Thinking Tech

Another Tesla test drive -- this time on the highway

Another Tesla test drive -- this time on the highway

Posting in Cities

I'm a convert to electric cars.

So many of you were disappointed by my supervised, 10-minute test drive of a Tesla Roadster around a shopping center last month that I asked Tesla for another drive -- and they agreed.

Last week I went to Tesla's showroom in Menlo Park, and after a little explanation about how the car works, my guide tossed me the key to a bright orange Roadster and I took off.

What fun. I would not buy this car -- not just because it costs over $100,000, but because the Roadster's limited interior space would make my mundane tasks like grocery shopping pretty hard.

But the drive turned me into an electric car fan, and I would happily buy one -- either a Tesla or  some other electric car -- once the prices start to come down and some of the electric car infrastructure problems are better worked out.

Getting into the Roadster is a little awkward if you're not used to driving a sports car, which I'm not -- it's very low to the ground -- but once you're in, the car is well laid-out and very easy to operate.

Shifting is almost completely automatic. On your right, where a shifting lever would be, there are four brightly lit buttons -- P (park), D (drive), R (reverse), and N (neutral). Turn the key, press the D button, and you're off.

Driving the Roadster in city traffic, as I said last time, is similar to driving a gasoline-powered car, with one exception -- when you take your foot off the accelerator, the car immediately slows and starts putting energy back into the battery. I realized after awhile that I rarely needed to brake -- just a tap, when I got to a stoplight, for instance, was enough to interrupt whatever momentum the car had and stop it. (Also this brake, unlike the last one, didn't squeak. Eerily, it made no noise at all.)

It's on the highway, though, that the Roadster really shines. Acceleration in this car is a dream -- it really does reach 60 mph and more in under four seconds, and it was the smoothest acceleration I've ever experienced.

I loved passing annoyingly slow cars in so much less time than I could have in my 2006 Honda Accord. Passing more quickly is safer, I decided, and there's another reason why all those zippy-looking sports cars that drive Highway 280 through Silicon Valley weave in and out of traffic -- it's exhilarating.

This Roadster did have some minor quirks. There was a high whine whenever it was in motion, which was disconcerting but which you probably wouldn't hear if you were playing the radio (or your iPod -- Tesla has added an iPod hook-up).

The seats in my Honda are more comfortable -- Tesla has added more padding to the Roadster seats after customers requested it, also more insulation in the body to cut down on exterior noise -- and my ride home in the Honda felt a little less bumpy.

But the obvious big drawback to any electric car -- even this one, which is supposed to have a 245-mile range -- is keeping it charged. The Roadster guides you with two software dashboards -- one tells you your charge and your ideal range, and the other tells you your actual range based on how the car has been driven for the last 30 miles.

I started with an ideal range of 196 miles (an 80% charge, which my guide said is best for everyday driving because it's easier on the battery) and an actual range of 94 miles. Because I did some city driving where I wasn't accelerating or braking much, I was able to add 13 miles to my actual range even as I lost 29 miles from my ideal range.

I can see, though, how carefully you'd have to plan your trips. Even with a 220V electrical outlet in your garage, which most people would have to have specially installed, the Roadster can take at least 3.5 hours to charge.

We need more charging stations -- or, as the young daughter of a prospective customer in the Tesla showroom suggested, built-in solar panels so the car can charge itself while it's outside. Good idea, kid! That would also avoid generating more greenhouse gases to produce the extra electricity you'll need to charge your electric car.

Still, the Roadster is clean, quiet, attractive and fast, and some day, I will own an electric car -- even if it's not as fast and sporty as this one. Tesla has also changed my driving habits. When I have to slow down now, I wait a little longer before I hit the brake.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure