“Are you ready?” the young driver beside me asked, as we sat in the two-seat Tesla Roadster convertible, facing a straight, steep, quarter-mile road that rises from the water of San Francisco Bay up the headland to the Golden Gate Bridge. Then he floored the accelerator. I was driven into the seat-back behind me—and I mean driven, like I was strapped into some insane amusement park ride—for several full seconds as the car accelerated and accelerated like a rocket up the climb. Only there was no screaming flame blasting behind us. There was no engine roaring either. I was being shot up this road so fast my emergency senses were on full alert, yet all was eerily quiet.
The Tesla Motors roadster is an all-electric vehicle. Which means zero emissions. There’s no engine, no fuel tank, just a deep bank of lithium-ion batteries and a single-gear, direct-drive motor that hits maximum torque instantly (that’s the beauty of electric propulsion). The car is blistering fast; the sport edition goes from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds. Not up on car specs? The Chevy Corvette, with a monster 6.2 liter, eight cylinder, 430 horsepower engine takes 4.6 seconds. The Tesla accelerates faster than the Porsche 911. Faster than the Ferrari Spider. The typical sedan takes a good 6.0 seconds or more to reach the same speed.
The Tesla is not a one-trick pony, however. It has a range of 244 miles on a full charge, which it has proven in real-world driving tests. It meets all the standard safety requirements and looks and handles like any other exotic roadster, particularly the Lotus: it is a low-slung, two-door, hard-top convertible with tight cockpit seats and little room for much else. The price tag is $128,500, which sounds like a lot until you start looking up exotic roadsters, which can cost even more. If you want to save some money for sushi lunches on the pier, you can buy the regular Tesla Roadster for $101,500, but you’ll have to wait a full 3.9 seconds to hit 60 miles per hour.
Few people can afford this car, of course, but the pin-drop quiet Tesla makes a loud statement: an all-electric car can compete with gasoline roadhogs. And if they can do that, they can certainly make it as mainstream vehicles. The Roadster is much more than a proof of technology; it proves to the world that all-electric automobiles are for real. The company has begun offering a four-door sedan for $49,900 that will be delivered in 2011.
Sales manager Dan Myggen gave me my ride outside the GoingGreen conference in Sausalito, Calif. All day he took passengers for a spin around the half-mile circle in front of the Cavallo Point hotel, then up the steep road to the bridge. Every person who returned climbed out of the car with a big smile on his or her face. It was impossible not to grin. The car looks hot and rides hot. It’s a smile machine. Whether Tesla will succeed commercially remains to be seen, but other startups are making their own all-electric models, and the major car companies are diving in too. Whether the standard claim that volume production will bring down cost proves true also remains to be seen, but I can say with certainty, now, that if anyone doubts whether all-electric cars can compete: they can.
Credit: Courtesey of Tesla Motors