Tom & Cathy Drive a Tesla Roadster
September 17, 2007
Thursday, September 13
Thursday afternoon we got email from Zak explaining about the Roadster "Marketing Drives" to help Tesla Motors get input from customers; within three hours Cathy had signed us up for a spot on Monday (just four days later!) and arranged flights and a rental car. That's pretty quick considering all the jumping up and down with excitement...
Sunday, September 16
We had reserved a Prius as our rental car, but we found some random sedan with our name on it in the designated spot. Back at the counter, we asked about our Prius while the woman next to us wanted to trade her Prius for something else. She explained that she couldn't figure out how it works and was running late so she didn't have time to figure it out. "I need a gas guzzler," she summarized.
The Prius is pretty different -- you don't start it, you just hit the power button and slide a lever into drive. There's no sound of the engine running. It was pretty easy to figure out, Cathy even figured out how to get us out of metric when Tom noticed he was doing 110 as he kept pace with the freeway traffic. A check of the owners manual online later that evening showed that we'd automatically done the requisite step that the frazzled woman probably missed -- pressing the brake when you hit the power button.
Monday, September 17
Our scheduled drive time was 5:30 p.m., so we spent the morning enjoying the DaVinci "genius" exhibit at the Metreon in San Francisco.
After catching the BART and Caltrain back to San Carlos, we hopped into the Prius to head to the designated meeting point, Alice's Restaurant. We'd be early, but planned to eat lunch at Alice's, and figured that we'd probably be able to see the car charging after the previous drive. After a couple miles, Tom realized that he'd left his driving gloves at the hotel, so we turned around to retrieve them. The U-turn on red that the car in front of us pulled seemed suspicious, so we waited for the green. Even with the brief back-tracking, we got to Alice's around 3 p.m.
Of course, our first activity upon arrival at Alice's was to search for the Roadster. There are several buildings on the corner with Alice's restaurant, and Cathy noticed a large black cord snaking from one of them, possibly a charger for the electric Roadster. But, on further investigation, it turned out to connect to a propane tank. No sign of the Roadster, so Tom headed up the sloped parking lot to get a good angle for a photo of Alice's Restaurant.
As he got to the top, Tom saw the Tesla!
Thoughts of the restaurant photo were abandoned as we eagerly headed across the road for a closer look -- our first time seeing one in person! Zak and Aaron were charging the silver VP10 from the earlier drive. We looked at the car and took some photos, then headed to Alice's for food while the Roadster charged.
Driving the Roadster
We currently own three cars: a 2001 Honda Insight, a 1996 Nissan Pathfinder, and a 1995 Acura NSX-T. We drive the Insight most often, the Pathfinder when we need the room and the NSX when we feel like having some decadent fun on a nice day.
Our interest in the Tesla Roadster is twofold: we like the concept of an electric car being more efficient and ecologically friendly than the Insight and also as fun to drive as the NSX.
Before today, we had only seen the roadster in photos and video, plus the tantalizing descriptions we've read on Tesla's web site and in the few early-version reviews. We were about 80% sure we'd like the car well enough that we'd be happy to replace the NSX. We like the NSX a lot -- it's a great sports car and it's built to be comfortable and reliable. We think that Tesla is doing very important work, and we'd be willing to compromise a bit to be able to support Tesla's concept and help generate excitement for quality electric cars by driving an eye-catching Tesla Roadster.
After driving VP10, we're totally sold on the Tesla Roadster. It's more fun to drive than the NSX by a good margin. No longer concerned about giving up the NSX, we can't wait to get our Tesla Roadster so we can drive it all the time.
The roadster looks great in the photos from Tesla's web site, Tom uses a couple of them for desktop photos, so we were surprised at how much cooler it looks in person. It's really stunningly beautiful. VP10 is silver, not a color that we were considering from the color swatches on the web site, but it looks great. Cathy was especially enamored with the top beam behind the seats, where the Roadster sports a carbon fiber weave that is visible through a clear surface (picture at right).
The sound of the engine is a big part of the driving experience, and it was a bit disconcerting getting started without the audio cues of the engine starting and revving up before motion begins. But by the time I was out of the parking lot, I was over that. Previously, I had thought that not having the growl of an engine would take away from the driving experience, but I love the sound of the Tesla -- it's straight out of science fiction, the hum of pure energy being turned into motion. The sound we hear when driving a 20th-century car is the sound of energy being wasted, and I much prefer the sound from the first new car of the 21st century.
The Roadster is lower to the ground than the NSX and I felt more connected to the road. One turn I took at a pretty good clip had some uneven pavement, a section that I'm sure would have lit up the dashboard light on the NSX to let me know the traction control system had helped out. The roadster took it beautifully, feeling solid right through it. Maybe it's a better suspension, or maybe its traction control kicked in. Either way, it was great.
The acceleration is amazing. After doing a few curves and getting comfortable with the feel of the car, I floored the accelerator on a straight stretch and actually had a moment of panic when it just kept accelerating as the turn approached all too quickly. It was more than I expected, and I backed off in surprise. Having more of a feel for the power of the car, I was able to push it and found myself feeling very comfortable flying down the straight bits and cornering hard through the curves. I was still showing some restraint -- the road's not a race track -- and that paid off when we rounded a corner and found a bunch of guys tossing a football across the road. I don't know what they were thinking.
My main concern going into the test drive was the feel and response of the accelerator and brakes. I wondered if it would be jerky or otherwise unlike a traditional car. Other than the amazing, relentless acceleration, it felt totally normal. Lifting off of the accelerator slowed the car as expected; the regenerative braking was at the right level for modest deceleration. Going downhill felt very comfortable. In fact it seemed to me that the response of the accelerator was trimmed down a bit from how it felt going uphill, so it actually felt a bit smoother, easier to accelerate going downhill without any jerkiness, than I expected. Overall, the acceleration and braking felt completely right, if anything better than a gasoline-powered car.
I am five foot six and found the seat quite comfortable moved all the way forward. I drove with the top off and the windows up and didn't notice any problem with the wind, even when pushing the speed.
There were some things that aren't perfect. For me, the text on the speedometer is small and partly obscured by the steering wheel, making it hard to read with a quick glance, which is something you'll likely want to do because the car is fast and it will take some time to get a feel for your speed without the normal engine noise cues. I'm not super fond of the thumb rests on the steering wheel, which probably just proves I'm not a hardcore sports car enthusiast. The climate controls could be laid out better; there was one button label I couldn't see because of the tall dial in front of it.
On the way back from the test drive, we saw a red Ferrari. Usually I admire the sight of a Ferrari, but after driving the Tesla roadster, I felt sort of bad for the guy. In several months, we're going to be driving a much cooler car while helping to promote an emerging technology that has the potential to improve the health of the planet and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
Driving the Roadster is easy. It's very nimble and feels light and responsive. I'm sure I didn't push it as hard as most of the drivers, but my main interest in the car is its cool electric technology, and just having fun getting from place to place. So, for me, the best drive is one where it just "feels right," and the Roadster was excellent!
I was a bit concerned whether I would fit the car. I'm just five foot two, and have been in cars where the pedals are uncomfortably far away even from the seat's forward-most position. The Roadster's seat back does not adjust, and is angled back quite a bit. I typically set the back closer to vertical to help me see over the dash, with a better angle to the road.
I'm happy to report that in both cases the Roadster worked out just fine. I might have moved the seat a bit farther forward if that had been an option, but the pedal location was okay. I didn't think about that again during the drive, so it was clearly not a problem.
It's an adventure getting into and out of the Roadster. The seats are below the level of the door jamb, which makes the usual maneuver of just sitting down somewhat awkward. After watching Zak smoothly angle in, I adjusted my technique to match, first placing a foot on the floormat, then lowering myself down. I'm sure I'm still not as adept as Zak, but I'm willing to practice!
Our experience with the motor on our Insight is that it's typically pretty quiet, but emits a high-pitched whine when the motor is strained, rising in pitch as the motor works harder and harder. I was not aware of anything like this, just the quiet whir of the motor happily propelling us along.
I would like the speedometer to be better for showing speed with a glance. There are ticks and labels every 10 mph, but no gradations smaller than that, and the spacing between tens is pretty small. So, granularity for knowing speed with a quick glance is about +/- 10 mph. That's fine at freeway speeds, but keeping to 25 and 35 mph limits on city streets will be extra challenging. It seems like a digital speedometer would be a great solution.
I briefly held one of the hard tops. It was lighter than I expected, and I think I'd be able to put it on the car without assistance.
We only had 2nd gear available, but that was not a problem.
The trunk is more spacious than we had expected; it looks like it could hold 5 or 6 canvas bags of groceries. The cloth top can be put in the trunk, but would use a large portion of it. The trunk latch was a bit finicky. There's a latch on each side and one side didn't release the first few tries. Closing the trunk requires applying pressure evenly to both sides but, in fairness, the trunk on the NSX is also a bit touchy. Cathy's attempt at closing the trunk resulted in only the right-side latch engaging, but a gentle push on the left side of the trunk took care of that side.
The climate controls are nice tactile knobs and buttons, for the most part easy to reach and manipulate without taking your eyes off the road. We made a couple suggestions for improvements, but the issues were pretty minor.
The glove compartment does not have a door (adding a latch and moving part would necessitate having the car crash tested again), but the shelf has a slight lip, making it a reasonable place for a cell phone, iPod, etc. There is a storage area under the passenger seat, which is designed for a pouch containing the owner's manual, registration, and insurance.
VP10 has an iPod connector, but production Roadsters will have an audio headphone jack. This is obviously an advantage for non-iPod MP3s (or future iPods that may change connector formats). I believe it's better for current iPod owners as well. The dedicated connection disables the controls on the iPod, leaving only the radio interface for selecting music. Unfortunately, it appears that radio manufacturers still haven't come out with anything better than treating the iPod like a CD-changer, which means that the interface to your music is restricted to selecting among the first six playlists. Having a simple headphone jack input to the radio enables us to access all our MP3s via the iPod's nice interface.
After our drives, we followed Zak and Aaron back to the Tesla Motors facility, where we got to see various cool techie things.
Here's Tom with a Roadster motor. The orange casing is where power is routed.
The yellow VP had all sorts of wiring exposed.
This is the Roadster's aluminum chassis.
Thanks to Zak, Aaron, and the Tesla crew for a spectacular day!
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