The Tesla Roadster will always occupy a prominent place in history, as the first modern electric car in mass production. Sure, it's expensive, and sure, there will only ever be 2,500 made. But it was the first credible alternative to a century of fast gasoline powered cars, and it made electric cars sexy.
The 2011 Tesla Roadster is the latest and most refined model of the open-top two-seat sports car that debuted as a 2009 model. The Roadster's third model year--deemed "Version 2.5"--includes new front-end styling, better and more comfortable seats, more noise insulation, and even an optional backup camera.
Those tweaks aside, it's the same hard-charging electric supercar that humbles gasoline cars costing twice its $109,000 base price. Its Achilles Heel is its alluring, addictive performance: Drive it fast and often, and range falls well below the 200-plus miles the company quotes.
If the base Roadster's 0-to-60-mph acceleration of 3.9 seconds isn't quick enough, there's also the 2011 Tesla Roadster Sport. It shaves off two-tenths of a second, thanks to electronic reprogramming and uprated components, and starts at a price of $128,500.
The Roadster's chassis and structure borrows heavily from the Lotus Elise, but a battery box holding 53 kilowatt-hours of energy sits behind the seats where the engine would be. Below that is a 185-kilowatt electric motor driving the rear wheels through a single-speed gearbox-differential unit.
Getting into the Roadster requires some contortions. Once inside, the form-fitting seats are comfortable and the steering wheel and pedals--the only controls needed to drive a Roadster--are well positioned.
Due to the aggressive but well-modulated regenerative braking, it's possible to drive the Tesla Roadster almost entirely on one pedal. Drivers quickly learn how to feather the pressure when lifting off the accelerator, to slow the car more or less quickly as circumstances require. It's only really necessary to use the brake pedal to bring the car to a full stop below 10 mph.
Contrary to published tests, the Roadster isn't "silent" underway. There's tire noise, wind noise, and a rising hum from the electric motor. It doesn't roar, but the seamless thrust that simply throws the car toward the horizon under full acceleration has made believers out of more electric-car cynics than you might imagine.
And it's that smooth, shocking rush of power that instantly justifies the Tesla Roadster's existence. It's got impeccable green credentials, and roughly double the range of the admittedly far more practical (and less expensive) 2011 Nissan Leaf, but none of that matters. Owning and driving a Tesla Roadster is all about electric performance.
There is very little storage space inside the car, and while the interior is much improved over the first versions, it' still Spartan. And the Roadster still creaks and squeaks over various types of surfaces.
Given its low volume, neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has tested the Tesla Roadster for crash safety, nor are they likely to. The 2011 Roadster has two airbags, but is exempt from the requirement for the more sophisticated two-stage passenger airbag. Rear visibility is somewhat limited, so its ability to accelerate out of danger is its main safety feature.
Features? Well, there's a stereo and a navigation system (with a very small screen), if you want to distract yourself while you're driving or figure out where you are. Other than that, well, you don't buy a Tesla for the features.
There are, however, quite a few extra-cost appearance options that will quickly drive the price up in thousand-dollar increments. The one reprehensible feature, we feel, is that Tesla charges extra for the charging cord that's needed to plug in the car.
This is the last full year of production for the Tesla Roadster, and CEO Elon Musk has said they're all but sold out already. The company is now fully focused on its upcoming 2012 Tesla Model S sports luxury sedan, again an all-electric vehicle but this time with five doors and mid-size interior space.
The Roadster, however, will give any owner not only stupendous electric performance, but a little piece of automotive history--and how many cars really earn that credential?
For more details, see the full review of the 2011 Tesla Roadster on our sister site, TheCarConnection.