From: <a href=http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124629044888368573.html#mod=loomia?loomia_si=t0:a16:g4:r3:c0:b0>Testing the Tesla Roadster</a>
Testing the Tesla Roadster
An autos aficionado takes the electric sports car on a 460-mile journey
By CLIFFORD ATIYEH | Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
I'm cutting through the dark on a skinny two-lane side road north of Pescadero, Calif., roof stowed, arms jerking wildly around a tiny, non-assisted steering wheel as turn after blind turn fades into vision. It's so quiet, I can hear the tall grass nipping at the carbon fiber fenders as the little two-seater claws out of the curve and dives into the next. I should be in auto nirvana -- the road's empty, there's no posted speed limit. But I've got other thoughts, like how badly I want a Baja-style headlight bar bolted atop this $122,000 Tesla Roadster.
Owners of Porsche, Ferrari and other six-figure sports cars are used to having such sublime handling, grip and raw power at their disposal. To have it without noise, gasoline or emissions is an entirely new concept to the performance crowd. About 500 of the electric cars have been delivered since production began last year; 800 buyers are on the nearly six month-long waiting list. Chances are, if they push this car like I am, they'll want brighter headlights, too.
I'm on a three-day, 460-mile mission to challenge the Tesla hype and decide if living on 375 volts is actually enjoyable in the gas age. First order of business: I never got close to Tesla's claimed 244-mile range in which the car can drive without a recharge. Had I driven like a maniacal hypermiler and avoided highways, which drain the battery much faster than back roads, I might have hit 200 miles. Regardless, this car has helped foster the EV renaissance, and shown that speed and "green" can coexist in a vehicle.
Selling this hotbed of technology is risky in a depressed market -- especially given that it's a Silicon Valley startup rather than a traditional auto maker -- but Tesla Motors has shaken up the industry. Germany's Daimler AG, maker of the Mercedes-Benz and Smart brands, has a near-10% stake in the company. While most auto manufacturers feel stifled by stricter fuel economy requirements, possible carbon taxes, depressed sales and the occasional government shareholder, Tesla has managed to develop, build and market a hot-selling electric car as both luxury trinket and planet saver in just a few years' time.
That doesn't mean the company is sealed off from troubles of its own. In January Tesla, realizing its cost estimates were off by tens of thousands of dollars, forced nearly 400 Roadster customers -- who had fronted up to $50,000 in down payments and were still waiting for their 2008 models -- to pay thousands more for options they already ordered. The company also raised the car's base price by $17,000 for new customers ordering 2009 models. At the end of May, the company recalled 345 vehicles, or about 70% of all Roadsters at the time, due to loose wheel hubs that could cause a crash. And there's the breach-of-contract lawsuit Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard filed against CEO Elon Musk in June.
Tesla's next project, the higher-volume, higher-profit Model S sedan, has at last secured $365 million in federal loans for its 2011 debut. More than 1,000 buyers have put down deposits for this car, which is essentially a concept with no official platform or assembly plant.
Tesla's Menlo Park dealership in Northern California looks like any other grey slab along the El Camino Real strip. But commuters on double-decker trains running past the back lot can spot the action, at least for a few seconds: dozens of brightly colored cars, some wrapped in protector plastic, others being wheeled into garage bays for their electric transplants. Roadsters come here fully assembled from the Lotus factory in Hethel, England, and a team of seven mechanics drop in the 248-horsepower motors, 990-pound battery packs and other power components. (As a precaution to industry snoops, Tesla refuses to name the battery supplier or let anyone photograph the unmarked crates they arrive in.)
Tesla claims the car can be recharged in 3.5 hours using a 240-volt, 70-amp line, but that requires serious rewiring for the average mansion. My co-driver friend, Nick, took us to his home a few miles away in Half Moon Bay, and we proceed to swap the 15-amp, 240-volt breaker in his garage for a 30-amp. Tesla includes a standard 120-volt, 15-amp plug, but that would be like filling a 55-gallon drum one drop at a time. A full charge would take a day and a half.
According to the touch-screen display to the left of the steering wheel, we're charging at a rate of a mile every three minutes on Tesla's 24-amp plug. The Roadster's power supply depends on how you plan to drive the next day. The standard setting tries to preserve the battery by charging it to about 90%, giving the car an estimated 192 miles. The range setting fills the battery to 100% (about 40 miles more), and reduces power by 50% to curb fast-draining acceleration. Performance mode lets the batteries run hotter for that extra smidgeon of addictive, neck-snapping power.
The next day we prepare to push the Tesla as hard and as far as possible. But every trip in an electric car requires a careful plan -- often times there's no second chance at recharging if you're reading the map upside-down. It's somewhat reassuring that California has more than 400 electric charging stations, the most in the country, but they're many times at obscure locations, like in Costcos and parking garages.
We make the turn from Nick's driveway onto Highway 1. Thick fog drifts across the road, but a few minutes later we find the sun and make a sharp turn onto Stage Road, situated in a huge valley with a frightening edge drop-off. Stage isn't much wider than our Roadster, and I'm constantly brushing against Nick's shoulder as I muscle the car into its natural glide.
Despite the immediate turn-in, forceful brakes and the relentless traction of a mouse glue trap, the Tesla is a handful to drive fast. The steering wheel fights you in an arm-wrestling match around every turn, and understeer (the car's tendency to travel toward the outside of a curve) becomes rampant with too much power, which is all too easy to summon -- it can flash from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds. Few cars demand so much of four limbs.
Soon we're cruising through downtown Palo Alto, hoping to score some attention from the throngs of Stanford students walking past fancy eateries and Facebook's headquarters. We creep past intersections for the next half-mile in such a whisper that no one on the sidewalk notices. "Awesome Tesla, dude!" we finally hear a group of teenage boys say. Now that's more like it.
In contrast from its hard-edged nature, the Roadster is smooth at city speeds once you figure out how to stop with the gas -- regenerative braking kicks in as you ease off the accelerator. It's pleasant after some twitchy practice. What isn't so nice is the Tesla's fairly wide turning radius, which makes U-turns trickier than expected in a short-wheelbase car.
After roughly 100 miles, there's still plenty of charge left. My friend takes the helm on the drive back from Santa Cruz, and after executing the perfect apex, the Roadster rewards us by abruptly slowing for the next 10 miles. We've almost drained the battery, and are now forced to deal with 50% less power -- and the thrust of an average family sedan -- no matter how far the accelerator is pressed. To save its overeager customers from stranding themselves, Tesla doesn't disclose the last 10% of battery life while in performance mode. We've driven 125 miles in four hours, with 19 miles of battery life remaining on the computer (and roughly 14 more hidden miles).
A subsequent 130-mile round-trip to Berkeley -- mostly on interstates, with range mode selected -- left us with 38 miles remaining. The pricier Roadster Sport, which debuted this month, doesn't deliver better mileage, Tesla says. But the extra $19,500 on the sticker price shaves two-tenths off the zero-to-60 time (the motor delivers 40 more horsepower) and comes with an adjustable suspension and stickier tires.
That performance-obsessed mentality is what makes Tesla so special. Toyota is prepping a plug-in Prius, other electric car companies are busy retrofitting Chinese and Malaysian sedans, and GM's Chevrolet Volt hybrid is nearing completion. Those cars will be proof that the automobile can survive the complex tangle of government mandates and declining oil reserves. But an electric car that steals your sleep, compelling you every sunrise to rip out its plug and run away for no reason, is proof that automotive passion is still strong.