Tesla Roadster (Syndication)

Tesla Roadster

Whether or not Tesla Motors is still with us in 10 years, no one who’s driven the 2009 Tesla Roadster will forget the experience. Its continuous, smooth, unstoppable surge of power from 0 to 100 mph, and higher, will turn any driver into an electric car acolyte.

In Performance mode, the Tesla Roadster will do 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds, besting cars that cost twice its $109,000 sticker price. Suddenly, shifting gears, watching a tachometer, listening to the note of a combustion engine—that all seems so tedious, so old-fashioned. Welcome to the new century.

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The 2009 Tesla Roadster itself is a two-seat, soft-top sports car adapted from certain components of the Lotus Elise. It’s easier to get into, and the passenger space is greater, than the Elise. But its audacious acceleration comes from a 185-kilowatt (248-horsepower) electric motor powered by a 53-kilowatt-hour battery pack that provides 200 or so miles of range.

Weighing 990 pounds, that pack sits behind the driver—where the Lotus Elise sites its engine. Inside the sealed black metal box are 6,831 commodity lithium ion cells like the ones that power mobile phones and laptops, linked by an enormous and complex array of sensors, circuits, liquid cooling, and fail-safe engineering. The goal is to keep any one cell that may short-circuit from igniting its neighbors, a la YouTube videos of flaming laptops times a thousand. The electric motor and transmission that power the rear wheels are located behind the battery pack.

Bumps Along the Road

But Tesla’s path to production hasn’t been as smooth as the Roadster’s power delivery. The car was revealed in 2006 amidst a huge media love-fest, with deliveries to begin in early 2008. A year later than planned, after a redesign to replace a two-speed transmission that proved too weak for the car’s torque, production vehicles began reaching buyers who had paid for them as much as three years earlier.

Starting in August, 100 Roadsters were delivered during 2008. As of March 2009, the company is producing 20 cars a week and had delivered more than 200; at that rate, it will clear its backlog of more than 1,000 advance orders by the end of 2009. The company plans to build and deliver 1,600 Roadsters annually in 2009 and 2010.

Not surprisingly, Tesla racked up $43 million in operating losses from 2002 to 2006. In August 2007, founding CEO Martin Eberhard stepped down—or according to inside sources was forced out—and was replaced on an interim basis by Michael Marks, an early investor. In November 2007, the company hired a new chief executive officer, Ze’ev Drori, from automobile security firm Clifford Electronics. In turn, Drori himself was replaced in October 2008 by the highly controlling primary investor, Elon Musk.

Much of Tesla’s promise results from its plans for an entire line of electric performance cars. The 2011 Model S four-door sports sedan, unveiled on March 26, is planned as its next model. It will be priced at $57,400—meaning buyers will pay a hair under $50,000 once a $7,500 federal tax credit is applied.

Analysts are openly skeptical about Tesla’s ability to compete successfully against such formidable competitors as the Audi A4 and BMW 3-Series. Perhaps two dozen companies globally build small volumes of fast, pricey sports cars, and Tesla was able to bootstrap the Roadster by adapting Lotus components, focusing its own efforts on the unique battery pack and drivetrain, and subcontracting the assembly to Lotus. In fact, Chrysler has slavishly followed this model for its very similar Dodge Circuit EV sports car.

But Tesla says its Model S will be designed and built from scratch, rather than adapted from another vehicle as the Roadster was. Moreover, the company plans to manufacture the sedan in its own factory. Together, industry analysts say, that prospect could cost most of a billion dollars.

Owner Love

Meanwhile, the 250 owners who’ve already taken delivery of their Tesla Roadsters seem to love them. Former software entrepreneur David Wilner, of Berkeley, California, practically grins as he calls his Roadster “very sweet.” And that’s after owning performance cars as diverse as a Porsche 911, the all-electric AC Propulsion T-Zero…and a Buick Grand National.

Wilner took delivery of his Roadster in January 2009. With travel, he hasn’t had the chance to drive it as much as he’d like, but says the range is, “realistically, a little under 200 miles” for mixed travel. But he notes that the first question he’s usually asked is not how fast it accelerates, but what the top speed is.

The Roadster, he says, is “incredibly well balanced” and lets Wilner have Porsche performance with no CO2 impact—since he recharges his Tesla from the array of solar panels on his house. He did cite one potential drawback, though: A restaurant valet flatly refused to drive the Roadster, knowing it was an electric vehicle, and told him to park it himself. A minor inconvenience for having so much fun with so little impact on the environment.