Monday, February 7, 2011

Exclusive test drive of Quebec’s first electric sports car

Tesla Roadster sports car

Pierre Séguin is the Quebec TV producer behind a number of galas and shows, including Paul McCartney’s most recent appearances in Canada, as well as the French-language mega-success La Petite Vie. His other passion, it seems, is technology, in all its curious forms.

He currently owns a big 1992 BMW 850i coupe with a V12 engine and a 2003 Range Rover – "the one that still had the BMW engine," he explains. Both were bought second-hand and both are anything but ecological choices.


Nonetheless, Séguin’s interest was piqued by the Telsa Roadster, the first production model electric sports car. Why the sudden interest? There’s the fact that it combines cutting-edge technology and efficiency, and there’s also the fact that he wanted "to stick it to the gas companies." The Tesla is the first new car he’s bought since he purchased a Honda Prelude with four-wheel steering in 1988.

Walk down to Electric Avenue
Pierre Séguin discovered Tesla in 2003 between two film sessions, when his first creation was still just a fledgling project. He now knows everything there is to know about Tesla Motors, such as that it’s a Toyota and Mercedes-Benz joint investment, and that its first production numbers and public shares were released in summer of 2010.
His first contact with this young automaker was in 2009, when he expressed a sincere interest in purchasing a Roadster. Not long after, while in New York for work, he called the Telsa store and got himself the keys to a Roadster for a test drive. He came back two hours later, more convinced than ever.

Then he had to wait. First for Telsa to be approved for the Canadian market (this happened in 2009) then for his order to be processed, a very detailed and carefully executed operation. Once he had made his deposit, he just had to bide his time till the delivery came in.

Sweet package
On a beautiful day in May 2010, a phone call interrupted Séguin’s shoot. Apparently, his "package" was ready for delivery. A few days beforehand, Tesla Motors had sent him a big box with a 220-volt charging cord and a smaller box with a 110-volt cord. He headed straight home and found his new car, a silver Tesla Roadster 2.0, secure inside a five ton truck from New York via customs. For the next few days, the happy car owner drove his electric wonder without any official papers. How could he resist?

The registration process turned out to be something of a comedy of errors, as his Tesla was the first modern-day electric car to be registered in Quebec. The province’s auto insurance company, the SAAQ, had trouble getting their computer system to accept the fact that the Tesla Roadster’s engine had no cylinders. Eventually they issued the certificate leaving that section blank.

From that day onward, however, it has been pure bliss with the Tesla. With all his experience working on TV sets, Séguin had an adapter made with a cam-lock plug, like the ones used for television lighting. This allows him to plug his car into film trucks or big generators, so that he can recharge while at work. A full charge can take a little less than four hours with a 50-amp power supply, or more than 15 hours if you plug into a 110-volt outlet.

One fine morning on Highway 20
Driving range is obviously the big question behind an all-electric car – its Achilles’ heel so to speak – as it restricts the car to city use. Séguin decided to see for himself if the manufacturer’s claims of 390 km range was true, and he took his Tesla Roadster for a drive from Montreal to Quebec City.

Prudently, he put a friend on stand-by in case he needed rescuing. "I stuck to the 100 km/hr limit, and people kept looking back to give me funny looks." The Roadster had no trouble getting to Quebec City, and upon arrival there was still enough power in the 6,831 cells of its lithium-ion batteries to go another 130 or 140 km, for a total of 380 km. Range duly checked and ready for action. Encouraged, Séguin did the trip a second time, this time at 115 to 118 km/hr, and the amount of leftover power was almost the same when he got there.

He quickly adapted to life with an electric car and had a 220-volt outlet installed in his garage. He says it’s just a matter of planning when you’re going to charge and how. He likens it to the first gas automobile drivers who had to think ahead about filling up at the turn of the last century.

Daily plug-in
As this Tesla Roadster client states, this car is easy to get by with, despite its small size and sporty DNA. The soft top, for example, is very well designed. It only covers the cabin itself, from the safety roll bar behind the seats to the top of the windshield. Two flat metal arms support the fabric.

The convertible top is solid, and you forget about it as soon as you start driving. Pierre Séguin assures us that it is totally watertight during downpours. When folded back, it tucks into the trunk, which is reasonably spacious considering the overall size of the vehicle. Apparently you can fit a golf bag into it, but Séguin’s trunk is full of charge cables, the roof bag and a container of windshield wiper fluid. He laughs when he explains that the Roadster uses only three types of fluid: for the brakes, windshield wipers and antifreeze needed to cool the batteries.

If there’s a downfall worth mentioning, it’s the large sills under the doors that get dirty all too easily since they aren’t tightly fitted.

Exclusive test drive and film session
Us Car Guide journalists were the first to have the chance to get behind the wheel of the Tesla Roadster on the ICAR track and test out its capabilities for our show on Canal Vox. Check out the show online (in French) but clicking on GUIDE DE L’AUTO #8.

First impression: Due to its large door sills, you have to be fairly flexible to get behind the wheel. Same as on the Lotus Elise, with which it shares its chassis. As a very low vehicle, it’s a real sports car, but not very spacious. The front passengers can easily find themselves rubbing elbows. The steering wheel is small, and the steering is devoid of any kind of assistance and the front seats are nicely sculpted. The pedals are pretty tight, but there is a real footrest.

A small screen at the bottom of the console shows the charge level, power consumption, etc. To start, you turn the key and . . . nothing happens. But a chime confirms that you have successfully turned it on. You put your foot on the brake and press the D button. And beep, you’re off!

There’s no noise to speak of, except the whisper that is characteristic of electric engines. You can select a mode that produces a little more noise up to 50 km/hr to warn pedestrians, but you kind of need a second horn to act as a sound signal, like on the Chevrolet Volt.

Pierre Séguin is remarkably calm, sitting in the right-side bucket seat. Even though this car is currently priced at $125,000, he gives us carte blanche and even encourages us to push it harder on the track.

Out on the circuit, the Tesla is immediately at ease. Medium steering effort to head into corners. Nothing over the top. The steering relaxes as you pick up speed. And surprise, despite our expectations, a power burst pushes us firmly into our seats as I step onto the accelerator. It’s like a silent turbo V8 with no response time.

The brakes are powerful and easy to modulate. Taking corners a little faster, the Telsa rolls somewhat and understeers a little at first. Going into it more directly and giving it gas (or, electrons, rather) a little sooner, it pivots and the rear sways fairly easily. For this kind of manoeuvre, you have to deactivate the anti-skid, which tends to intervene too quickly, even in Sport mode. The skid is caught easily by the ABS.

To test the accelerations, we deactivated the traction control, pushed the pedal to the metal, released the brake, and the Tesla took off with just a touch of wheel slip. The limited slip differential worked like a charm. As a result, we did 0-100 km/hr in 4.67 seconds and a quarter mile in 13.33 seconds, with a max speed of 164.1 km/hr.

For the sake of comparison, a Porsche Cayman S coupe with 320 horsepower – with a 7-speed PDK gearbox – did the same tests and clocked 4.93 and 13.21 seconds with a top speed of 172.6 km/hr. The Tesla Roaster’s electric engine is equivalent to 248 horses, but it’s lighter than the German coupe by 112 kg (1,238 kg versus 1,350 kg).

The electric saga continues
After a bout of energetic driving, we heard two electric vents go off in the Roadster’s front end. The battery would be even more efficient at -10oC because it generates just enough heat to maintain an ideal temperature in those conditions.

At any rate, Pierre Séguin isn’t driving his Tesla this winter. He’s finding it too low. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to try it out, since the Roadster comes with a battery heater that will let you recharge up to -20oC.

On the ICAR circuit, we took a break after the test drive to let the Roadster fill up on electrons for the drive home. Our ICAR hosts found a 200-volt outlet with four prongs (instead of three). And an hour later the Tesla had gained back 35 km of range.

Pierre Séguin, the first person to own a Tesla in Quebec and thus a pioneer of electric sports cars, took Highway 15 back to Montreal with more than enough power to get to where he was going. For him, it was mission accomplished.

Test Drive Report:

Test drive vehicle: 2010 Tesla Roadster
Trim level: 2.0
Price range: $125,000-150,000
Price as tested: $125,000
Competitors: Audi TTS, BMW Z4, Lotus Elise, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Nissan 370Z, Porsche Boxster.

Strong points:

* Lively accelerations
* Sharp handling
* Fuel consumption non-existent
* Virtually no maintenance
* Guaranteed to be unique

Weak points:

* Limited space
* Accessing seats is difficult
* Hefty price
* Charging is slow and difficult
* Conditional autonomy

source: carguideweb