Reviews on anything automotive.

  • Cory

    I think these are fantastic, but could never spend around $100,000 on one when I can find an ’06 Elise for around thirty grand, especially when there isn’t an engine screaming into your ears from right behind you.

    I didn’t hear about this plane crash. I’m sorry to hear about that; they’ve got truly brilliant people at Tesla.

  • goat

    Great to see a review of the Tesla… with the electric drivetrain and lightweight chassis, a very important “eco-car” that sounds like a properly satisfying sports car in its own right. Also wanted to say this is very well written Gabe, with a nice clean reviewing style.

    Best bit that had me nodding in agreement (I can relate to having the same expectations of the future-now-present): “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?”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=814825706 Sideways Eh!

    I was lucky to talk to a Tesla rep from California at the Toronto Auto Show. From what he was saying, the S is going to take a year off to re-tool…in accordance with Lotus…and then re-emerge on a new platform. Its exciting to hear that there are also going to be Tesla dealers in Toronto / Calgary / Montreal / Vancouver next year.

  • Aaron

    Nice review. I see a lot of Teslas where I live, considering I live about 6 blocks from the Bay Area Tesla show room. I think a lot of us are waiting to see the sedan and I think if they can bring the price point down to where they say they can, it might be more viable. I think the roadster sport was more of a proof of concept model and now they’ve got to go forward on the concept. I wonder if groups like BMW have interest in working with Tesla or acquiring them. Both companies seem to have performance in mind front and center, might be a good fit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1610114987 Shawn Dillon

    …it’s a nice car,and I hope the company does well;but,the near future is not too hot for Tesla for the following reasons:

    One: They lost key players,in the company. http://articles.latimes.com/2010/feb/18/local/la-me-tesla-crash19-2010feb19

    Two: It’s not making a profit. http://www.renaissancecapital.com/IPOHome/IPOProfile.aspx?ticker=TSLA

    Three: Top Gear Show. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DfHyGD7_pM

    In closing,I really hope Tesla does really well like A123 Systems,and prove Me wrong in the long run. But stories like this:http://www.wired.com/autopia/2010/02/elon-musk-private-jet/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&u isn’t helping it a bit…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1610114987 Shawn Dillon

    In closing,I really hope Tesla does really well like A123 Systems,and prove Me wrong in the long run. But stories like this:http://www.wired.com/autopia/2010/02/elon-musk-private-jet/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&u isn’t helping it a bit…

    Should be the following: “In closing,I really hop Tesla does really well,like A123 Systems,and prove Me wrong in the long run;however,stories like the following: http://www.wired.com/autopia/2010/02/elon-musk-private-jet/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&u isn’t helping it a bit.”

  • Crusoe

    Checked them out at the dealership in Seattle. As noted beautiful. Base price mentioned by sales rep was $109,000 (We can all pull that together right?). Sedan base is going to be around $49,000 with a 0-60 in 5.6 secs. If these catch on well enough it’d be nice to see them offer a half-size track battery which would drop the wt. to around 2300 lbs.

  • Crusoe

    Hmm, check that. A half-sized track battery would only get you around 25 miles of track time I’m guessing after seeing the 5th Gear review.

  • MM

    Just bought a loaded Lotus Elise SC for under $60k. I considered spending more than twice that for a less attractive looking Tesla to so I could look like I cared about the enviroment as much as the phoney elitist who actually bought this chumpster. Then I thought I had a better chance of being bitten by the Loch Ness monster than this making a difference in whatever the enviro hoax of the day is.

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