Trying to test drive the Tesla Roadster Sport

23 June 2011

Orange Tesla Roadster Sport seen from the rear

One of the most appealing aspects of the Canary Wharf Motor Expo is the chance to drive some of the cars, as opposed to just staring, photographing or poking at them. Or indeed kicking them, as I witness two small boys doing to one of the Land Rover Defender exhibits.

Having booked my slot to sample the Vauxhall Ampera, I wander over to the marble-lined lobby of One Canada Square in the hope of booking a spin in a Tesla Roadster. Despite having blogged about electric cars for the past five years, I’ve never so much as sat in a Tesla.

“We’re only doing rides not drives,” warns the very pleasant young lady as she takes down my details. “We had a few, erm, issues during the first few days.” Not surprising, given the handling, traction and acceleration issues that must arise from slotting a very large battery into a very small car.

I duly return later for my slot. “You must be busy,” I say sympathetically to the chap from Tesla in charge of the driving. “No, not really,” he replies, giving me an appraising, up-and-down look. “We’re trying to keep the car free for real customers,” he adds, pointedly. Evidently one glance at the cut of my jacket and the stitching on my shoes is enough to drop me into the well-populated bucket of people who can’t afford a Tesla.

Tesla Roadster Sport from the front

Fair enough, I am indeed a fake customer.

A number of “time sensitive” emails have to be read and answered at this point. I hover near the stand, waiting patiently and generally failing to take any hints that I might bugger off and bother someone selling cheaper cars.

Eventually, Tesla man cracks and he waves me out of the building and into the Roadster.

Climbing into the passenger seat is trickier than it looks, or my limbs aren’t as flexible as they used to be. Shorter legs would be helpful. Once inside though, the cabin is snug but not uncomfortable or claustrophobic.

Of course there’s no bark of exhaust or rise in revs to prepare a passenger for launch. One moment you’re stationary, reaching round for your seatbelt, the next you’re pinned against the seatback watching the end of the road rush up to meet you. Acceleration is brutal and seems all the more so for the lamb-like silence of its delivery. Somewhat like being thwacked over the head by someone who’s crept up behind you in their socks.

The roads around Canary Wharf are private property, so I’m not sure what the speed limit is, or indeed what kind of speed is prudent on a Saturday afternoon with an unusually large number of gawping families pacing the pavements. Suffice to say that my driver isn’t troubling himself with common-people problems. He backs off when we hit about 60mph (I miss the peak but witness the needle swing down past 50) then we brake hard for traffic lights.

“How much was that? Nine tenths, ten tenths?” I ask of our launch. About half measure, it turns out. Full green welly will get the Sport to 60mph in 3.7 seconds, and onwards to a 125mph cap.

As we wait for the lights, I get a chance to listen to the faint whirring of fans, keeping the big black monolith in the boot at optimum temperature.

We set off again like a rabbit round a dog-track. As we exit Cabot Square and hurtle off down the North Colonnade, we overtake a dawdling Ampera. “Make way for a real electric car,” barks Mr Tesla.

After four minutes flat and roughly one mile my test ride is over.

“Have you sold many during the show,” I ask as we unbuckle. “None yet,” he responds. “You could always be the first!”

I say my thanks and goodbyes and he heads back to his time-sensitive emails.

Tesla Roadster from the side

An hour later, I’m back. Later this month I’m due to give a lecture on behalf of BusinessGreen, on the fiscal merits of running electric company cars. The ins and outs of incentives, taxes, allowances and rebates are tricky to pin down, and it strikes me Tesla must have sales materials that spell out the financial impact of buying a pricey EV as a corporate vehicle.

I track down the man from Tesla again and tell him I’m interested in understanding the merits of putting a Roadster through the corporate books. I don’t actually explain that I don’t mean my company or my books.

The change in his demeanour is as swift as his driving. As I slide from obvious no-hoper to surprisingly ill-attired maybe, he explains that the majority of UK buyers have bought their Teslas via their corporate account in one way another.

Many simply buy a Roadster as a conventional company car – an expensive but not unreasonable set of wheels for the boss of a profitable concern. And like any other electric car a Tesla Roadster comes with waived benefit-in-kind tax, zero class 1A National Insurance contributions and 100% capital allowances. If you do the sums, a Tesla works out plausibly cheaper on the company purse than a well-specced BMW.

For others, the Roadster is bought by the company and “gifted” to the lucky executive in lieu of salary, I learn. Given that anyone paid over £150,000 hands half to HMRC in income tax, taking your bonus in the form of a tax-exempt EV as opposed to yet more actual money makes sound fiscal sense. I’m surprised more firms haven’t cottoned on to the tempting salary-sacrifice, tax-exempt possibilities currently enjoyed by EVs.

Tesla guy gives me his business card and suggests I come to the showroom for a real test drive. I make appropriate noises of vague noncommittal, thank him, shake hands and head home.

All in all, I didn’t much enjoy my test ride in a Tesla. If I did have enough money to buy one, I think I might be inclined to spend it elsewhere.

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