A good friend of mine, who lives in one of the Harvard College Houses, called me up on Saturday night with an intriguing challenge. A buddy of his from college was coming into town tomorrow on business, and this buddy just happened to be Camille Ricketts, Communications Manager for Tesla Motors. She was driving a Roadster Sport up from New Haven to let Boston newspapers review it, and had made him an offer: he could keep the Roadster in the courtyard overnight if he could have it fully charged by morning. Otherwise she would park it at some arbitrary Boston-area charging station, and we would probably never get a chance to see it.
I’ve been fascinated by Tesla since their very first news splashes circa 2005, so I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to see one up close. We started scheming. My friend had already identified a usable high-voltage outlet, but it was on the wrong side of the building, and the wrong connector type. We dashed to Home Depot, bought 56 feet of 30-amp cables, and were about to start soldering a plug adapter when we learned that there was a compatible outlet, more conveniently located, in a basement laundry room.
We also measured the breezeway that leads to the courtyard, and realized that there was a high stone kerb and no depression for crossing it. The nearest depression was at the corner, meaning the Roadster would have to drive 20 meters along the sidewalk, then make a 90 degree turn, somehow avoiding the Harvardian brick walls and iron gates. We measured everything, and the tolerances seemed unreasonably tight for anyone but a professional stunt driver. I advocated building a ramp to go over the kerb, but without any legal way to clear the parking space and only a few hours to go, we gave up on the idea.
Instead, when Camille arrived we directed her to drive over the grass on the sidewalk, and then make a very careful 20-point turn, with just inches between sharp red brick and black carbon fiber. You can see the tortuous maneuver here:
(If you don’t see it here, you can watch it on YouTube)
With the car finally in place, we disassembled the laundry room’s vent fan and snaked in the charging cord through a basement window. The car’s charge port lit up in color codes, and a cheer went up through the team. My friends asked forgiveness (EAFP) from appropriate higher-ups, and Camille answered questions from the small crowd that appeared around the glistening black form, barely visible in the moonless shadow.
For no reason I can discern, Camille decided to reward me with a personal test-drive of the Roadster. She picked me up from lab Tuesday morning, during a free moment between the Boston Globe and the Harvard Crimson, and I spent 20 minutes driving around Boston in one of the most exotic vehicles on the planet.
I’ve been reading about what it is like to drive the Roadster for years — since before it was even released, in fact — and the experience was so well-described that I have almost nothing original to say about it. The seating position is wonderfully low, but it feels perfectly normal, indeed tremendously comfortable once you’re in. I entirely forgot how low we were until I glanced out the window and found myself at eye level with a small pickup’s headlights. Driving at low speeds seemed utterly normal, save for the intriguing silence.
Driving a $128,000 super-sports car at 10 MPH between traffic lights and crosswalks is not the right way to experience the beast, so I had planned a route along the nearest twisty bit of highway. Inevitable traffic prevented me from getting more than a taste of what this machine can do, but even so I managed to find a few opportunities to punch the accelerator and twist the ergonomically sculpted steering wheel.
I feel dumb repeating the same assessment as every other Roadster reviewer, but this car isn’t just fast, it’s easy. My point of comparison is the Porsche Turbo, whose 0-60 time of 3.7 seconds is identical to the Roadster Sport (and absurdly fast). Driving the Turbo was a genuinely frightening experience. The car’s power delivery seemed somehow to catch me off guard, and arrive with such intensity that I worried about my basic ability to control speed and direction.
The Roadster Sport, in contrast, was not only rocket-ship fast, but easier to drive than my Toyota. The car converts intent into action with extraordinary, reliable precision. I attribute it to some combination of the horizon-flat torque curve, digital drivetrain, strong regenerative deceleration, and dead simple mechanical steering. Five minutes after getting in for the first time, I was blasting down the Jamaicaway, accelerating hard, turning slightly to the right, and giggling like a schoolgirl.
Camille informed me that everyone who test drives the Roadster giggles on acceleration, even the rich old men. I zoomed up a curving hill, and she giggled too. Blame the unmistakable electric zziiiiIINNG that the motor makes under load.
I wouldn’t tell every Turbo driver to buy a Roadster. If you’re acrobatic enough to wedge yourself in, the Roadster is so easy, so quiet, so predictable, that all the drama is drained out of performance driving. Tesla’s electric drive is doing what technology always does: converting a subtle, tricky art form into a precise reliable science.
Personally, I welcome it.