The future of the auto industry, or at least a growing slice of the auto industry, sounds like a loud whine.
That's not a commentary on environmental zealots or the entrenched, gasoline-addicted auto industry -- even though both sides whine loudly for or against tougher standards for emissions and fuel efficiency.
The loud whine I'm thinking of comes from the Tesla Roadster, which I test-drove for the first time today, at an event sponsored by the International Motor Press Association. I've written about Tesla several times from a business-proposition point of view, but there's no substitute for a test drive as a smell check for a brand's claims and ambitions.
My initial reaction was that the Tesla Roadster smelled OK on first impression, figuratively speaking. In particular, it had a very high "fun-to-drive" factor. But only time will tell how much staying power Tesla Motors has.
In many ways, driving the Tesla Roadster lived up to the hype. As I would define it, "the hype" about the Tesla Roadster, or maybe the buzz, to put it more kindly, is threefold:
1. Buzz: The Tesla Roadster deserves credit for being a startup that potentially can beat the Big Car Companies to the punch with a practical, battery-powered car that's not just a short-lived experiment. My opinion: The jury is still out on this one. I think it's too early to declare Tesla has legs.
2. Buzz: The Tesla Roadster combines two categories that haven't been joined before â€" an electric car and a high-performance sports car. My opinion: The category definitely needs more sex appeal, which the Tesla Roadster delivers. At the opposite end of the sexy spectrum from the battery-powered Tesla Roadster are the nerdy Toyota Prius and Honda Insight gasoline-electric hybrids.
3. Buzz: The $101,500 price, while steep, isn't too bad, considering the Tesla Roadster's fast acceleration, cool styling and exclusivity. My opinion: The price is unfortunate but inevitable, considering high start-up costs for the manufacturer and low production volumes. To state the obvious, there are some awfully fine cars for $100,000 or less. For some people the Tesla Roadster is worth it, but it wouldn't be worth it for me, even if I had that kind of money.
The company does deserve credit, just for getting off the ground. That's no mean feat, considering U.S. safety regulations and other hurdles that have kept other would-be startups off the market. Tesla Motors says U.S. deliveries began in late 2008.
What I learned in my test drive was that acceleration in the Tesla Roadster really is terrific. I had read that the company claims zero to 60 mpg in 3.9 seconds, and I know from reading lots of numbers that anything under 4 seconds is blazing fast. But seeing and feeling were believing.
I also learned that like a race car, the Tesla Roadster also has a tiny steering wheel, and no power steering. That means steering at parking-lot speeds is an upper-body workout, but on the road it's good because you can feel every twist and turn.
The sound the car makes was also a big part of the experience. It's the loud whine of an electric motor â€" unsurprising, maybe, but it still came as a surprise. It's all the more noticeable in a small two-seater with no top. I also test-drove a Mini E electric car with a hard top today, and it was much quieter, probably in part because the driver is fully enclosed.
The whine of the Tesla Roadster would take some getting used to. To be fair, a conventional roadster with a gasoline-powered motor would be loud with the top down, too. But a "conventional" car wouldn't turn heads like the Tesla Roadster did. While it lasts, that reaction represents some value, too.