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Motoring: Tesla provides a jolt

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | October 4th, 2010

Many of you may not have heard of Tesla, but trust me, this company will become a household name.

Elon Musk, creator of PayPal, started the company. Though Musk can afford just about any car on the planet, he wanted to own a car company that produces only zero-emission vehicles.

The company started operations in 2003 and started showing prototypes by 2005. Over the next few years, much research and development was done and a global dealer network was set up. Now, Tesla has dealers in over 25 countries.

Their dealership in Toronto started doing business late last year, and the first customer cars started trickling out earlier this year. So far, just over 30 cars have been delivered in Canada — not bad for a new car company that still doesn't have a proper showroom, and the base model has a price of $125,000.

So it's not cheap to get into a full-sized electric car, but is it worth it?

To find out, I asked the Tesla staff to book me into a car for a day. They booked me into their latest model the Roadster Sport 2.5, and like the original Roadster model, this one also is based off the Lotus Elise. While almost all body panels are different, you cannot hide this car's roots by giving it new clothes.

The Elise platform has its plus and minuses. On the plus side, it is a very rigid, lightweight and compact platform, certainly the best chassis in the business to use for a sports car. On the minus side, you get high door sills which makes getting in and out a bit of a challenge, especially if the roof is on.

As you climb into the minimal adjustable seats, you will find the steering wheel is not adjustable. In short: you either fit in this car, or you don't.

It is strange at first when you start this car, because there is no whirring from the starter motor or any exhaust sound. You simply press "D" on the centre console (it has a push-button gear selector) and start driving.

I noticed that the non-powerassisted steering is quite heavy at slow speeds, so it's not ideal for making a three-point turn in. Thankfully, the steering weight eases up at driving speed, and boy, does this thing ever get up to speed. This has to be one of the quickest cars I have ever driven. Since it has an electric motor, it doesn't have to wait to build up torque; the moment you press the throttle, the car takes off. Since it also has a single speed gearbox, it doesn't have to choose the right gear for the speed for acceleration, either. This car is always ready to slingshot you forward.

Its motivation comes from a 375 volt AC induction air-cooled electric motor, which produces 288 hp and 295 lb/ft of torque. With a curb weight of just 2,723 lbs, you get a car that can accelerate from 0-100 km/h in 3.9 seconds with a limited top speed of 200 km/h.

Since the Tesla is based on the Lotus chassis, this car is nimble and very predictable. While at the track it won't handle like an Elise due to its extra weight, on the road you won't feel it lacking. In fact, thanks to its revised damper settings, the Tesla has a better ride than its Lotus cousin.

The Tesla is an entertaining car to drive, but it is not without faults. First, you need space near an electrical outlet when you park it, because you will need to charge it. This can take up to eight hours. Tesla claims you can go nearly 394 km on a full charge, though in reality a range of 300 km can be expected. The second downside is that you will need to have another car, because of our winters. Of course, playthings are never supposed to be practical. Plus, if you can afford a Tesla, you can probably afford to have another car.

The biggest downside is the price for two reasons. First, my test car with all available options picked, stickered at $175,000. That is a lot of money for a car with few creature comforts. Second, the Lotus Elise starts at $60,000. You can buy a lot of gas with the money you saved, but that would be missing the point.

The Tesla is expensive because it is the first all-electric car. A lot of money has been spent developing this car, and since this is not a mass-produced vehicle, the per-unit cost is high.

Am I convinced? Absolutely. If I could afford a Tesla, I would buy one. While I would miss the exhaust music produced by exotic sports cars, I could get used to the unique whirring sound of the electric motor as you speed away.

The Tesla is not for everybody, but if you want a full-size electric toy car, and can afford it, then you should certainly get yourself one. You can thank me later.
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