The Tesla, clean and silent but for the hiss of tires on asphalt and the whine of the electric motor's cooling fan, disturbed him because he didn't hear it coming as we scooted by him on a twisty section of Skyline Boulevard in the mountains above Tesla's headquarters in San Carlos, California.
Yin and Yang "Mostly, we get a lot of support," says Aaron Platshon, the Tesla Roadster's marketing manager, shaking his head in bemusement as the grump pedaled away. "But sometimes you just can't please people."
It's like that these days at Tesla, the five-year-old car company that's under the microscope as it prepares to roll out the first production models of the 2008 Tesla Roadster.
Tesla managed to develop a high-performance, battery-powered electric car when many had pronounced the battery-electric vehicle an unworkable bit of wishful thinking. Super, everybody says.
But then it postponed the production launch twice because transmissions were breaking, and fired co-founder Martin Eberhard and a score of top engineers. Doom, everybody says.
It's raised $105 million from private backers and venture capitalists — with another $40 million about to roll in. All well and good.
But it spent $43 million in its first four years. Disaster looms!
Heavy Load Now Tesla has parceled out test-drives in several of its preproduction prototypes to a select handful of auto journalists. So what happens?
Now the reviews are just as concerned with the corporate enterprise as with the car, and they dwell on financing and the future, along with torque and traction.
Sometimes you just can't please people.
The reason is pretty simple, though. As Tesla approaches the official delivery of its first production car on March 17, the company carries with it the hopes and dreams of those who believe there is a future for battery-powered electric vehicles. And just as there is desire for its success, there's even greater fear of a failure that would drain the EV movement of the energy that's been built up around Tesla and its roadster.
Good thing electric cars have lots of torque, because Tesla's got a big load to carry.
No Vaporware Here The vehicle Tesla is starting with is not a family car. With a price tag starting at $98,950 and an EPA-rated range of 220 miles (more like 180 miles if you like to goose it every once in awhile and down around 150 if you regard speed limit signs as mere suggestions), the 2008 Tesla Roadster makes most sense as a second, third or fourth (or fifth) car for weekends and the occasional short commute.
Tesla executives like to talk about the Roadster as the electric replacement for the Porsche 911s that belong to its wealthy clients. We think it will more likely be an addition to collections that already hold a Porsche 911, an exciting and unique addition to a list that includes Ferraris and Cobras and others of the fast and furious and/or expensive and exotic persuasion.
Yet the 2008 Tesla Roadster is, indeed, an authentic sports car. Nimble, sure-footed, fast, responsive and fun — lots of fun — to drive.
Doubters can doubt and scoffers scoff, but we ran Prototype 20, the silver one, up and down the coastal mountains, through tight esses and hairpins and up steeply climbing straightaways with the accelerator pedal pinned to the floor.
When we climbed out of the snug cabin after five hours, we were persuaded; Tesla's got a real car.
Silent Running The Roadster starts like any other; you just turn the key. There's a faint click, and a panel of warning lights blinks on and off as you sit there, waiting to feel the vibe from the idling engine. Then you realize there isn't going to be any vibration, and that the silence means the electric motor is patiently waiting for instructions.
There's a gear selector in the narrow, carbon-fiber center console, but these early Roadsters have 1st gear locked out, a temporary fix for this soon-to-be discarded two-speed transmission's inability to handle the Tesla's prodigious bottom-end torque. "Just put it in 2nd," says Platshon, the assigned co-pilot for our initial drive.
Depress the accelerator pedal and there's a slight whine as the motor starts spinning, then the tires grab and you're rolling in an eerie rush of wind and the whine of the electric motor. The unassisted steering is heavy at low speeds, but the effort lightens up appreciably as the pace picks up.
On the highway, the Roadster starts earning its keep. There's no aural cue from behind you as you push the pedal toward the floor, but wind rush, tire hum and electric whine increase and the mounting G-forces push you firmly back into the leather-covered bucket seat as the Tesla takes off.
Clueless It's then that one drawback of electric power hits home. With no gears to change and no internal-combustion engine to provide clues as to the speed you're carrying, it is easy to plunge into Deadman's Curve moving (as the song says) way too fast.
Fortunately, the Roadster's chassis, suspension and steering work with the Yokohama tires (175/55R16s up front and 225/45R17s in back) to deliver the handling of a real sports car. In fact, the Tesla Roadster is a real sports car, a derivative of the Lotus Elise with a longer wheelbase, lower chassis sills, softer suspension and unique bodywork.
With 248 horsepower and between 205 pound-feet and 211 lb-ft of torque available from zero rpm to 6,000 rpm, this 2,690-pound roadster accelerates steadily and even quickly as we drive up the steep roads that wind through the redwood trees. Put foot to floor and the Tesla goes and goes and goes (no gears to shift, remember) until the electronics shut down your progress at arount 125 mph - a little north of that when the new powertrain comes out -- or the battery pack runs out of juice.
Our test car was outfitted with the jury-rigged tranny Tesla is using so it can get cars into production pending the introduction of a new single-speed transmission and reconfigured motor — a system the company is calling powertrain 1.5.
With the taller 2nd gear our only option, we didn't get the 3.8-second 0-60-mph acceleration that some people have reported, or the 4.4 seconds that Tesla's own testers have recorded. But with a full charge early in the day, the pace felt close to the 5.7 seconds the company says the initial one-speed production models will achieve.
No Energizer Bunny We drove the Tesla Roadster hard all morning, and by the time we got back to flat ground for our official instrumented acceleration run, we had only about an eighth of a charge and nine miles of range left in the battery pack. At this point, the Tesla's electronics are programmed to kick into a torque-limiting, energy-saving mode when the batteries have been drained significantly.
Fortunately we were able to add a bit of juice with an hour's stopover in Tesla's shop, hooked up to the 70-amp, 240-volt home-charger unit that comes with each car (installation extra). But we still had only 23 miles on the range meter and a severe case of torque restriction when we headed out to the lightly traveled highway that serves as Tesla's unofficial test track for acceleration runs.
Add damp street surfaces and a slight uphill grade and the best 0-60 we were able to record was 6.0 seconds. We learned again that the quickest your electric sports car will be is in the first few minutes after you leave the garage. It just gets slower after that until you return home again.
It's the Electrons What makes it all work is an amazing agglomeration of onboard computers, clever and sophisticated power management programming, a battery pack and a proprietary electric motor and transaxle.
The magic lies in the battery pack. There are 6,831 lithium-ion batteries, each about a third bigger than the AA cells you use in your digital camera. They're linked together in a unique package that incorporates liquid cooling, safety fuses and fancy power control programming to eliminate worries about what battery engineers like to call "thermal events." The batteries feed 410 volts to the Roadster's air-cooled AC induction motor, which redlines at 13,000 rpm.
Tesla won't release details of power plant 1.5, which it expects to begin installing later this year at the Lotus factory in England where the cars are built. It will retrofit the first-generation cars with the interim transmission at no cost to the owners.
In any case, Tesla insists that the 1.5 package will enable the one-speed car to meet the Roadster's original performance target of 0-60-mph acceleration in 4.0 seconds.
We asked one of our own engineers to do a little number-crunching based on the few facts Tesla would supply, and we estimate that the new system will be rated at somewhere around 320 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque — a not-insubstantial boost of 30 percent.
Moving Forward Where Tesla goes from here is up to the market, and the company's ability to successfully transition from entrepreneurial startup to efficient, profit-making car manufacturer.
There are tons of hurdles, including the likelihood of increased competition from other, bigger companies — such as General Motors and its Chevrolet Volt — that have seen in the 2008 Tesla Roadster both proof of concept and a potential rival in a new market segment for battery-electric cars.
Tesla itself has been remarkably candid about the whole process, posting all kinds of information on its Web site (although this hasn't prevented it from making clumsy decisions nevertheless). On the drawing board is a plan for a Tesla sedan, priced at around $50,000, that is supposed to broaden the company's appeal. And insiders also talk about an even more affordable compact, an electric city car for the commuter crowd.
So far, Tesla has presold about 900 examples of the Tesla Roadster, 600 of the 2008 model and 300 of the 2009 models. The company says it has plans to build and sell a total of 1,600 of the 2009 models before starting on anything else. The company also is contemplating going public, a rite of passage that lets the initial investors cash out and can make it easier to raise operating capital.
The big telltale, though, will be whether Tesla can maintain and increase enthusiasm for the Tesla Roadster. We'll see if Tesla has sold the first 900, or the only 900.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.