Of course, we all know that rated range doesn't necessarily equate to real-world range, and real-world car performance doesn't always live up to what you read in the magazines, either. Indeed in our testing we weren't able to make it the full 245 miles that Tesla says you can in a roadster, nor did we come close to approaching this thing's 125mph top speed. But, after spending plenty of hours wedged inside the cockpit of this $128,500 sporty EV we did walk away mighty impressed, not only with how it drove but in how it sounded. Read on, and you might just be too.
Tesla Roadster 2.5 SportSee all photos
Typically we'd do a set of unboxing pictures for a high-profile new gadget like this but, well, deploying this thing required only backing it out of the Tesla showroom on West 25th and onto the street -- through a doorway with about an inch to spare on either side. Thankfully this was a task handled for us -- just driving this on a city street felt challenging enough, thanks in large part to the color.
Telsa calls it "Lightning Green" but "loud" will do just fine. Most little cars disappear in NYC. Not this one. The most jaded of hipsters and poshest of businessmen turned their head to look at this curious little evergreen thing that zipped through intersections without making a noise. If you want to be subtle, pick a different color. Maybe a nice shade of silver.
It's so quiet because it is, of course, a battery-powered electric car. There's no hint of hybrid trickery here, not a whiff of combusted fuel, just a big lump filled with lithium ions tucked behind the seat and a hand-wound electric motor slung down behind the rear wheels. That 375 volt motor puts down 295lb-ft of torque in Sport guise (273 if you go for the $19,000 cheaper base Roadster) and 288HP. It has a torque curve so flat you could build a boat on it.
That's paired with a 53kWh li-Ion battery pack that contains 6,831 cells and is about the same size as a chest freezer. It slots into the chassis where your average Lotus Elise would get a Toyota-sourced 1.8 liter engine, this car sharing a frame and a lot of DNA with that little roadster from Hethel. Tesla indicates that less than 10 percent of the two cars are actually shared, but it sure feels like a lot more. That's not a bad thing, mind.
The result is a two-seater with a removable fabric lid (there's an optional carbon hardtop) that has a wheelbase of 92.6-inches and a curb weight of 2,723lb. That's over 700lbs more than an American-spec Elise, but its 288HP does compare quite favorably to that the other's 189. And while you might think the lack of internal explosions piped through a sports-tuned exhaust might make for a tiresomely quiet affair, think again. Driving this car sounds like cruising around in Blade Runner, but you don't have to debate the implications of origami unicorns. This is for real.
Taking a seat
Getting gracefully into and out of the Roadster is, again like the Elise, something that takes a little practice. It's a bit like squeezing into a fiberglass karting seat, except here that seat is clad in leather. It also isn't bolted to the chassis, but if you're expecting power adjusters or lumbar support boy oh boy are you reading the wrong review.
Plop down first then swing the legs in and you'll be ready to go sans-hernia. The little Momo wheel falls right to hand, the simple brake and gas pedal nicely under-foot. Yes, that's all your tootsies will have to do here. There's a single-speed transmission, so no clutch required. And yes, we did just say how much we preferred having a traditional gearbox to driving something with flappy paddles, but this is different.
Here instead of having a computer shift for you there's no shifting to do at all. Sure, that seems boring, but the basic result is that you're always running in first gear. Since the motor can manage 14,000 RPM it never needs another gear and the result is amazing throttle response that will put passengers in neck braces should you not give them the courtesy of a heads-up before dipping into the throttle.
It is a bit of a bummer to lose the feeling of rowing through the gears as you flow through the corners, but really it's proper throttle response at any speed that is the real joy of driving a manual, and this car has that in spades. That's especially true in Performance Mode. Give the key another twist to enable it and suddenly the gas pedal becomes hugely more responsive, and even more likely to induce whiplash in those sitting to the drivers' right.
The car was picked up in New York City, one of the worst places in the civilized world to drive. So away we went, heading due north to a Level 2 charging station with our name on it up in Albany, NY. On the highway it's a little over 150 miles, but that's no fun -- and battery-powered EVs don't necessarily like long stretches at high speed anyway.
So we wound our way up along the river, burning no more gasoline than Henry Hudson did on his journey through these parts, and also doing without any nasty mutiny business. Mind you, the river that would be named after him is hardly a jaunty affair, but many of the roads that run along it are, and the Roadster Sport handled them with aplomb.
Tesla Roadster 2.5 Sport part 2See all photos
It offers user-tweakable suspension on all four corners plus adjustable rollbars. We weren't privy to the car's default settings but it did feel a bit soft, breaking neither backs nor bums when crashing over Empire State potholes. Still, it wasn't exactly a comfortable ride, and it certainly handled the corners smoothly and with composure.
Steering is all manual here so don't give up on those wrist strength exercises, but do relish the direct connection to the road that you get in return. Also enjoy the cramped seats that are neither particularly comfortable nor supportive. They are, however, light years beyond a real kart seat.
The interior has elsewhere been tarted up with some gratuitous carbon fiber bits that look cool until the sun hits them. The glossy surfaces reflect right into your eyes as you summit a crest, sending you plunging over the edge to your doom, blind. A matte surface like that used on Adrian Newey's F1 cars would have been a little less blingy but rather more safe.
The Alpine-sourced head-unit has plenty of functionality, including an iPod dock connector lounging down in the center console and a USB port hidden under the dash. (Also hidden is the nigh-useless cupholder, which we didn't notice until many hours in the car -- it failed to keep a single drink upright.) It'll do Bluetooth audio and let you do hands-free calling as well, but the interface is clunky and slow.
And then there's the breeze, which whistles in around the windows and from somewhere down in the footwell. Yes, this is with the cloth top firmly in place and the windows up and the vents closed. It's a drafty car, which is a bit of an issue when you're trying to maximize range and minimize usage of the heater.
As it turns out we didn't really need to worry. We made the trip up with the heated seats cranked and the heat blowing -- though just barely. It was just a tick under 165 miles and we coasted in with the car showing zero range. That's something of a safety measure, though: when the charge gets low the car stops trying to give you an estimate, which definitely dials up the pucker factor on your range anxiety, but doesn't necessarily mean imminent doom.
On the way back we used the seats and heat much more sparingly, and spent a little less time in performance mode -- but still had a lot of fun. The result was still covering the 165 mile difference but this time the car showed more than 50 miles of range left at our destination. Not bad for a day that hovered around freezing.
The Tesla Roadster 2.5 Sport is one heck of a car. The interior doesn't exactly feel like what you'd expect for your $130k and it isn't the most comfortable place to be. But, that's not what this is about. That doesn't matter. It's a sports car, designed to be sporty, and that it is. This is cliché but it really does feel like an Elise on steroids: slower to change its direction and certainly no marathon runner, but more than capable of throwing you in your seat with just a twitch.
Obviously at that price it's not an EV for everybody, and the $7,500 federal tax break won't do much to help, but those considering far more expensive metal would do well to put this car on their shopping list. Sure, it won't threaten any land speed records on the Salt Flats nor does it come draped with lusty Italian heritage. But its looks will turn heads and, if that doesn't work, the instant oomph here at any speed will snap necks. Which of those two features takes priority is of course up to you, but if it's the former then you should definitely go for the green.