Feeling Green in La La Land

I felt my geek cred slipping away as I stepped into the back of the taxi. My greenie cred withered along with it as I settled into the back seat and directed my driver to a restaurant in Marina del Ray. Here I was on my way to have dinner with owners of some of the highest tech, lowest emissions sports cars in the world, and how was I getting there? By way of a janky SUV that’d clearly been driven halfway into the ground in its short life as a cab. Low on tech and high on emissions – not the way for a tech blogger from the Bay Area to show up at a Tesla owners’ club meetup.

Then again, my geek cred gets called into question every time one of you comments on anything I post online. And my “Green Card?” For as much as Jon Rettinger likes to tease me about living under the Smug Cloud, my wife likes to call ours “The Fastest Prius on the Road.” And I tend to drive our other car, a ’95 Mercedes, with an even more leaden foot. So it’s not like I’m tracking my carbon offsets using the latest alpha build of software even the blogosphere doesn’t know about yet. But I do like to try.

Armed with that half geek, half do-gooder frame of mind I took note of one Mercedes AMG, one Porsche Panamera, and a dozen or two more regular people type cars as my car rolled through the restaurant parking lot. A week earlier I’d come across a Tesla forum while doing research ahead of the Model X launch. A few hours later the falcon-doored crossover would be unveiled at a swank party attended by the Governor of California and hipster band du jour Foster the People. And now I was about to hang out with a dozen or so early adopters of the world’s first all-electric sports car, nay, “the first highway-capable all-electric vehicle in serial production available in the United States.”

The Tesla Roadster went on sale in 2008 at a base price of $109,900 USD, and qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit. Since then the Silicon Valley startup bankrolled by a half billon dollar federal loan has sold more than 2,100 of the two-seater convertibles. They’ve also set the world distance record of 311 miles for a production electric car on a single charge, won a small handful of alternative energy vehicle races, and unveiled two new models: The Model S luxury sedan and the aforementioned Model X. Currently, the Roadster’s production run has ended and neither the S nor X is shipping. Still, before night’s end I’d take my first ride in all three vehicles. Some days I love my job.

Early Adopters

If my ultra small sample size is any indication, Tesla’s first bunch of owners are much like other early adopters I’ve encountered in my years as a tech reporter. You’ve got your hardcore geeks, your evangelists, your trophy collectors and – perhaps my favorite kind – your folks who don’t much care about the specs and hype so long as the thing looks good and performs better.

One of the latter bunch, a frank, down-to-earth seeming banker who later gave me a ride in his Roadster Sport, summed up his decision to drop a hundred large on a car built by a startup with a big belly laugh. “I wanted an electric sports car,” he explained. “There was literally one to choose from. When I ordered mine the guy asked if I wanted a test drive first. I didn’t need a test drive – it was the only choice!”

The evangelist of the bunch was perhaps the least Hollywood looking sports car driving, film industry guy imaginable. And I mean that in the best of, “My words and actions matter; My image doesn’t,”  ways. Over appetizers and before most of the crew showed up, he patiently explained the lay of the electric vehicle land to me. “Don’t worry, most so-called auto journalists don’t know any more than you,” he replied to my awkward opening about “Being a tech blogger, not a real car guy.'” From there he debunked the “long tailpipe” argument and explained how electric motors are generally at least three times more efficient than internal combustion engines when it comes to using energy to make a car go. He also countered fears of range anxiety with a single word: “Planning.”

Then there was the organizer. A smart, indefatigably happy veteran of the medical technology industry, she was the one I originally contacted about crashing the meetup to get a taste of the culture behind the cars. “We’ll get you a ride in a Roaster today,” she’d promised over Email. “One ride and you’ll be hooked. That’s what happened to me.” Indeed, she’d originally contacted Tesla about the Model S sedan, a car promising roughly twice the luxury and space as the Roadster at two-thirds the price. A salesperson talked her into test driving the two-seater anyway, and twelve weeks later she had herself an electric sports car. No stranger to going fast in sexy cars, she professed love in equal parts for her new whip’s fun and pragmatic sides, telling me about taking the car to an elementary school to help teach energy conservation and about cops who willingly look the other way so she can turn the Roadster out on deserted back roads.

I also met a young doctor who’d traded up from a Jetta after securing a spot in a private anesthesiology practice, a software engineer from Seattle who can only take the top off his roadster so often because of the rainy Northwestern climate, and a prospective owner who originally wanted a Roadster but literally couldn’t fit his six-foot-five-inch frame into one. “My feet were the worst part,” he said. “I just couldn’t get them in and out.” He’s planning to buy a Model S, but was in town to check out the X just in case a larger car might suit his big feet better.

“Hey, what do you call it when somebody orders a Model X and a Model S?” he asked me with a twinkle in his eye. “Excess!” Ugh. Even motorists from the future aren’t immune to bad puns.

Instant Torque’s Gonna Get You

Roadster owners bristle at the common notion their cars are but converted Lotus Elises, though the two vehicles share something of a quick, nimble, no-frills sports car soul. Tesla contracted Lotus to produce gliders (chassis, essentially) to build their cars off of, but according to Tesla the Elise and Roadster actually share no more than 7% of their parts.

Sprinting from 0-60 mph in just 3.7 seconds, the Roadster Sport boats 299 horsepower peaking between 4,400 and 6,000 rpm and a top speed of 125 mph. Along with its 295 lb-ft torque rating, the car’s numbers add up to an impressive but not world-class sports car: Not too many production vehicles can crack the 4 seconds to 60 mark, but plenty go faster and have more horses under the hood. As I found out first hand when we left the restaurant to head over to Tesla’s Hawthorne Design Center for the Model X event, what makes the Roaster, nay all electric sports cars, truly special is instant torque.

Tesla claims its Roadster Sport makes all 295 lb-ft of torque between zero and 5,100 rpm. For comparison’s sake, the $1.3 million Bugatti Veyron 16.4 has a top speed of 253 mph and is rated at an astounding 1001 hp and 1250 lb-ft. It gets to 60 mph from a standstill in a mind-blowing 2.5 seconds. But – and here’s the thing about electric motors – peak torque doesn’t happen until 1250 rpm. So it takes a moment for all that thrust to really kick in. This is a Veryon we’re talking about, so it’s a really quick moment, but still: Not instant. Tesla’s electrically generated torque is about as instant as you’re gonna get in a car right now.

I’ve never ridden in a Veryon, so I really shouldn’t speculate beyond saying I’ve no doubt that going that fast, that hard would scare my body into an altered, quivering state of being. But after getting a lift from Marina del Ray to Hawthorne in a Roadster Sport 2.0 (the penultimate edition), I can tell you this: Instant torque is no joke.

The kindly owner who drove me across town was all too happy to punch the throttle whenever a bit of road opened up in front of his car’s short, steeply raked windshield. In turn, I was all too happy to giggle like a schoolboy every time he did. Despite the cramped footwell and non-adjustable seat on my side of the car, I would gladly have sat in the Roadster until the battery ran dry if only to get a few more tastes of top-down thrust. When he floored it, it went, slamming me back into my seat in the process. A quick jaunt up a tightly banked on ramp was easily the highlight of the ride for me. Despite his apologies for “not the smoothest turn around that curve,” I was all whoops and smiles as we merged into the drive-time traffic, my hair – er, beard stubble – blowing in the breeze.

“Don’t worry,” I replied. “I’m sold. I can scrape up a hundred grand somehow.” Journalistic objectivity be damned.

(Continued in Part Two)