The Wilder family's first electric car: a 2008 Tesla Roadster
The Wilder family's first electric car: a 2008 Tesla Roadster will be joined shortly by a Nissan LEAF, both to be 'fueled' by the Sun.

Reflections On My First Tesla Test Drive

Founder of the WilderHill Index shares his impressions.

By Robert Wilder

Dr. Robert Wilder has now had his 2008 Tesla Roadster for more than two years during which time he's essentially powered it with sunlight. In an upcoming article he recounts the lessons learned. In advance of that, we thought you'd enjoy reading his personal reflections about spending nearly $100,000 on a single car.

With pieces already by others on 1st impressions test driving the coming 2008 Roadster, I'll instead focus on some of my own feelings & concerns going into a first -- and it turns out rather surprising -- test drive. Please excuse the fairly personal nature of this post.

Since sending in a check long ago, I reckon I've 'sort of' owned an early 2008 Roadster sight unseen. But it still was a tremendous leap of faith for the whole family and me to have spent so much on a car that I knew so little about. So when the company asked if I wanted to actually test-drive a near-production car, I jumped at the chance.

First it meant this car itself was probably for real: at least I needn't endure years of ribbing from my wife for buying a non-existent car! Secondly with keys at last in hand, I was curious: what would I feel in my heart and head behind the wheel driving this unique, entirely new electric vehicle (EV)? Can EVs even begin to fulfill the promises?

I'd long been captured by the idea of wrapping a beautiful lightweight car body around thousands of Li-ion cells, with a strong AC motor and regenerative braking. But still it was all merely a thought: could it really come together as a great driving car?? Nobody had pulled it off in production so this Roadster was trying something pretty special. Certainly the world's major automobile manufacturers had ALL given up on EVs long ago as a mass production proposition and their comments about EVs since were derisive.

So there is a rather a lot riding on this coming car. Because I'm passionate about fast cars, emotional feedback was no small matter to me. But before going into the test drive, I'll share the thorny hurdle from when I first came across this car in concept long ago.

I'll admit straight off that the hurdle wasn't that it was electric. Rather it was the price: a quick calculation showed this would be not only the most expensive car I'd ever bought but roughly what I'd spent on all cars before in my life ... all put together.

Yet in my gut, I felt an EV if put together in properly disruptive way absolutely could yield a car unlike any before. More than anything, that caused me to swallow and send a check ... it was how much better an EV could be, by integrating right parts and thinking.

But whether this car could deliver when so many failed -- still made this a leap of faith.

Mindful this car might deliver superior ride, more thrills at speed and be better all-round to boot profoundly changing perceptions -- or instead could be the most expensive failure I'd ever known, I was going into this first actual test drive with a lot on my mind. Walking up to this car, its mid-size and curvy proportions of a supercar stand out yet do not appear extravagant to my eye outside, nor once I first sit at the wheel. Happily it is appealing (it is pretty flashy yes, but) not too showy for my tastes inside or out.

I wanted it to be simply lovely; not over-the-top expensive-looking, nor plain, nor like some awkward science fair project as some EVs have been. I think its styling hits the nail on the head, elegant while singularly different, maintaining a nice sense of balance.

Whew(!) a first key hurdle is cleared. It's beautiful which is essential. It bears semblance to a lithesome Lotus Elise, or Exige though a bit longer wheelbase. However the Elise is evolving in appearance and this a bit larger Roadster seems more timeless to my eye.

Opening the door this doorsill is very high, much too high so it makes getting in a not happy experience for non-limber me. To their credit they lowered even higher(!) doorsills of an Elise and met added side-crash tests, but this doorsill is my biggest complaint on getting in. This clearly is going to be a long time complaint of mine about this car for years to come (but not related to its electric drivetrain, which is what's special).

Turning the key creates a buzzing and whirring but that's not too disconcerting and soon stops. The seats (near-production versions I think) hold one in tightly and I quickly adjust to the feel. Next on putting the car into gear 'D”, I see there's creep programmed in so it feels like a gasoline-car (a 'gasser'). I thus lightly brake to prevent inching on ahead.

Next, allowing the car to gently move from the curb, I find steering is pretty stiff at very slow speed: this could take a bit of getting used to compared to power-assisted steering.

OK, deep breath... will this car meet my hopes when I tap the accelerator? I'm worried for example about a cogging feel, or this car may at last give sensation of just a an expensive golf cart. I'm hoping for something from this Roadster better than any EV I've driven. This is the first modern EV of consequence for sale and none heretofore shined.

Remarkably then a surprising feeling of abundance flows as I pull away from the curb even at slow speeds. An abundance of available pulling torque, and horsepower, of silence, of elegant engineering, and careful design is what this car 'is saying' to me.

Steering quickly lightens and my hopes for what an electric car could be begin to find basis in reality... so far so good, I begin to feel some feedback now behind the wheel. My apprehensions start to melt away. But I still need to push it, not treat this beast like something I'm glad can actually budge -- but rather treat this as a real sports car.

At my first green light, I punch it: what really surprises me is how we pull away quickly with no flat spots in the motor's power, followed by my mouth feeling funny... I then notice I'm actually grinning. This is the 'EV grin' and it is indeed pretty wild.

So despite the conventional wisdom, EVs do not need to be slow like regular gassers.

I think about our solar-powered home: we make some 6.5 kW from sunlight that lands on our roof, so no unrest in the Middle East, nor deepsea drilling nor an oil spill, no terrorism at oil rigs or pipelines or refineries, nor huge nationalized oil interest nor private one can hamper my own drive. With 'my Roadster' (I'm beginning to really want this car, to get off oil and make my own fuel!) I should get 200+ MPG... heck, better than 1 million MPG because I don't need oil in the first place. I see quite little downside.

It's now that I notice the speedometer says I'm going faster than I realize. I drive my gassers at high RPMs/low gears, using engine compression to slow that really telegraphs speed changes to driver. Lacking any engine sounds and not always hunting for a gear, I now find driving is a bit like a 'game' or Disney ride (remember Rocket Sled?!).

The turbine-like sound whirring behind my ears is relatively quiet. Having a motorcycle as a youth and owning very noisy older gassers today, I thought I might miss the instructive revving sounds of fossil fuels furiously converting into mainly waste heat in classic (read: old) British engines, but I find myself liking this EV silence quite a lot.

It strikes me that my long-term fuel costs should be better too; one expects gasoline to head upwards in cost. Yet for this Roadster, 'fuel' costs on solar amazingly enough, drop down to zero. Solar panels sitting silently on our roof pay for themselves in 10 years or even less; we've already had them for many years and so reckon in 2011 or so they'll have paid for themselves -- thereafter for decades we get green electron fuel, free.

Imagine that: free fuel from the sun + energy independence and a car faster than say a Porsche Cayman S ... wow. It's been said the stone-age didn't end because we ran out of stones; combining elegant solar power with EVs just feels like a solution at hand.

Now a sports car needs competent brakes, a car is only as fast as its brakes. So I do a series of fast 0-50-0 stops/starts and detect no fade. Importantly, stopping distance is short, pedal feel excellent and degree of power assist right for me. Next up are ascending curves and chance for 20-50 mph bursts, to push handling closer to where I like to be.

I was convinced before this test drive I'd stay near speed limits, not push matters. Yet I kind of like to throw out rear wheels a bit in my Lotus 7. Mid-range acceleration and handling are my favorites. Tempted, I go into that first curve pushing matters a bit.

I'd note here probably the trait I seek most in any EV, or any gasser is lightness. Adding in lightness creates snowballing benefits like allowing for great handling, and it also makes for a better car. Heaviness has an opposite effect. So I am keenly aware of weight ...

To briefly illustrate how far cars today drifted to obesity, if my three+ decades-old 1969 Lotus Super 7 TC weighing about 1,200 lbs was stacked on an identical one, they both would weigh less than a single Miata, considered among the lightest of modern cars.

Likewise two older classic Mini (Australian Moke) 4 seaters here each weigh about 1,500 lbs apiece. They're great for family & fun, yet if stacked (as were actually designed to be!) both those would still weigh much less than most single 4-seaters today. And I don't know how many 4 seater Minis it would take stacked, to equal a single morbidly obese Hummer in weight, but that's probably worth a laugh. Weight matters.

Thus I'd been encouraged early on to see a high priority put on lowest possible weight, when I first saw the 2008 Roadster's specs including use of carbon fiber and aluminum. Lightening is an area where mainstream manufacturers of even today's gassers should turn attention to ahead, given their obese gassers can benefit (although not as much as EVs which are more efficient and weight-sensitive).

With this Roadster starting out having an aluminum extrusion frame and adding in more lightness such as via Li-ion batteries and carbon fiber body, they clearly were being attentive to every pound and this was pretty impactful upon me. So I went into this very first curve attentive to how heavy this near-mass-production Roadster would feel, and how it might handle. With batteries alone adding around 1,000 pounds, I think, truly the pounds being put elsewhere upon this car would be felt and count.

Aiming into my first curve at speed, I first hear a very heavy 'thunk, thunk, thunk' sound at wheels as I drift a bit over 'Botts' dots', those small raised yellow reflective markers in centerline here in California. Maybe it's because the car otherwise is so quiet or the batteries make it (I am guessing several hundred pounds amidships?) heavier than a say roughly 2,000 lb. Exige, that heavy thunking is quite noticeable to me.

As the car continues to drop into this curve, I hit the accelerator at the apex and boy, does the rush of this car make those problems go away! Unlike a gasser one commands loads of torque without ever bogging the engine down or needing to downshift. It's so cool; even though I am heading uphill overall, it seems effortless to hug curves at high cornering limit. It appears so balanced I don't think my passenger sweats our speed.

A fear I'd had driving very early EVs was this one might feel like it needed to be pushed uphill -- I now see that's totally unfounded here. And importantly this car I'm driving isn't 'vaporware' like an EV great in concept, but that never comes to fruition. Likewise this battery solution here doesn't require unobtanium at all (a substance that's great, if only it existed at a viable cost, but doesn't yet today): it's 100% real.

I don't on this early test drive (of a non-final car) greatly notice the regenerative braking; I imagine it is dialed in not far from the feeling of strong engine compression slowing some high-revving gasser: the difference is that instead of wastefully heating brakes and trying to vent heat, energy captured slowing this EV extends its range. How stupid a gasser now seems, to expend energy uphill but recapture none back down!

[A brief note from 2011 is this regenerative braking on production car 1 now feels very comfortable after two full years. We use it to slow the car in everyday driving by lifting off the accelerator, rather than step on the brake... a slightly different way of driving, one that is more enjoyable and easier. A test drive of the newer 2011 car 2 felt like it has considerably less regeneration, which we'd increase. That said the $20K car 2 is far preferable to us for its cost, over any $20K gasser in the world!]

We take curve after curve and it's a whole lot of fun. As my test drive ends on this nearly-here- 2008-production car, I'm surprised to find I now have much less of a 'Zen' attitude about actually getting my Roadster, compared to when I got in at the start of this drive.

As others report, my feeling too is one of 'hey, I want this car as soon as I can get it!' On first getting in for this test drive, a bicyclist had come over and asked what this car was ... on reply he said he'd heard these were the most expensive cars ever made! I chuckled (can't afford something like that!) but also groan inside since this 2008 Roadster costs less $ than a German, British or Italian supercar of like performance.

But this is a crux of the matter: this Roadster may pretty radically alter perceptions of electric cars, importantly helping to start an interesting EV (with PV) future.

I thus hope once this 2008 Roadster comes out, a new reality that EVs really can exist (and be good) will stimulate movement by other manufacturers in the U.S. Asia, Europe etc to produce more affordable EVs, and still less costly ones soon after that.

The Roadster's mystique should dissipate as they come out and I look forward to that. But most of all I like the idea that we could all one day be driving a raft of great EV cars, many running on clean energy, and it's 'gassers' that will give us all a chuckle.

Times Article Viewed: 9467
Published: 15-Apr-2011


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