Taking a Tesla for a spin

After trying out the electric sports car, I was wowed by the technology implementation. But the company's ultimate success hinges on a couple of nontech questions.

So much has been written about Tesla Motors and its Roadster electric sports car that I fully expected a letdown.

Tell you the truth, if I were personally shelling out $109,000 for one of these babies, I might be pickier about leg room or noise levels or any of the other myriad questions that go through a potential car buyer's mind before signing on the line which is dotted.

But at the risk of gushing, I'm back to report that the Tesla Roadster is a pure adrenaline thrill.

The specs say that the vehicle accelerates from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds. It sure felt that way. As I tentatively pushed the pedal toward the floor, the Roadster attained speeds that I've never attempted in my 1997 Civic, and I had the oddest sensation. It just did not feel as if the car was moving that fast. (OK, nobody's going to mistake me for Mario Andretti. But it's not as if I've never gunned a vehicle.) It felt like driving a big slot car. Had I not glanced at the speedometer, no way could I have known the vehicle was busting past 90 without a murmur of protest.

The only tip-off that something unusual was going on was the motor's high-pitched whine. Other than that, no vibrations, no buzzing, no shaking, rattling, or rolling.

Kudos to the design team for figuring out how to put amazing thrust at a driver's command without paying a penalty in turbo lag or gear changing. The only thing that takes time getting used to is the car's deceleration when you remove your foot from the pedal. No big deal. After five minutes, that is not an issue. (Check out this brief overview I received from the company's PR director, Rachel Konrad.)

For some reason, the local traffic police were out in force as I tooled around, and so I resisted the invitation to push the envelope (much to the frustration of my Tesla handler who wanted me to approach Warp Factor 9). In a straight mano-a-mano test, there's no way the cops would be able to keep up--although I'm sure that's not one of the arguments Tesla's marketing mavens will play up in any upcoming advertising campaign. (My CNET partner in crime, Brian Cooley, took out another Roadster for a ride. Here's his report.)

As a technology story, Tesla stands in contrast to the dreary innovation record turned in by Detroit's automakers the last several years. Unlike the software business, where so many start-ups have been bootstrapped since the Internet bubble burst, when was the last time you heard of a new auto company emerging on the scene? The Roadster clocks in faster than a Porsche 911 and has a driving range of 244 miles on a single charge. But the company's fate likely will be decided by other factors.

Tesla's troubles have been well chronicled. The company was late getting to market, over budget, and recently let go of 20 percent of its staff. But that's old history. The more immediate question now is how much longer CEO Elon Musk will want to fight it out. So far he's had the stomach for the battle--even as the economy deteriorated from bad to worse. The calendar may be in his favor as Tesla is coming to market at an opportune transition time with the incoming Obama administration saying that it wants to foster alternative energy technologies. Now everyone is waiting to see the fine print.

The second point to consider is that Tesla faces a chicken-and-egg situation. While the Roadster remains a specialty item geared at luxury buyers, Tesla is not a volume assembly line operation that can easily force down supplier prices. So far, about 1,200 cars are on order. Before it can it hope to bring its own price tag down to more competitive levels, the company will need to generate more business. A lot more business.

That answer may well determine whether Musk goes down as the next Henry Ford or the second coming of Preston Tucker.

 

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