If Tesla Motors has its way, the internal combustion engine is a thing of the past.
Tesla was founded in 2003, the brainchild of a group of Silicon Valley engineers, who unveiled the all-electric, emissions-free Tesla Roadster in 2008. More than 1,000 are now on the streets in more than 25 countries.
When the company showed off the Tesla Roadster 2.5 at the Canadian launch in Toronto's trendy Yorkville neighbourhood, young and old - predominately men - lined up for hours to go for a spin, but not in the driver's seat, in the passenger seat. I was one of the lucky ones, invited to return the next day to drive the 2010 Roadster Sport 2.0 model.
I squeeze into the driver's seat with Hans Ulsrud, Toronto regional sales manager for Tesla Motors, in the passenger seat. Entering the vehicle is tricky; the leather sports seats are low to the ground.
There's no funky push-button start - just a traditional key. Turn the ignition and silence - there's no sound from the tailpipe; well, no tailpipe, in fact. There's no traditional gear shifter, either. Buttons with letters marked P, R, N, D on the centre console indicate Park, Reverse, Neutral, and Drive.
"Silence is peaceful. Nobody hears you - you just sneak in and out of traffic. If you're accelerating hard away from a light you're not seeing a group of people whip their head around and think who is that jerk accelerating in their Lamborghini. This car just silently slips away," says Ulsrud. Perhaps too silent - pedestrians might not even notice it because they can't hear it.
The Roadster has a single-speed gearbox. Hit the throttle and it provides instant torque; you're thrown back into the seat. Loosely based on the Lotus Elise, the Roadster Sport is quick, agile and nimble. Take your foot off the pedal and it slows down immediately - the regenerative braking system kicks in, turning the vehicle's kinetic energy into electricity to charge the lithium-ion batteries.
For this 1,235-kg rear-wheel-drive roadster, accelerating and merging onto the highway is effortless. When pushed, you'll hear a slight "ZZZ" sound, but it's not bothersome.
The turning radius is excellent, although the car lacks power steering so you'll need some elbow grease to crank the wheel. A bar graph on a tiny screen displays vital driver information such as the motor, battery, temperature and driving range. Range anxiety might be a concern for some, but I'm not worried with Ulsrud beside me and the display reading 336-km range.
Powering the Roadster is a electric motor coupled with a lithium-ion battery pack that pumps out 288 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. "That battery pack will hold 53 kilowatt-hours of power - that can power the average home for a few days. It's a lot of juice," says Ulsrud.
The stats are impressive. Its top speed is 200 km/h and it can reach 0-100 km in less than four seconds. It can go 394 kilometres per charge.
Charging the vehicle is simple, too. Just plug it into nearly any power outlet - a cord is included with the car. A full charge in a standard 110-volt outlet can take up to 37 hours. A 220-volt hookup will shorten the process to about 9 hours. "The future will be high-power connectors - an industrial type of charge that will charge the car in about 20-30 minutes," Ulsrud says.
Depending on your electricity rates, it'll cost a few dollars for a charge - a lot cheaper than filling up a conventional car at the gas station. Plus, no more oil changes either.
Inside, the cockpit is snug with two sculpted sports seats surrounded by carbon fibre and aluminum trim. It's well-equipped with a three-spoke, leather-wrapped, sport steering wheel, air conditioning, heated seats, cruise control, antilock brakes, traction control, a tire-pressure monitoring system, emergency tire inflator and sealant and frontal airbags.
The Roadster 2.5 model adds several upgrades to the 2.0 - including a new front bumper, vents on the side, quieter, sound-deadening doors, a larger navigation system and new seats with larger more supportive bolsters and a new lumbar support system. A seven-inch screen with navigation and back-up camera is optional.
Top up or down, the Roadster is striking. But going topless is a hassle - it's time-consuming and requires patience. If there's rain in the forecast, don't even bother removing the soft top.
The trunk space is tiny, but I'm told it can fit a set of golf clubs. I don't believe it - Ulsrud later sends me photos to prove it.
The Tesla is hand-built with carbon-fibre body panels. The exterior has crisp lines and a futuristic design that attract attention in all directions. At stop lights, people peek into the cabin asking questions about the newest roadster on the block. Thumbs up and waves surround us.
"Everybody thinks that we sell cars to rich people who drive Ferraris, Mercedes, Porsches and Lamborghinis. We do have those as a component of our customers. But we have a large component that drives Toyota Prius hybrids and fuel-efficient cars. People still want to drive something that's cool and attracts attention," says Ulsrud. But realistically only the rich can afford its price tag. Both the Roadster 2.5 and 2.0 cost $125,000. Some provinces, such as Ontario, offer an $8,500 EV incentive that drops the price to $116,500. Still out of reach of most Canadians.
"It was never our intention with this car to bring out an exotic cool car. It's not our intention to be that way as a company either. We need those first movers to drive down the cost of EV technology so we can bring out our Model S in 2012 and an affordable car in five years time."
2010 Tesla Roadster Sport 2.0
Type: Two-door, two-seat, all-electric roadster
Base price: $125,000; as tested, about $164,000
Engine: 375-volt, AC induction, air-cooled electric motor plus lithium/ion battery pack
Horsepower/torque: 248 hp/295 lb-ft
Transmission: Single speed gearbox