Road Worrier

Test-driving a fast, furious and fume-free car

Staff WriterAugust 26, 2010 

— Turn the key and lights come on to tell you the silent, electric-powered Tesla Roadster is ready to go.

Release the hand brake - thank goodness for one old-fashioned feature in this sleek, $109,000 machine - and press the big, round "D" button, for drive.

The Road Worrier was among 18 people in the Triangle who took the California-built Tesla for a spin Wednesday, when it paused in Raleigh on a 12-city tour.

It was fun.

"Whooh!" said Brad Landon, 60, of Raleigh, after he clambered out of the driver's seat. "I can tell you, this is a car you would sell your house for."

A half-ton battery behind the low-slung seat stores enough electric stuff to take the Tesla 240 miles without recharging. It fuels the little 115-pound motor of this very powerful, fast and smooth two-seat sports car.

How does the Tesla work? It's complicated, but simple: Push the pedal and the car moves quickly. Push the pedal hard and it moves VERY quickly.

"I've driven Lamborghinis and Ferraris, and this is so much easier to drive in town," Landon said. "But I haven't been in a car that accelerated like this in about 30 years."

Tesla Motors says the Roadster zips from zero to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds, and I believe it. (Don't tell anybody, but I think I was going about that fast, for maybe 4 thrilling seconds, on Dixie Trail.)

It's eerie to drive a car with so much zoom - andzero vroom. No gas, no internal combustion, no exhaust.

Do you hear that?

And no noise. The Tesla is quiet as a flashlight, until you floor it. Then you hear a muted Batmobile whine. Except for the humming of the tires - and maybe your own astonished gasp - the rest is silence.

Ease up on the pedal, and the motor brakes the car gently. (And as in the Prius and other hybrids, the braking engine helps recharge the battery.)

You won't feel like you're coasting unless you punch the "N" button, for neutral. Driving around West Raleigh, you don't touch the brakes except to come to a full stop.

And when the light turns green on Wade Avenue, put the pedal down sharply and you're shoved into your seat - including the headrest. Ease up on the pedal, and you're back to legal speed before you reach the next driveway.

"This has such a sweet, soft ride, and yet the steering is very responsive," Landon said. "I can imagine just about anybody could get in the car and, in about five minutes, feel as comfortable driving as they would in the family Volvo."

Tesla, based in Palo Alto, Calif.,teamed up with Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer for a promotional tour that stopped Wednesday at Bailey's Fine Jewelers in Cameron Village.

Nationwide, about 1,300 Teslas are on the road, including eight in North Carolina, according to Shaun Phillips, a Tesla sales rep based in Washington, D.C., who was the Road Worrier's co-pilot.

More electric choices

Americans will have less pricey electric car options with the introduction this year of the Chevy Volt, a plug-in gas-electric hybrid, and the all-electric Nissan Leaf. Tesla Motors says it is developing an electric sedan that will be available in a couple of years for about $57,000, about half the cost of its Roadster.

A full recharge for 245 miles of travel consumes about $5 worth of electricity. But it can take hours. A 70-amp unit can do it in less than four hours, Phillips said. For a 50-amp outlet, like the ones used for clothes dryers and recreational vehicles, it's six hours. Conventional 110- and 220-volt outlets take a lot longer.

Tesla owners are more likely to drive 50 or 60 miles on a workday, and then top up the battery with a recharge that takes only minutes, Phillips said.

Luke McClure, a Tesla technician who has driven the cars across Europe and the U.S., said he would stop overnight at a Virginia RV park to recharge the car en route to Washington.

McClure keeps the tour car running - an easy task, he said, for a vehicle with no spark plugs, pistons, hoses, belts or clutch, and no oil changes. "It only has about 18 moving parts," McClure said. "So I don't even get my hands dirty."

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