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Tesla Roadster 2009 Review

The world's fastest electric car, the Tesla Roadster, was put through its paces this week at Queensland Raceway where the V8 Supercars usually roar.

While there was no roar from the quiet electric car, there was still plenty of V8-style acceleration with the tiny vehicle whipping up to 100km/h in an impressive 4.2 seconds on a wet track with two people on board. Down the back straight of the circuit, the car wound out to an indicated 110mph (177km/h), just short of its electronically limited top speed of 200km/h.

While there have been plug-in electric cars before and new models are about to hit the Australian market, these are plodding and quirky looking, are slow to recharge and have limited range.

This is where the Tesla is different. It looks and goes like a Ferrari, recharges in 3.5 hours and has a range of about 390km, depending on how hard it is driven.

When we hopped into the car at the track the computer screen display on the left side of the steering wheel said the effective range was 285km. After less than a dozen laps and some hard 0-100km/h tests, the screen displayed the message: ‘Motor getting hot. Power reduced.’ Range was then reduced to about 100km. By this stage the four-wheel ventilated disc brakes were also getting fairly hot and ineffective while the road tyres were losing traction on the wet track with standing water in some corners.

We still managed to set a time on the truncated ‘sportsman’ circuit of 1:13.57. That's not bad considering race cars do the same lap in about 1:06. It's also a track record for an electric car that will probably stand for some years. Our times were gradually getting worse due to the fading brakes, reduced motor power and my passenger; a nervous Eric ‘the human handbrake’ Erickson. He represents Internode, the internet service provider which imported the vehicle for display purposes. Erickson said the car was not designed as a track car, but an ‘everyday sports car’.

"It is designed to give the other manufacturers a bit of a fright that while they are still thinking about their electric cars, this one is already available and turning some heads," he said.

It certainly is a head turner, looking as futuristic as the De Lorean in Back to the Future. Although it doesn't have a flux capacitor for time travel, it is named after a unit of magnetic flux density which is named after Serbian physicist and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla who also invented the radio, AC motor, and Tesla coil.

The Tesla Roadster costs about $160,000 and is only available in left-hand drive so it is not registerable on Australia's roads, however a right-hand version will be built in England from February. It is currently only sold in the US, England, Germany and France.

Tesla is also working on a four-door sedan Model S which is expected to hit the market in 2012. It will cost half as much as the Roadster with almost 500km range, a 45-minute recharge time and a 0-100km/h time of 5.6 seconds.

The Roadster is a product of Tesla Motors in California's Silicon Valley, but was designed by English sports car company Lotus and is assembled in Hethel, England, using many of the Lotus Elise parts and a lightweight carbon fibre body.

Its remarkable acceleration comes from a mixture of immediate maximum torque, light weight and a good power-to-weight ratio. The Roadster weighs just 1.2 tonne, which is about half a tonne less than a 3.5-litre V6 Commodore Omega, but has 185kW of power which is 10kW more and 380Nm of torque which is an extra 55Nm over the Commodore.

Launching off the starting line is like stepping on to an escalator. With maximum torque from 0-5500rpm there is instant cheek-ripping acceleration. However, despite being made by Lotus, this is not a hard-edged sports car and by no means a track car.

The suspension is fairly plush with a bit of nose dive under hard braking. It understeers a little into corners which is surprising given its mid-mounted motor and batteries and light front end.

Punching the throttle to shift the weight and steering emphasis to the tail is hampered by the soft intervention of the stability control system and the human handbrake's refusal to allow me to switch it off.

It uses a single-speed transmission with reversed polarity for reverse which has a limited speed.

Turn the ignition on and you can hear the whirring sound of the large fans under the bonnet which are part of the airconditioning for the cabin and to keep the batteries cool. Then there is a chiming sound to say that the motor is switched on and ready to go. Move away and the whirring increases, but not much louder than normal tyre noise.

The brakes feature a regenerative system to recover power and return it to the battery. It also acts as an ‘engine braking’ system when you take your foot off the accelerator. This braking effect is much more noticeable at slow speeds than high speeds where the vehicle coasts along and slows gradually.

Steering is very heavy, the turning circle is not good and rear visible is poor, so parking is tricky. However, the steering feels precise at high speeds around the "paper-clip" Queensland Raceway circuit, although there is a fair bit of kickback over the notorious bumps. The small steering wheel is set low and is non-adjustable.

While the outside is well made and the sports seats are leather, the spartan interior trim is dominated by hard plastic and cheap-looking instruments. Getting in and out is as difficult as in a Lotus Elise, but once in the cockpit, it feels comfortable with generous legroom and headroom.

The rag top has to be removed by hand and stored in the surprisingly big boot. Even with the top removed, there is little wind noise, so the lack of aural feedback is quite a surprise at high speed.

An interesting feature is a valet mode that restricts speed, acceleration and range while a valet is parking your car _ so no Ferris Bueller's Day Off, either.

Is this the green future of motoring? Not until the mains electricity is also green, but at least it should reduce CO2 emissions in cities and quieten traffic noise.

Tesla Roadster
PRICE: about $200,000 on the road
MOTOR: 3-phase electric
POWER: 185kW and 14,000rpm limit
TORQUE: 380Nm from 0-5500rpm
TRANSMISSION: single speed, rear-wheel drive
BRAKES: ventilated discs with ABS, stability control and regenerative power DIMENSIONS (mm): 3946 (l), 1873 (w), 1127 (h), 2352 (wheelbase) TRACK (mm): 1464/1499 KERB WEIGHT: 1220kg
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h in 3.9 seconds (claimed), 4.2 seconds (tested) TOP SPEED: 200km/h (limited)
RANGE: 390km
RECHARGE: 3.5 hours

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