Tesla gets a Toronto trial

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Zero to 100 km in about four seconds?

Using no fuel?

Producing zero emissions? (Well, sort of...).

Read on.

When I woke up this morning, my house had not burned to the ground, and the Tesla Roadster Sport parked outside my bathroom window was not a smoldering heap of melted plastic and aluminum.

So, Round One to the electric car then.

You see, the Tesla needs a 220-volt outlet to recharge "fast" – by which they mean less than four hours (about which, more anon), and the only 220 V outlet in my house is in my downstairs bathroom for my clothes dryer.

(A 110-volt charger takes, well, forever. About 30 hours, apparently.)

The big extension cord ran out the window. Good job it wasn't summer; the mosquitoes would have carried us all off to their nests in the woods and fed us to their larvae.

It hummed all night, lights of various colour flashing on and off indicating the state of (re)charge.

Wonder if the local police got any UFO sightings last night?

The Tesla battery-powered electric roadster is either the future of the automobile, or it is a Lotus Elise that goes a bit faster, doesn't go as far, and costs three times as much.

It's possibly both.

It certainly is the latter, the chassis having been engineered and built by Lotus in its English facilities using a modified Elise platform.

The "roller" is shipped to California where a 450 kg battery built with 6,831 Japanese-sourced lithium-ion cells and a Taiwanese AC motor are installed with appropriate electronic controls.

The result is a tiny, two-seat roadster weighing about 1,180 kg (270 kg more than an Elise) with the equivalent of a 248 hp/273 lb.-ft. engine, which flings the car from rest to 100 km/h in less than four seconds, or a second quicker than a base 218 hp Elise.

Using no gasoline.

The Tesla is the brainchild of South Africa-born Elon Musk, who lived in Toronto during his late-teen years (his mother was from Regina) and who attended Queens University in Kingston at least in part, so the story goes, because the women were better-looking there than at other schools.

Post-grad studies in the U.S. led Musk to Silicon Valley, where he became a dot-com gazillionaire as co-founder of PayPal.

Interests in space exploration and the environment led him to the development of the Tesla, named after the Serbian-American Nikola Tesla, one of the pioneer scientists in applied electricity.

The Tesla Roadster is currently the must-have automotive arm candy for the monied greener-than-thou set in the United States. The Prius is just so down-market, you know.

While the Tesla is not for sale in Canada, that will be rectified (sorry, couldn't, um, resist) some time early next year.

At a list price of $109,000 (US), there's no way the Tesla Roadster can be justified on an economic basis, emissions-free or not.

But then, neither can a Porsche 911, and we have no problem with people buying those.

Today's objective then is to use up the Tesla's 390-odd kilometres, and try to let you know what it's like as an automobile.

First, about that 390 km range. That is a U.S. EPA estimate, and appears to be no more accurate than the U.S. agency's fuel mileage estimates.

Following that all-night 220 volt charge, the meter inside the car promised only 293 km, and that was the so-called "ideal" range, as in, your Granddad is driving.

The "Drive It Like You Stole It" range number was only 179 km.

So, cancel plans for that drive to Kingston.

Heck, Whitby was going to be a stretch.

It wasn't completely charged, because my rural power supply has a breaker that limits it to 20 amps. Even at 220V, it would take around 15 hours to fully charge from empty.

I could change the breaker fairly easily to 40 amps, allowing a charge in half the time, and Tesla sells a $3,000 charging box that permits a 70 amp supply, for charging in less than four hours.

Remember, though, that the battery needs 60 kWh for a complete charge. That's the equivalent of 600 100-watt light bulbs burning for an hour and would cost about $4 at 6.6 cents / kW, which means about a penny a kilometre.

After unhooking the heavy-duty charging cable (a $1,500 option!) and using half the entire trunk capacity to stow it, I folded myself in; like the Elise, this is a low-slung and snug car.

I turned the key, just like a regular car. The dash lit up, accompanied by various buzzes, whirs and chimes, which are pretty much your constant companions. An electric car is theoretically silent but not so much in practice, especially once the two big cooling fans up front start spinning.

But of course, there's no engine noise.

There is no transmission in the new Roadster model either, just buttons on the centre console for D (Drive), N (Neutral), R (Reverse), or P (Park). Touch D, and off you go.

This test car was the Sport version, which costs an additional $19,500 and for that, offers a better tuned suspension, 288 hp and 295 lbs-ft. of torque.

It's the difference between 3.7 seconds and 3.9 seconds to 100 km/h, which doesn't seem like much.

Careful with the steering. Like the Elise, there is no power assist, and while Tesla's extra half-tonne of weight is concentrated over the rear wheels, I don't recall the Elise's helm being this heavy at parking lot speeds.

Once rolling, the steering is, again as in Elise, delightful: light, very quick and direct. The ride, not surprisingly, is Elise-like: firm but not unpleasant. The Sport's expensive suspension is adjustable, though preferably by a Tesla technician.

The seats are adjustable only for reach (the driver also has a hand-inflatable lumbar support) but are quite comfortable. Loads of legroom, although your right shoulder might have to buy your passenger's left shoulder dinner before you go for a ride together. The glove box will take, well, a pair of gloves. Thin gloves. There are two tiny cubby bins at either end of the dashboard. You will travel light.

Stab the accelerator, and Tesla's party-trick promise that your passenger will not be able to adjust the radio seems eminently plausible – this thing is a rocket ship.

Electric motors theoretically develop their maximum torque at zero r.p.m., so launch is instant and immediate.

In-town lane-change squirts literally leave other cars in your dust. You keep praying you'll line up beside a Porsche or Ferrari at a stoplight.

You swear you'll do the right, environmentally friendly, noblesse-oblige thing. But you wouldn't. You'd smoke the guy.

It keeps hauling too; even at highway speeds, acceleration is nothing short of breathtaking.

The regenerative braking system is much more powerful than in any hybrid you may have driven, and yet it feels very natural and progressive – much better than any hybrid as well.

In semi-normal driving, you will only really need to touch the brake pedal to come to a complete stop; to make the car feel as normal as possible they've built in a little "idle creep."

They should also build in partial illumination of the brake lights on deceleration, because people following you will have no clue you're slowing as quickly as you really are.

There are four modes for the battery that you can select: Standard; Performance (which gives an extra 10 per cent or so boost, with a cost to the range); Range (which slows everything 10 per cent or so, to give a bit more distance), and Storage, for when you go on vacation and don't want everything to drain.

But all I had was those two range numbers staring me balefully in the face, as I alternated between driving normally and full-on hooliganism.

Talk about "range anxiety," the recently invented term that describes how you feel when that bar graph starts receding.

I actually came up with another type of range anxiety: how hard can I drive it in the last few minutes to home to use up as many of those klicks as I can without getting stranded? In the final analysis, I drove a total of 189 real kilometres, leaving the DILYSI number at 42, and the Granddad number at 54.

Not bad.

But with more practice, I'm sure I'd be able to limp home on the last few milliwatts, the electric equivalent of "fumes."

At this point, the Tesla Roaster is a toy – a highly entertaining toy, although if you have a short commute and/or 220 V access at your place of work, it could be a commuter car too.

It really is quite well-developed, given that the entire company is only a few years old and has already done something that one of the "real" car companies has yet managed: it's developed a legal production car (with a free pass from the U.S. safety mavens for old-style airbags) that runs solely on lithium-ion batteries.

As with all Lotuses, there are hints of kit car here and there in the Tesla, occasional loose bits, unfinished or indifferently fitted components, the stress on light weight tending towards flimsiness.

You wouldn't accept these in a $150,000 Porsche, but you will overlook them in the Tesla.

It is huge fun to drive, and the only low-to-no-emissions vehicle that does, to contradict Kermit, make it easy to be green.


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