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Tesla roadster – most fuelless fun


People think that if you’re a car enthusiast you have something against electric cars. Not in the least. To me the nice thing about electric vehicles is, if nothing else, they free up the gasoline for our other cars.

I think many car enthusiasts see the future as one where they will use some kind of electric car or hydrogen car during the week and will save their sports cars for the weekend, just as you would play golf or football at the weekend.

What Tesla, an American company that has made an electric version of the very British Lotus Elise, has done is find a way to enjoy a sports car all week long and be green.

The problem with electric cars up to this point is what I call the veggie burger syndrome. When they came out with the veggie burger they made it look like a hamburger, which was disappointing because it doesn’t taste anything like a hamburger. It had been the same with electric cars until this point.

They would take a Volkswagen Golf or some equivalent, rip out the innards and replace it with an electric motor. So you get a car that is not only slower but would not be as safe because most of the safety features were probably taken out of it, it wouldn’t go as far and you’d have something that was less than what you started with.

Tesla is quite smart in that it is reaching the enthusiasts of the market. If you like sports cars and you want to be green, this is the only way to go. The Tesla is a car that you can live with, drive and enjoy as a sports car. I had a brief drive in the car and it was quite impressive. This is an electric car that is fun to drive. Prior to this, most electric cars were driven by people with earth shoes.

I love electric cars. One of the favourites in my garage is my 1909 Baker Electric car. But in the 98 years since that car was made, battery technology and therefore electric car technology has not changed a huge amount.

In the early 1900s Thomas Edison developed an alkaline battery to double or triple the range of the electric car. It didn’t quite do that, but alkaline batteries were neat in that they could be rinsed out and used over and over again. In fact I’m still using the alkaline battery that came with the Baker and was made by Edison himself.

In 1909 a frustrated Edison wrote on a napkin at a dinner and handed it to Henry Ford. On it he’d written: “The electric car is dead.” Almost from that note right up until Tesla, Edison wasn’t far wrong. Not much has been done to progress the battery-powered car since.

Tesla is not the first major manufacturer to have an electric car. GM came out with the EV1 in the early 1990s. I had one for a week and I loved it. It was quick but it only went about 125 miles on a charge. In 80 years it went only 10 miles further that my 1909 Baker Electric, and really a 125-mile range means you only have about a 60-mile range, because you have to come back.

One of the hidden things they don’t tell you about electric cars is that you get good mileage when the temperature is 20C, but when it drops down towards freezing you lose 20-40% because they’re dependent on the ambient temperature. What Tesla has done is put in a cooling/heating system that keeps the battery at a constant temperature.

It’s also built a car that weighs 2,600lb, which is a few pounds heavier than the standard Lotus, whereas most electric cars would be hundreds of pounds heavier. And it handles and drives, for all intents and purposes, like a real sports car.

The difference with this is that it’s faster than a standard Lotus. For something to succeed it has to not only do it as well but better. The Wankel engine was the only brand new engine of the 20th century, but the trouble was it was the equal of the internal combustion engine, it just wasn’t better. So why change? To the average person it’s a case of I’ll stick with what I have.

With this Tesla, you have a Lotus which is faster. The only disadvantage is that you can’t refuel quite as quickly. However, when you do refuel, it’s the equivalent of five cents a gallon, or something similar.

The Tesla handles well. I suppose if you took both it and a Lotus on a racetrack, the standard Elise would win. But for the average person taking it out for a drive, I think you would be really, really impressed. It’s a proper car that meets emission and safety standards. Prior to this, when you saw an electric car in America you didn’t get the airbags and it was sort of a kit car. All you were doing was saving energy. This one meets all federal standards of car production.

Driving the car takes some getting used to. But boy is it quick. It does 0-60mph in 4sec. Like a petrol car, you just put your foot down and go. The real trick with electricity is that it’s alive. You put it in a box and it either escapes or dies. The best way to use power is at the point of generation, which is what hybrids do but then you are back with the problem of having two powerplants and the extra weight. Electricity is the best way to run an automobile in the sense that there is no maintenance of any kind.

I have never done any maintenance on my 1909 Baker Electric, other than maybe greasing the wheel hubs. You don’t do anything. You plug it in, charge it and drive it. The motor is virtually maintenance-free. This is a car made back in 1909 I am talking about, and the Tesla is the same way. There is nothing much to break or wear out in the engine department, with the exception of maybe the battery, which remains to be seen. They are claiming well over 200 miles per charge, which is pretty impressive.

Behind the wheel the power comes on sharply because it’s linear. You have instant torque. The faster you accelerate the faster you go. You’ve got a two-speed transmission so you can actually shift it. It’s a slightly different sensation but I think it’s something you’d get used to quickly. You’ve got air-conditioning and a radio and all the things you would have in a normal car. It’s quiet. But many fast cars now are quiet.

When I drove the EV1 I was amazed at how fast it was. Back in the 1990s it was really quick. Top speed was about 85-90mph, but in the real world most of the fun is between 40mph and 80mph, where you put your foot on it.

In the real world I have a Porsche Carrera GT, I have a McLaren F1, and anybody that tells you they’ve taken those cars to 200mph is a liar. They haven’t. Believe me. I did a couple of hundred laps at Talladega and the fastest I got to was 190mph – on a track. By myself. And it was scary. Nobody does those speeds on a public road. If you do, you should be in prison. The real-world fun of acceleration is between 40mph and 80mph.

I think Colin Chapman, the Lotus founder, would be impressed by the technology in the Tesla. He was always looking at making cars lighter and lighter. Lightness is, of course, what makes a car handle. I would say this is the first electric car that truly handles. I think Chapman would be pleased if his design was chosen as an example of superior handling and dynamics.

If one day they were to start a green racing league that used no petrol of any kind, this car would probably win the race the first year out. It feels like a proper sports car.

Would I buy one? Well yes, I would be interested in it. Right now they’re $100,000, so consequently it’s something rich people would buy. But most new technology starts out with rich people. Antilock brakes started out on the big Cadillacs and Lincolns. They didn’t start out on economy cars. To start with it’s the rich buyers that can absorb the cost. Anybody who buys a Tesla now is making a statement about buying responsibly. It’s a way to make a high performance statement for the new millennium.

If you dropped somebody in from another planet and said, this one with a petrol engine or this one with an electric motor, well, they’d probably say the Tesla. The only downside is the time it takes to charge and that is probably the next step.

The Tesla shows sports cars can be electrifying. The sports car needn’t die once oil runs out. I guess this is the first car that means we as sports car aficionados can see beyond the end of the internal combustion engine.

(c) bbc.co.uk

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