September 28, 2008

Tesla v. Supercharged Lotus Elise

Or, I Test-Drove a Tesla and All I Got Was These Lousy Adrenaline Shakes


Short version: Tesla.

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Long version: I've had insomnia since I was a wee lad, and at night I often calm my brain by thinking up idealized objects. Optimal house cooling, unpowered water purification, the ultimate graphics card, the coolest car ever. It's a good exercise, I think: if you don't have an idea of what you'd like something to become, you won't ever get it there.

Some of these crazy dreams have come true, which is particularly disturbing. When I was 10 or so I thought up a crazy idea for fonts that would be described by curves, and rendered in real-time by the graphics card at the best possible resolution, instead of having hand-tuned bitmaps. Of course, I was 10, so I had no idea what the math would be, I just figured, THIS would be the coolest, ultimate form of fonts. A few years later PostScript was in printers, and a few years after that Display PostScript hit the desktop, then TrueType, and now nobody even remembers bitmap-only fonts.

Also as a kid I'd try to think up the ultimate car... What if you had no gearbox - you just had one gear and an electric motor that could spin as fast as you wanted directly driving the wheels, so the mapping between the accelerator pedal and your speed would be practically linear — the way kids imagine all cars work until they actually learn to drive and have to figure out gears and clutches and all that.

But, wait, this ideal car would have so much power, you'd end up jump off the road if you accidentally used the slightest bit too much pressure on the accelerator. Oh, I know, the car would have a computer controlling the wheels, and it'd detect when you started to slip and automatically compensate. But, hold on again, isn't the fun in driving being able to burn out and spin around and stuff? Maybe we need the ability to disable the computer, sometimes.

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And, now, again: Tesla. Here it is; the crazy dream-car that a kid might design in his naivety of how the world really works, except some engineers didn't get the memo on what's possible, and went ahead and built it.

Tesla.

It's crazy-fast. It handles like a jet fighter. It gets the equivalent of about 140 mpg. It has no gears. It requires almost no maintenance.e It's gorgeous. It's whisper-quiet. And, in Seattle, runs off hydro power.

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So, yes, I test-drove a Tesla today, for five laps on a closed course in the parking lot of a defunct K-mart. Then I took my supercharged Lotus Elise around the same course. (The Tesla I drove was an engineering prototype but is said to be very close to the one I'll get next year.)

I expected the Tesla to have more power than the Elise (based on the Tesla's 0-60 of about 4 seconds, as opposed to the supercharged Elise's estimated 4.5-7-ish), and it didn't disappoint.

The first part of the course was a straight, wide-open acceleration towards two tiny cones, which were where you were supposed to brake "as hard as you can" so you didn't end up flying out of the lot and into the street. It turns out they were conservative on this by a bit; by my fifth lap I'd found the Tesla could brake down enough to make the turn in about half the space they'd given me. The car was nimble.

And, compared to the Lotus, the Tesla seemed faster to the cones; at first not by a huge amount, but the huge difference came when the Lotus hit the top of its first gear it started stuttering from the electronic limiter, and I had get out of gear and shift. The Tesla just kept accelerating the whole time, so by the time it hit the cones it was going WAY faster.

Remember: this car is NOT an automatic: there are no damn gears. It's not shifting for you; there's no annoying pauses where the car decides what gear you might want, right in the middle of your burn. The engine is basically hooked up directly to the damn wheels. It's amazing. It has that responsive feeling of when you are driving a normal car in first gear, except it has that no matter how fast you are going.

Taking the 'S' cones in the Tesla, on the second or third lap I was finally able to get the tires to chirp if I turned at the highest speed I could get out of the turn. But the car never slid out of control, even a little bit. The nose was always pointed where I wanted, and the back tires were always ready to accelerate.

This was a huge advantage of the Tesla; I'm not a race-car driver, and I admit that it's pretty hard for me to take a sharp turn at high speed AND be shifting in the Elise. Hell, it's enough hard to hold the damn steering wheel with two hands at that speed. In the Tesla, at any point during a turn I could tap the accelerator and I was (a) guaranteed to be in gear, and (b) guaranteed to be in the RIGHT gear. Because, you know... there's only one gear, and it was "fast" gear.

Call me a wuss if you like, but I found it a lot more fun to be concentrating on just pointing the wheel and calculating the amount of slide, and NOT trying to shift and steer and clutch all at once. I'm just not that good.

The big surprise from the Tesla was when I took my Elise through the same course. The Elise is several hundred pounds lighter and has stickier tires on the front and the same on the rear. And the Elise slid around the cones out-of-control. I'd take a cone at high speed and the Elise would start jump-skipping its tires sideways, and steering and acceleration were offline until it'd stop. I'd lose momentum and end up kind of off-course.

The Lotus - no pictures in the Tesla, sadly.

I don't really have a good explanation for why the Elise handled worse for me than the heavier Tesla. Maybe having precise control of the accelerator throughout turns enabled me to keep the tires spinning in the road-wise direction? Maybe the Tesla's slightly longer wheelbase or different weight distribution made a big difference? Maybe the traction control on the Tesla is really that good? I don't know.

I do know that, going around the cones as fast as I could, the Elise lost control sliding sideways for a little bit on both laps, where the Tesla merely chirped her tires and drove on.

Normally, features like "traction control" or "no shifting" put me off of a car, because they essentially translate to "low-performance-idiot-mode." You turn them on and you feel like the car is driving and you're a passenger. I've hated 'em in Ferraris and Mercedes SLs.

With the Tesla, these features are put in to allow you to drive harder and faster and still feel completely in command. *I* am driving. I feel the road. I feel the wheels.

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The only drawbacks I found were: the Tesla seemed a little slow immediately off the line - full-throttle starts have a slight pause, and THEN you are pressed back against your seat. I guess this is the price you pay for the One Gear also allowing you to go 100 mph (or so). The other drawback is that, yah, the Tesla really doesn't want to maintain a speed above 100 mph for very long. It just isn't designed for that.

Sure, I don't drive about 100 very often, but, you know — sometimes it's nice. Not a deal-breaker, though.

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In Seattle, I've been told a law just got passed where we pay no sales tax on very efficient vehicles, so I avoid the ~9% extra charge. Also, it looks as though the president will sign into law a bill that gives a $7,500 tax credit (NOT a deduction, but a full CREDIT), to people that buy a car with a battery at least as big as the one in the upcoming Chevy Volt, and the Tesla happens to qualify as well.

This doesn't make the Tesla exactly cheap, but it's sure nice to save $16,000.

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The Tesla people were uniformly cool and real and fun. During the open house there wasn't a single question they dodged. They offered up problems they'd found, troubles they'd had getting into production, issues that loom on the horizon.

They test-drove the car themselves because they still all love it so much. One guy turned off traction control (we were not allowed to) and demonstrated how much power the car really has — it was, frankly, daunting, and he got waved down after two laps because the guy in charge thought he was going to power-slide into the defunct K-mart. (A very real possibility.)

My friend commented as we left how nice the Tesla executives were. I am excited about this company, again. Excited to be little tiny part of a team that is so committed to changing the world AND having fun. Excited to have a dealer that is a "company store," where the salespeople aren't on commission, and really want to help you love their product.

I like to spend my money with companies whose philosophies align with mine: in my life I've only made one purchase at Wal*mart, I don't eat Domino's pizza, I have vegetables delivered from small organic local farms, etc, etc, blah blah blah. My point is, I am *happy* to give these guys my money.

I am happy to have a chance to say, with my dollars, "You guys are doing the right things, and I support you."

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For sale: Ardent Red 2005 Lotus Elise, with aftermarket supercharger. One driver, excellent condition.

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