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The Future is Here

Ben Oliver gets behind the wheel of the Tesla Roadster, the world's first electric supercar


t is, without question, the single weirdest experience you will ever have at the wheel of a car. The Tesla Roadster will outdrag a Ferrari, hitting 100kph in just 3.7 seconds, and the physiological effect on its driver is the same as in any other properly fast car; same raised pulse rate, same sensation of being pushed hard back into your seat, same schoolboy desire to stop and do it all over again. But everything else is different. You don’t have to make a rapid gear change every couple of seconds; you just stand on the throttle and go. You don’t have to wait for the engine revs to build before you really start to accelerate; instead, all the power is available instantly. And most bizarrely of all, there’s no deafening yell from the exhausts. We’ve always associated acceleration this fast with the noise of 12 hard-worked cylinders. But because the Tesla Roadster is electric, it does it in absolute silence, other than the faint hum of tyres on tarmac and your own insane giggling. The Tesla Roadster is one of the most important cars to be launched this so far this century. It is the latest project from PayPal founder Elon Musk, the 38 yearold South African-born serial entrepreneur who sold his first internet start-up for over US$300 million aged just 28, and three years later sold PayPal to eBay in a deal worth over $1.5 billion. Musk is a committed car-guy – he previously owned a $2 million McLaren F1 – but also a committed environmentalist. Convinced that the big car makers aren’t doing enough to develop new ways of powering our cars that don’t pollute and don’t rely on dwindling oil supplies, he decided to create his own. 20


But while his green intentions are admirable, Musk is also well aware that the financial rewards for the company that finds a viable replacement for petrol will be so vast as to dwarf the sums made at the height of the dot-com boom. In June, despite only having made 1200 Roadsters and heavy losses, Tesla became the first American car company since Ford in 1956 to go public. Its IPO raised $226m, and valued the company at over $1.6 billion. Plainly, investors weren’t getting this excited over a handful of high-priced electric supercars. They were buying into Musk’s plans to build 20,000 of his new US$50,000 Model S electric saloons each year from 2012 in a huge Californian factory bought from Toyota and funded with nearly half a billion dollars in lowcost federal loans. And they were buying into the even greater potential for Tesla to licence its electric-car technology to the big carmakers; both Daimler and Toyota have taken stakes, and Tesla will work with both on new, affordable electric city cars. HKGOLFER.COM

So are electric cars the answer? For now, the technology is still hugely expensive; at a US list price of at least $101,500 it’s no surprise that the Tesla Roadster’s first customers included George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The first Tesla sold in Hong Kong went to Philip Liang, CEO of medical device maker General Sensing. The Hong Kong list price is HK$1.2m, but the first registration tax is waived, saving you around HK$1m. Tokyo will get Asia’s first Tesla store later this year, with Hong Kong likely to follow next year. As with any other new tech, the price will fall sharply. And one drive in the Tesla Roadster is enough to convince you that it’s worth the money. If it looks a little familiar, it’s because it’s based on a Lotus Elise chassis. This is no bad thing; the little British sports car has sensational handling. The Elise’s advanced lightweight aluminium chassis is substantially modified to cope with the extra weight of the batteries, which at 450kgs are around three times the weight of the drivetrain of a regular car. To cut weight further the Roadster body makes extensive use of ultra light, stiff carbon fibre, and gets a restyle to distinguish it from a regular Elise. The complete car minus its battery and electric motor is then shipped to California, where Tesla builds and fits the unique electric drivetrain. It claims the 288 horsepower electric motor has the highest power density in the world, and the 6,831 lithium ion cells in the battery pack will give a driving range of around 244 miles. The Tesla’s charging kit has a conventional domestic plug at one end and a plug-and-twist connector at the other, which connects to the car where the fuel filler would usually be, the area under the filler flap lighting up in different colours like a laptop as it charges. A full charge takes around four hours with a 63-amp supply. So what’s it like to drive the future? Oddly conventional at first. The door opens with a hi-tech hidden touch-pad, but once you drop down into the snug, low cabin the Tesla looks and works like an ordinary sports car. It ‘starts’ with a standard key, but instead of the roar of an engine behind you, there’s just a laptop-style bong to tell you it’s booted up. The dials in front of you give you engine and road speed, and by your knee there’s a touchscreen that tells you how many gallons of petrol you’ve saved, and crucially how far you have left to drive. When you’re ready to go, you just pull the conventional auto-style gearlever back to ‘drive’ and the Tesla takes off with a very Star Trek sigh. The reaction you get from other people varies. The fact that the Tesla looks like a Lotus means many ignore it, but others do a rapid doubletake as they realize that the car passing them is HKGOLFER.COM

making absolutely no noise. It might take you a few minutes to get used to the idea that it will pull out into traffic on demand without the sound of an engine to reassure you. But soon the lack of noise becomes a huge advantage. Petrolheads have long worried that silent electric cars will be dull to drive, but the reverse is true. At low speeds, the Tesla Roadster is the most refined car on the road. When you’re driving hard, the silence just makes the acceleration seem even more absurd, and constantly feeds your smugness about driving such a clean, clever car. But frankly, you can forget about the Tesla’s Roadster’s green credentials and its importance to the future of the car; its insane, unique performance alone justifies the price.

An inspriational spark: the Tesla's flash interior (top); a four-hour charge gives a driving range of around 244 miles (bottom).

SCORECARD How much? Engine: Transmission: Performance: Construction: How heavy?

HK$1.2m, exempt from first registration tax 375-volt AC induction motor, 288 BHP, 14,000rpm Single-speed 0-100kph 3.7sec, 201kph, 244-mile range Aluminium chassis, carbon-fibre panels 1237kgs