Tesla often emphasizes that it works more like a Silicon Valley technology company than a traditional car company. And the company just proved it by delivering a model update to the Tesla Roadster for 2010. Remember, the Roadster has only been in production for one year, but in that time Tesla completely redesigned the interior, while at the same time adding new materials to reduce cabin noise. Model updates from other automakers often take five years.
We spent a day with the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport, enjoying its unique driving experience and finding these updates made the previous generation car seem like something hacked together in a garage. Where the previous car had a fussy little lever for putting it in drive, the new car uses push buttons. To check battery statistics and change the drive mode, you had to use a touch screen by your left knee. That touch screen has been moved to the center of the dashboard. And in a real step toward convenience, the Tesla Roadster now comes with a glove box.
Externally, the casual observer won't see much difference. The Tesla Roadster uses the same Lotus-sourced body clad in carbon fiber. But the carbon fiber stands out more, as clear-coat panels make up the hood, spoiler, and even the insets in the rear air intakes. The suspension is now adjustable for comfort or sport, and the all-new Sport version of the Roadster uses an upgraded power train that rockets it to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, faster than the standard Roadster's 3.9 second time.
Goes like a freight train
The Tesla Roadster Sport drives like nothing on the road today. If you've driven a bumper car you'll have some idea of how the Roadster Sport operates. You push the accelerator and it goes. But unlike bumper cars, the Tesla Roadster Sport gets pushed by a robust motor making 295 pound-feet of torque. That high torque figure comes on almost as soon as the motor starts spinning, and carries all the way up to 6,000 rpm.
To put it in nontechnical terms, when you hit the accelerator a ram slams into your back, pushing you inexorably forward, not letting up until your eyelids are peeled back by the wind and the first moments of your life come into vision.
The Roadster Sport has three different drive modes: Standard, Range, and Performance. The majority of the time we had the car, we left it in Standard mode. And while it won't achieve its full 3.7 seconds to 60 mph time in that mode, you would hardly know it, as it's still damn fast. But if you really want to blow the doors off a Porsche or Ferrari, a simple click forward with the key, as if you were starting the car, toggles Performance mode on the fly.
Cornering can also be dramatic in the Roadster Sport, but for the wrong reasons. Unlike Lotus cars using the same body and chassis, the Tesla Roadster Sport has a big, heavy battery pack sitting behind the passenger compartment, changing the weight distribution. During our short time with the car, we didn't get to test it thoroughly, but there seemed to be quite a bit of understeer.
While maneuvering through a parking garage, we found the turning radius wider than expected. And as the car lacks power steering, get ready to build some arm muscle cranking the wheel around.
Under normal driving conditions, the Roadster Sport is a champ, its passing power and small size making it easy to zip around traffic. We found ourselves monitoring the kilowatt gauge while driving, able to keep it at near zero while traveling on 35 mph urban roads. On the freeway, at speeds of 70 or 80 mph, the car pulled 25 to 50 kilowatts at steady speed, while an amp display under the speedometer frequently topped 100.
In a number of ways, Tesla really changes the driving paradigm. As soon as you lift off the accelerator, regenerative braking kicks in, slowing the car much more than simple air and road friction. The Roadster Sport doesn't coast like a gas engine car. When keeping a safe following distance in traffic, we found that the regenerative braking was ample to bring the Roadster Sport to an almost complete stop.
There is creep built into the system, and the car will continue to move along at a few miles per hour, at which point you need to use the friction brakes, Brembos on the Roadster Sport. The dual benefit of this system comes in electricity being pumped back into the battery, and very little wear and tear on the friction brakes.
According to EPA numbers, the Roadster Sport goes 244 miles on a full charge. During our day with the car, we were looking at 150 to 200 miles of range. But another way Tesla changes the driving paradigm is that, instead of waiting for a near empty battery for recharging, you treat it like a cell phone, plugging it in whenever you have the opportunity. Where you wouldn't refill the tank on a gasoline-powered car at the end of each day's commute, you can plug in the Tesla whenever you get home.
Tesla includes a cord with the car to plug it in at any AC outlet, but using this solution only gets you five miles per hour of charging. A home charger available from the company will give it 56 miles per hour, running the battery to full from empty in less than four hours.
Single DIN cabin tech
The cabin of the Roadster Sport is tight, but a little easier to get into than a Lotus, as Tesla lowered the door sills. Expect to be rubbing shoulders with your passenger while on the road. But Tesla pretties up the cabin with leather, carbon fiber, and aluminum surfaces. It may not have the pure lushness of other high-end sports cars, but it passes well.
We frankly didn't expect much for the car's cabin electronics, as Tesla currently relies on an aftermarket head unit for infotainment. But we applaud the company for picking the JVC KD-NXD505. This head unit provides navigation, Bluetooth, iPod connectivity, and even an internal hard drive for music storage.
Although we spent most of our time driving the Roadster Sport, we did have occasion to use the head unit's navigation feature. Surprisingly, it was intuitive and easy to input a street address using the minimal controls, all while stopped at traffic lights (the system doesn't allow input while the car is in motion). The screen is small, but nicely rendered, so we could see where to turn, while voice guidance also proved helpful.
Tesla mounts the iPod cable from this stereo on the console. There is no hatch or holder, but our iPhone rested easily on the flat surface, and didn't seem inclined to fall off as we drove.
Given the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport's $129,000 price tag and small cabin, it is a niche car for early adopters. But those early adopters will find a car suitable to drive to work every day while not spending a penny on gas. Engineering types can thrill to the car's statistics, such as the electric motor's 92 percent efficiency, while sporting types will get a kick out of the immense acceleration, if not the cornering. The bottom line is that this car has the most technically advanced power train in a production car today, with greater range and speed than any other electric car on the market.