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All-electric world from Tesla

Barely out of prototype stage, the battery powered Tesla may not yet be a viable alternative mode of transport - but there's no doubt the engineers are hurtling down the right road.  Anthony ffrench-Constant discovers more...

Shame the Lucy Clayton Finishing School for young ladies is no longer in Knightsbridge; I understand they used to have a wooden door and car seat combo for teaching 'the right sort of gel' to origami in and out of low-slung automotive exotica with dignity intact, even when adopting a somewhat Scottish approach to formal underwear.

Opened in June, the UK showroom for Tesla's remarkable, all-electric Roadster is right around the corner, and having just crumpled behind the wheel with all the dignity of a pantomime horse toppling into an orchestra pit, I could really use a lesson.

It's entirely apposite that the last victim of my lithe panzer approach to sportscar access should have been an Elise, because Lotus and Tesla have much in common. Wishing to establish a performance DNA for its all-electric powertrain, Tesla took exactly eight seconds to recognise that the Elise's all aluminium and glass-fibre construction offers precisely the required quantities of Colin Chapman's famous 'added lightness' to ping their Roadster at the horizon with all the alacrity of a bullet fired from a gun that steadfastly refuses to go 'BANG'.

In fact, Telsa claims a mere 7% parts commonality with Lotus, including an Elise chassis stretched by some 6", most of the interior - which is due for a significant overhaul as European spec' cars come on line - and breathed on Exige suspension. The bespoke, carbon fibre bodywork is French-built, and the powertrain is the joint responsibility of one Nikola Tesla, who invented the AC synchronous electric motor in the evening of the 19th century, and a mob of Silicon Valley millionaires, who are the first people since Hornby-Triang to make it fun to play with.

In the engine bay, under nondescript metal covers, lurks a 248bhp electric motor no larger than the size of KFC bucket drafted in by the family that spends at least 16 hours a day on the sofa, 6,831 painstakingly temperature controlled lithium-ion batteries and an electronic power management system with the IQ of a small planet. By conventional, internal combustion standards, this is the world's simplest powertrain; two bearings constitute the sum of motor moving parts subject to wear and tear, there's only one forward gear, and maximum torque of 276lb ft is delivered from a standstill…

Thus armed, the Tesla will not roar in any way whatsoever from 0-60mph in 3.9 seconds, and on to a governed top speed of about 130mph. Claimed maximum range is some 220 miles, with a full charge taking 16 hours, or under four if you happen to have a three-phase electricity lying around somewhere at home. This afternoon, the readout on my Roaster indicates a range of 150 miles, but the nice man from Tesla explains that the harder I drive it the faster that figure will drop. All of which begs the question: Can I get out of central London onto roads suitable for a damned good hoon, and back again, with enough juice in the tank for the round trip?

On board, the Tesla disappoints slightly with an interior pilfered piecemeal from Lotus. Those with the requisite, £90,000 asking price are surely entitled to a somewhat more bespoke environment, and they will, indeed, get it when European specification cars come on line. For now, however, all is pretty much where you left it in the Elise, with the addition of a small LED screen tucked down to the left of the helm which offers battery charge and range information, and firm but adequately supportive seats finished in an eye-watering combination of black and horse-pee yellow.

Switch the Roadster on and, but for a couple of tuneful bongs reminiscent of powering up a computer, absolutely nothing happens. Flick it into drive, foot off the brake, and the Tesla creeps just like any other automatic car. There's no power assistance to the helm but, to be honest, I never really noticed, even in Knightsbridge. And the only real difference to driving a standard automatic in town is that you rarely seem to need the brakes. The retarding effect of a motor which serves as a generator to recharge the battery under regenerative braking is so strong that for the first few miles I find myself inadvertently stopping well short in traffic, and then, gently red-faced, driving up to the car in front.

The other difference, of course, is the notable absence of noise, particularly before wind and tyre noise begin to dominate, and all you can hear is the sound of a very small executive jet taxiing to and fro under the body work. Ironically, however, settled at lorry exhaust pipe height in traffic, there's so much of a racket going on around you that the benefits of silent running are completely lost.

Stamp your foot to the floor when pottering at 30mph, and the result is little short of astonishing; the Tesla belts away with the seamless surge of a catapult launch, leaving you feeling almost short changed at the absence of commensurate bellow. The ride is, however, rather more crash-bang that Lotus' legendary blend of supple, subtle and taut. Maybe it's the added weight. Despite entirely carbon fibre couture, the Telsa is a deal heavier than an Elise and, yes, you certainly do feel the effects of 300 bags of sugar stowed behind your head.

Though Tesla has actually done an acceptable job of disguising it, there is a feeling of the car being somewhat more firmly planted on the road, and the weight is especially noticeable under braking, when it's nothing like as efficient as a Lotus at coming to a rapid standstill. Moreover, a modest shortcoming in handling agility is probably more to do with the absence of toe-in or camber on the front wheels to minimise rolling resistance and increase range.

Whilst the Roadster handles with an aplomb which, to date, has been entirely absent from the electric car oeuvre, it does lack the Lotus ability to dart from lock to lock along severely twisty byways, and is perhaps more comfortable startling other road users on sweeping A roads.

Once you get over having spent some £90,000 on the only car on the motorway without an exhaust pipe, the range issue remains, it strikes me, a problem. If this is ever to be anything other than a rich man's toy, it'll have to be further addressed. Don't get me wrong; 200 miles allied to this performance is little short of astonishing for an all-electric car, and the average commute won't constitute a problem at all. Then again, would you comfortably commute in a Lotus, even if it was exempt from the London Congestion Charge, certain in the knowledge that you'd arrive with your business suit more fully crumpled than the face of a shar-pei puppy?

Fact is, if I wish to coax my popsy any real distance for a filthy weekend, we'll be setting out on Wednesday and returning on Tuesday, the frequent overnight stops required for a 16 hour, full recharge more than somewhat taxing the Tesla's toothbrush and squishy grip luggage capacity.

With just 30% of the energy generated by a combustion engine actually driving a car, as compared to 85% of that generated by an electric motor, and - assuming a fossil fuel power station generates your electricity - the Roadster effectively returning CO2 emissions of just 63g/km, with overnight recharging costs less than £5 of cheap rate electricity, the Tesla still constitutes a huge step in an interesting direction.

Daimler certainly thinks so, and, eager to benefit from the unprecedented efficiency of Silicon Valley's battery and power management technology, has recently acquired a 10% stake in the company. Moreover, with the Model S, a four door saloon with a 300 mile range and a recharging time of as little as 45 minutes waiting in the wings, Tesla is quick to point out that, in the context of a clear century of combustion engine development, the company isn't exactly dragging its heels.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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