Tesla Roadster Retires

It's 2012 and retirement beckons for Tesla's all-electric ground breaking Roadster.  Under CEO Elon Musk's direction and determination, the Palo Alto-based company has delivered over 2,100 Roadsters and with the final Lotus gliders on the way from Hethel, production will soon come to an abrupt halt.  In an ideal world Tesla would build and sell Roadsters indefinitely, the reality however, is that their production lines now have to gear up for Model S production, a car with a far more compelling business case than the Roadster.  Not that the Roadster was ever designed to make financial sense, its purpose was to begin an electric revolution.  Mission accomplished then.

The Roadster has enjoyed but a relatively short sojourn in various dealerships around the world, certainly in respect to the amount of time other price-comparable supercars spend in manufacturer's model line-ups.  In fact, time has passed all-together too quickly since Elon Musk himself took delivery of the first production Roadster, dubbed 'P1', early in 2008 and it's for this reason that we thought we'd remind you why we love the little Tesla so much.

0-60 in 3.7 seconds, 245 mile range, zero exhaust emissions.  These well-documented stats are the Tesla's headline figures and believe me when I say that the first one isn't a lie.  Since its launch in 2008 the Roadster, seen here in its final manifestation, has consistently and thoroughly stapled various driver's jaws to the next available space — normally said driver's lap.  Hauling just over 1,200kg to 60mph in 3.7 seconds with 288bhp on tap wouldn't be possible in a conventional petrol-powered performance car.  However, a single speed fixed gear gearbox (so no gear changes) and 295lb ft of torque available from just 1 amp (read instantaneous) mean that acceleration of invariable savagery is at hand ad nauseam, literally.

Given the straight-line speed of the Roadster, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the rest of the car constantly plays catch up.  Not so.  These Teslas leave the factory with sticky Yokohama semi-slick tyres that, on some of Surreys the more twisty (and slightly damp) B-roads, offered up more than enough grip.  Combined with a remorselessly stiff chassis and a manual steering rack, the Roadster allows its driver to link apexes with more precision and fun than you heretofore would have credited an all-electric car with.  Playful?  Not really, but engaging?  Certainly.

Ranking high amongst the defining features of a sports car is weight, or rather the distribution of it.  The Roadster's battery pack weighs around 500kg, considerably more than the 1.8 litre Toyota-sourced unit that powers Lotus's handling benchmark, the Elise.  The Roadster's overall weight however is thankfully kept down by extensive use of carbon fibre, but this glut of localised weight may have had an adverse effect on the handling.  Fortunately, the battery is in more-or-less the right place and, although it is very heavy, it doesn't diminish the Roadster's handling.  In fact, the extra weight is only made obvious under heavy braking when the otherwise excellent brakes (AP Racing at the front, Brembo at the rear) begin to complain a little.  The Tesla will never feel as alive underneath you as the aforementioned Lotus, but that's missing the point, they both bring different qualities to the table.

The result of the Roadster's legitimate supercar performance means it's easy to see it as a normal supercar, which of course it isn't.  To state the obvious, the Tesla performs like a supercar without emitting any emissions.  Sounds simple, but once you've sat down and thought about it, you'll be hit with the sudden realisation that what this car does is preposterous.  With the Roadster, Tesla forged a weapons-grade eco-car capable of out-dragging a Porsche 997 GT2 but with more range than Nissan's Leaf.  Preposterous.

It's not such a bad proposition to live with either.  The considerable battery goes a long way to alleviating any range-anxiety and its diminutive dimensions mean that the Roadster often ends up as a city runabout.  After a day with it in London I can absolutely see the benefits, the only niggles being limited visibility and more apparently, the lack of power steering.  Furthermore, a powerful regenerative braking system means that, with some familiarisation, the Roadster can be driven on the accelerator alone.

The interior is much as you would expect although it's obvious, both figuratively and literally, where the £102,895 list price ends up.  Full carbon fibre sills and vents adorn the cockpit but the fit and finish of some of the plastics and leather clad pieces seemed a little below par for a car in this price range.  What's more, and this won't apply to everyone, climbing over those sills to get in and out of the Roadster isn't just inconvenient, but painful, and executed with minimal dignity.  Once inside however, the cabin is intimate, refreshingly intuitive and the bucket seats offer plenty of support.

Conspicuous by its absence has been criticism of the Roadsters looks; the same also applies for the Model S.  True, the Roadster didn’t have boundless scope for design around the gliders Lotus have supplied, but the design has managed to move away from the Elise with sharper angles and a lovely, muscular shoulder line that runs the length of the car.  From the driver’s seat at least, the sight of air intakes on the rear haunches is particularly pleasing.

One thing the Roadster has secured for Tesla is a loyal and fanatical base of enthusiasts, and that’s before considering owners of the Roadster.  They enjoy top-tier customer service – something Tesla works hard to maintain and is extremely proud of.  The level of professionalism was immediately apparent on collecting this particularly 2012 Magma Orange example from their service centre in West London.  The service bay was uncluttered and spacious.  In other words immaculate.  Quiet too, unsurprisingly.

The challenge will be to keep a bespoke level of service up when the Model S emerges in the summer.  Quite a test when you consider that Tesla report that Model S sales have already reached around 8,000, roughly quadrupling the number of Roadsters sold.  8,000 is a big number in this industry, and bodes well for Tesla.  The Model S really is the make-or-break car for the company, the difficult second album if you like, and if things go to plan Tesla will turn an annual profit for the first time in 2013.  If, however, technological hiccups and service issues dog the Model S, Tesla equity won’t rebound as it did earlier this month following the departure of Messrs Rawlinson and Sampson, Tesla’s chief engineer and chassis engineering supervisor respectively.  However, look over at Tesla's design department and you will find two of the industry's top designers Franz von Holzhausen, former Director of Design at Mazda, and David Imai, former Advanced Car Designer at GM and Ferrari.

It’s not been easy for Tesla; they have endured harsh criticism and no small amount of cynicism, particularly since their IPO in 2010 which, incidentally, was the first time an American car maker had gone public since Ford in 1956.  The iconic Roadster has taken the industry by the scruff of the neck – it’s fast, it’s realistic, it’s electric, it works.  The challenge now is to go mainstream with the Model S and eventually the Model X SUV, which is set to be unveiled early in February.  Tesla has already revealed plans for a new Roadster, presumably the 3.0, in 2014.  If that materializes, then Tesla will have cracked the mainstream market and progress a little closer to Musk’s goal of an electric ‘Model T’.

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