In the beginning, there was the Tesla Roadster. Well, not really the beginning; there were other electric cars before it. But should battery-only powered cars indeed become as common as some believe, this pricey sports car might be remembered as the one that was well ahead of its time.
The Tesla Roadster has been on the road since 2008, yet only now is there another all-electric car for sale -- the 2011 Nissan Leaf. While the Leaf is a long-awaited answer for green-oriented daily driving, the little 2011 Tesla Roadster still holds the crown for range, besting the Leaf by more than 100 miles. It's also a certifiable sports car, with staggeringly quick and quiet acceleration paired with razor-sharp handling. The latter is because the Tesla is based on the 2011 Lotus Elise, a paradigm for lightweight, stripped-down motoring.
There are problems with that DNA, however. Like the Elise, the Tesla Roadster has the most cramped cabin of any car sold in this country. It's difficult to get in and out of (especially with the removable roof in place) and, once in, you'll find yourself rubbing shoulders with the person next to you. At least Tesla has added carpeting, sound insulation and other higher-quality materials to make the interior nicer (and quieter). Still, there's no escaping the stark cabin ambience even with the pricey "Executive" leather package. Frankly, we expect a whole lot more refinement and luxury features for $100,000.
The ride is also quite firm (less so with the optional adjustable suspension), and the non-power steering that is such a delight through corners is bound to be a pain in parking lots. So from a practicality standpoint, the 2011 Tesla Roadster runs out of juice even among exotic sports cars, especially when you consider its comparatively limited range and the 3.5-hour recharge time. Even its gasoline-free powertrain won't necessarily be that cheap to feed, depending on how much you pay for electricity.
And yet, like most sports cars, the Tesla's practicality quotient probably won't be a huge concern for those with sufficient means to pick one up as yet another weekend toy. You won't be the early electric adopter as you once could've been, but if you're looking for a wickedly fast and fun sports car that will never have to visit a gasoline station, then the 2011 Tesla Roadster is more than just a trendsetter.
The 2011 Tesla Roadster is a two-seat convertible available in two trim levels. The Roadster 2.5 comes standard with cast aluminum wheels (16-inch front, 17-inch rear), a removable soft top, cruise control, air-conditioning, leather upholstery, heated seats, power windows and locks, a spare mobile electric connector, a touchscreen electronics interface, Bluetooth and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player and an iPod/USB audio interface. The 2.5 Sport adds more power, forged alloy wheels and an adjustable suspension. Other than the power boost, these items are optional on the base model.
Options include special charging connectors, a body-color or carbon-fiber hardtop, winter tires, carbon-fiber exterior styling flourishes, upgraded leather upholstery and extended interior leather trim. The Infotainment group adds a larger touchscreen interface, a navigation system, a rearview camera and a seven-speaker sound system with a subwoofer, satellite radio and HD radio.
Like the Lotus Elise on which it is based, the tiny 2011 Tesla Roadster features a rather spartan interior. There are heated seats and standard leather upholstery, but otherwise don't expect the sort of luxury normally associated with a car costing $100,000 -- even with the pricey extended leather "Executive" package. Sports cars rarely provide an abundance of space, but even among this cramped segment, the Tesla Roadster's cabin is confining and difficult to enter and exit. Taller drivers in particular will want to go through circus contortionist training before climbing in -- especially with the roof in place.
For 2011, Tesla thankfully has reshaped the seats and included additional sound insulation, which improves cabin comfort. A new large touchscreen interface that's available with the pricey Infotainment group improves functionality, while bringing with it a navigation system and a rearview camera.
The 2011 Tesla Roadster is equipped with a 375-volt AC-induction air-cooled electric motor that produces 288 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. The Sport gets a bump to 295 lb-ft of torque. Both come with a single-speed transmission. The base Roadster goes from zero to 60 mph in a Tesla-estimated 3.9 seconds. The Sport is 0.2 second quicker.
Tesla says the Roadster's lithium-ion battery has a maximum range of 245 miles. Using the optional high-power 240-volt charger, it should take 3.5 hours to recharge from empty.
As much as the Tesla's interior suffers for its Lotus Elise roots, it greatly benefits when it comes to handling. The suspension might've been softened in Tesla guise, but this is still one of the best-handling cars on the market. The available 10-mode adjustable suspension has the potential to make it even better. You'd think that an electric car would have electric power steering, but the Tesla Roadster in fact has zero power steering, and this makes for superb response and feel but a lousy time in parking lots.
The real story, though, is the eerily muted thrust from the electric motor. Tire noise is more audible than the subdued whine from the electronics tucked behind your right shoulder, yet the Roadster's acceleration is breathtaking, especially from a standing start with all that torque on tap.
The Tesla Roadster comes with antilock brakes and traction control. Side airbags are unavailable. A rearview camera is optional.
The 2011 Tesla Roadster -- dubbed "2.5" -- gets more power and a more aggressive look with a new front fascia and a rear diffuser. Other changes include glossy forged wheels in either silver or black, new seats with a new lumbar support system, additional sound-deadening insulation, a new touchscreen and a back-up camera.