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I Drove an Ultra-Rare Tesla Roadster ... And It Was Amazing

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author photo by Doug DeMuro August 2016

I recently had the chance to drive the rarest Tesla ever made: the Tesla Roadster. This was the closest I have ever come to death while still being able to hear the person next to me whispering.

Before I describe my feelings about driving the Roadster, namely that it was awesome, allow me to explain how my adventure came about. What happened was: I received an email from a reader named Eric -- in Syracuse, New York -- asking if I wanted to drive his Tesla Roadster. This is not the kind of email I usually get -- the kind of email I usually get tells me that my clip-on microphone makes me look like I'm wearing a stapler. So I said yes, drove to Syracuse, and the next thing I knew, I was driving a high-performance car that makes about as much noise as a stuffed animal.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here, because not everyone knows what the Roadster is. This surprises me, because I thought everyone knew about this thing, but Eric convinced me otherwise with this hilarious anecdote: Occasionally, he will encounter other Tesla owners, and they will approach his car saying things like, "Oh, when did this one come out?" or "Can I buy it yet?" -- as if it's some futuristic new Tesla with all the latest gadgets and features.

Just FYI: It isn't.

Instead, the Tesla Roadster is the brand's first-ever attempt at an all-electric vehicle, made long before we had ever heard of a Model S, or a Model X, or a real-live human being named "Elon." Based on the Lotus Elise, the Tesla Roadster boasted roughly 250 horsepower (later boosted to 290), a 240-mile all-electric range and an immense sticker price -- Eric's Roadster originally sold new for $130,000. NOTE: This is a lot of money for an all-electric vehicle from a startup company headed by a real-live human being named "Elon."

Tesla Roadster Interior

The fact that the Tesla Roadster is an early Tesla model becomes abundantly clear the moment you step inside and you notice ... the screen. You know how the screen in a Model S is approximately the size of a regulation squash court? In the Tesla Roadster, it isn't. It's about 3 inches across, and it's almost impossible to view in direct sunlight. This is a problem considering that the Tesla Roadster is a convertible.

And this isn't the Roadster's only strange quirk. You can hear liquid moving around, loudly cooling things, when you turn off the car. The hood latches are unapologetically labeled "FORD" and include the Ford oval. There's tape under the hood, emblazoned with the Tesla logo, which reads: "WARRANTY VOID IF SEAL IS BROKEN." And there's a retractable cupholder that looks like salad tongs.

And then there's the charging situation: The Tesla Roadster uses a completely different charge port than other Tesla models, which typically use a completely different charge port from other electric vehicles. This means Eric must always carry around not one but two pricey charge-port adapters, manufactured -- because Tesla's adapters are so expensive -- by some guy in Vermont. I am not kidding! He keeps them in little cloth bags with padlocks on them.

There's also the fact that a huge number of parts are carried over, unapologetically and quite obviously, directly from the Elise -- including the steering wheel, the instrument binnacle, the key fob and the entire dashboard. Sitting inside, you could be convinced you were in an Elise, until you went to shift gears and instead you found ... buttons. Like a Game Boy.

But none of this matters when you get out on the road, because the Tesla Roadster is a really exciting car to drive.

Tesla Roadster

Before I visited Syracuse, Eric told me that he thinks the Roadster is "pretty quick" from 0 to 60, but the acceleration from 50 to 70 would really blow me away. I sort of scoffed at this, because I've driven a lot of cars, and nothing really blows me away unless it has turn signals mounted behind your head.

But Eric was right: The Roadster is pretty fast from a stop. But it's phenomenal if you're already going about 40 miles per hour and you jam the throttle. It truly and honestly feels like a thrill ride, except you're the one doing the steering and you're rapidly approaching a Dodge Journey.

It doesn't sound like a thrill ride, though. Because the Roadster is a completely electric car, it doesn't have any engine noise to match its rising speed -- which can quickly get you into trouble. Here's what I mean: In a normal car, the engine noise helps you figure out how fast you're going and how quickly you should enter or exit a corner. Since this thing makes no noise, your mind is always telling you to "GO FASTER!" -- which would normally be fine when your car isn't making much noise, except that in this thing "not much noise" might also mean "75 mph." Eric told me he can hear conversations in vehicles next to him when he's traveling at highway speeds. I, personally, did not attempt this because I was too busy mashing down the gas pedal at 40 mph and giggling like a small child in a sandbox.

That isn't to say there's no sound at all. Actually, one of my favorite parts about the Roadster was the fact that it makes something like a jet airplane noise when you really bury the throttle -- a sort of turbine sound that makes you feel like you're actually piloting four wheels of the future -- until, of course, you look down at that 3-inch screen and receive no information, except for the fact that it's bright out.

Beyond acceleration, the Roadster's driving experience remains impressive, though its cornering abilities don't quite stand out as much as its acceleration. Steering is quick, predictable and nicely weighted, just like virtually all decent sports cars. Although the Tesla's ride isn't as rough as the Lotus', getting back into my Aston Martin after I drove the Roadster felt like I was climbing into a nice, warm bed after a week of sleeping on a mound of discarded kitchen appliances.

But the primary thing I took away from the Roadster's driving experience, aside from the acceleration, is just how much heavier it felt than the Elise. That's partly a good thing: To me, the Elise is so light in front that I always felt like I was traveling roughly 6 inches off the ground -- but it also poses a bit of a problem. The Roadster doesn't just feel heavier than the Elise -- at 2,877 pounds, it actually weighs almost 1,000 pounds more. (NEWS FLASH: Batteries are heavy.)

My verdict: Even though the Roadster was cobbled together in the early days of Tesla, back when Elon Musk was sleeping on couches and eating peanut butter out of the jar, it doesn't feel like a kit car. In fact, I think it feels every bit as professional as the Elise, although I admit that's sort of a backhanded compliment -- like calling someone "every bit as funny as Trevor Noah." But I came away impressed with the Roadster, thrilled with my experience behind the wheel and wishing there were more of these things out there.

Unfortunately, Eric told me that he thinks Tesla doesn't feel the same way. Servicing is getting harder, he says, and he's worried that someday soon they'll stop supporting it altogether. Fortunately, he tells me there's a great group of owners who support each other in an excellent online community. In fact, they're probably angrily reading this right now, eager to correct every little mistake I made. This scares me, because I know I'll never be able to outrun them.

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