Life is an electric highway

At $109,000, it's not for everyone. But it's cutting the edge, it's fast, and you can get a sales-tax exemption if you buy a Tesla Roadster.
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The Tesla Roadster.

At $109,000, it's not for everyone. But it's cutting the edge, it's fast, and you can get a sales-tax exemption if you buy a Tesla Roadster.

It's like taking off in an airplane. First, you hear a high-pitched whine, then your body is thrown back into the seat. You wonder, "Is this going to be the take-off that makes me throw up?" Not quite. For one, this is no airplane. It's a Tesla Roadster, the new all-electric sports car I've been invited to test-drive and write about. Here's why I'm told you should buy a Roadster: It performs like a race car, it's battery-powered, and it could be the car that ushers in a new era of sustainable, environmentally friendly vehicles. Here's why I shouldn't buy a Roadster: It performs like a race car, it's battery-powered, and it would be the vehicle that breaks my bank account, ushering in a new era of unsustainable macaroni and cheese dinners.

I arrive at Kelsey Creek Raceway in Bellevue, which, to my dismay, is actually an abandoned K-mart parking lot-turned-racecourse, complete with orange cones, press tents, and nearby Japanese restaurant called The Tuna House — it's a strip-mall speedway.

My first impression of the Roadster is — is this it? It seems tiny. Apparently, the Roadster was based on the design (with permission) of another low-to-the-ground sports car, the Lotus Elise. Both cars share a similar wide frame, chassis, and windshield, while the Roadster has a few less dents in the side paneling, a different derrière, and a different logo. This particular Roadster, a prototype, is painted gray — not exactly a sexy color. Worst of all, it's silent. Thanks to its battery-powered engine, the combustion-less Roadster doesn't roar when you turn it. There's also no shuddering exhaust, no delicious fumes, no vroooom vroooom. When I think sports cars, I think vroooom vroooom. For someone uneducated in the ways of automobile enthusiasm, I wonder, "are all high-performance sports cars supposed to be this unimposing?"

Alas, speed and electricity, not sound, is why the Roadster is revolutionary. It performs like a Ferrari or Lamborghini (or "Lambo," as I'm told they're called in the biz), moving from zero to 60 mph in less than four seconds. According to Zak Edson, a senior manager at Tesla Motors, the Roadster also has "a perfect torque curve." In other words, while most cars can accelerate only as fast as a driver can increase RPMs by shifting gears, the Roadster, thanks in part to its single transmission, smoothly accelerates without decreasing power during gear changes.

Perhaps the biggest draw, however, is the car's efficiency. Instead of a gas tank, the Roaster runs on a 992-pound lithium ion battery loaded with 6,831 individual cells. The battery allows the engine to put out about 185 kilowatts of power while operating at an 85 to 95 percent rate of efficiency, about the equivalent of running a 135 mile-per-gallon combustion engine. The Toyota Prius Hybrid, by comparison, runs at 55 mpg.

However, driving the Roadster for long distances could be tricky if you're in a hurry. Edson says the car typically lasts about 220 miles per charge, which means if you're driving from Seattle to Spokane, you'll need to stop at an RV park in Ritzville for a recharge. It typically takes about 3.5 hours, if you have the proper 220-volt, 70-amp outlet, to fully charge the car from a dead battery. If you're using a normal household outlet, you'll wait around 32 hours.

As the various media assembled in the K-mart parking lot — a potpourri of automotive beat reporters, excitable car magazine editors, and local bloggers — waited for their turn to test-drive the Roadster, we polled Edson about the car's revolutionary appeal, asking questions which potential buyers would want to know.

"We've been receiving reports that Matt Damon drives" a Roadster, one journalist asked. "Can you confirm?"

"We don't normally give out information about our customers," Edson responded. "But let's put it this way: He doesn't have one in his garage — yet." It was later revealed that the Academy Award-winning actor is, in fact, awaiting his model of the Roadster, along with actors George Clooney and Jenny McCarthy, who have also placed orders. The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have already purchased three Roadsters between the two of them. Car collector and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's model was delivered last month.

I am no car collector. They are neither my passion nor my forté. I used to drive a 1989 Jeep Cherokee with cracked blue paint and a dented fender. It was fully equipped with a cassette player, power windows, power door locks, and mold-induced ceiling sag. Let me tell you, it was a dream. And it died.

"Where are the cupholders?" I ask Edson. He smiles, revealing a pair of pop-out alloy tongs from under the center console. "It's perfect for bottled water," he says.

"What about trunk space?" He opens the rear to reveal ample room for one set of golf clubs. "People are always surprised at how much room there is in here," he says. "They say, 'Wow, I didn't think I'd be able to fit my driver in there.' But they can." Left unspoken was that your playing partner would have to hold his or her golf clubs in his or her lap.

"Let's take a ride," he says.

Edson and I descend into the Roadster's hard-backed, black leather bucket seats. They are less comfortable than an airplane seat, though there is far more leg room. He pushes the accelerator, which looks like a vertical slice of metallic Swiss cheese. We're off! He starts slow, showing me the car's traction control, which seems OK to me. After zig-zagging for half a lap around the track, Edson slows to a halt. The ghost of K-mart is to our right, orange cones to our left. We're staring down a straightaway. Our zero-to-60 moment has arrived.

Now, the feeling of accelerating in a Roadster is peculiar to each passenger. Thankfully, the folks at Tesla have a neat description online to explain the phenomena for everyone:

A favorite trick here at Tesla Motors is to invite a passenger along and ask him to turn on the radio. At the precise moment we ask, we accelerate. Our passenger simply can't sit forward enough to reach the dials. But who needs music when you're experiencing such a symphony of motion.

It's certainly a symphony of something. The high-pitched airplane whine comes back. Suddenly, we're taking off. Fast. Faster. Really fast. Too fast. For me, accelerating in a Roadster is a unique exercise in decelerating my gag reflux — it's the ritornello of gastrointestinal fortitude followed by the clutch-the-door-handle credenza and the breath-slowly soliloquy. Edson is thrilled. "Pretty cool, huh," he says.

Gulp. "Sure."

Luckily for Tesla, other test-drive attendees were far more enthusiastic about the car's capabilities, as well as its positive effect on the environment, than I. James Morrison, 37, a former Microsoft database developer, says he's already put a down-payment on the Roadster, even though he had never before seen what he calls "the premier electric vehicle on the planet." He wasn't disappointed. Along with the Roadster, Morrison also owns a Prius and a Vectrix, a high-performance electric scooter, and is a member of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association, an organization dedicated to their promotion and proliferation. While Morrison thinks he might only drive the Roadster around 5,000 miles a year, he also says it's "more than just an expensive toy, proof we don't need gasoline and can start addressing our nation's oil dependency."

Whether you're looking for a toy or an energy revolution, now might be the best time to buy. Washington state recently created a sales tax exemption to encourage potential car buyers to purchase hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles. The new law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, would save state shoppers 6.8 percent in sales tax until 2011. Tesla could probably use the money, too. As a result of the recent economic crisis, the company announced recently that it will lay off employees and delay the release of its second all-electric car, the Model S, until 2011. Still, owning Tesla's gut-wrenching electric dream machine will cost you $109,000. Meaning I'll be riding the bus, as usual.


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