Max Torque? With the Tesla Roadster, It’s Electric

The Tesla Roadster: rubber in all four gears. (Photo: Tesla Motors Inc. [CC by 1.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

I am driving a 2009 Mazda RX-8 grand touring, sunk deep into black leather. I attended the debut outing of this model and thought it was funny looking—still do—but boy can it go!

I am late to catch a train, and even though I know I shouldn’t, I floor it in second gear. The tach zooms toward the redline until the rev limiter kicks in. The unique 1.3-liter rotary engine makes 232 horsepower and, as the Beach Boys put it, I get rubber in all four gears. It is beyond fun.

The RX-8 is not a green car, and rotary engines have never been fuel-efficient. My test car gets a fairly dismal 16 mpg in town and 22 on the highway. At $3 a gallon, it will cost $2,502 to fuel up for a year. So how much are you willing to pay (and impact the planet) to amuse yourself?

On the other hand, I got an email from Tesla Motors today, and the company that makes the world’s fastest electric roadster says that, despite the recession and all the auto industry red ink, it’s on a glide path to profitability. "We remain on track with our cost reductions and production ramp, so it appears highly likely that Tesla will meet the goal become profitable by mid-year." The company has produced 200 cars and has 1,000 people on the waiting list, so there's pent-up demand. The email said a used roadster was recently sold in the California wine country for $160,000 (far above the $109,000 cost of a new one). There’s no denying that they’re sexy beasts.

For some reason, Tesla is parsimonious when it comes to letting journalists drive its little convertible. I’ve sat in one, but never actually gone anywhere. I can say that the footwell is really small. The lucky few who’ve been behind the wheel say this is one plug-in vehicle with a heart and a soul.

Here’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times auto writer Dan Neil on driving what he describes as a “sick-with-torque, carbon-fiber mosquito with a half-ton of glorified camera batteries behind the seats”:

“At about 20 mph I nail the go-pedal and the power electronics module summons a ferocious torrent of amps, energizing the windings of the 375-volt AC-induction motor. Instantly—I mean right now, like, what the heck hit me?—the motor’s 276 foot pound-feet of torque is converted to dumbfounding acceleration....Street lights streak past me like tracer bullets. My little mental circuits go snap-pop with the thrust. God has grabbed me by the jock-strap and fired me off his thumb, rubber-band style. Wow.”

The RX-8 has only 159 pound feet of torque, and it still offers after-burner-like forward thrust. Electric cars offer max torque from a standing stop. If you needed any further proof that green cars can be fun, well, here it is. The brave new world of green cars will require racing harnesses.