It's All Zoom—But No Vroom

I'm strapped into a silver rocket of an electric car, but at the moment we're going nowhere fast. A pokey pickup putters in front of our Tesla Roadster as we snake along a winding country road (ironically named La Honda Road) in the hills above Silicon Valley. Suddenly, my driver veers across the centerline to pass and punches the accelerator. In a blink, we are catapulted at warp speed to 95 miles an hour, leaving that pickup a distant memory. Besides the thrill of the thrust, though, there's an unusual sensation. There's no engine roar, just the low-decibel whir of the rotor blades spinning inside the electric motor. This blade runner is all zoom and no vroom.

Normally when I test a car I actually drive it myself. But Tesla isn't allowing any outsiders to drive its $98,000 hot rod—yet. The one we're in is prototype No. 10 and probably cost the tiny Silicon Valley start-up company well over $1 million to hand-build. So I understand why they don't want just any pedestrian auto writer to thrash (and possibly crash) one of the few Tesla Roadsters in existence. (They've also withheld it from the driving experts at Car and Driver, even though they did let Jay Leno take it for a spin.) And my handlers have clearly put the bridle on this baby. The traction control is on high, so we won't do any fishtailing around tight turns. The driver, Tesla PR man David Vespremi, keeps the car's two-speed gearbox in second, so we never get to test its purported zero-to-60 time in under four seconds. Hmm, could it be that he's not dropping it into low gear because Tesla is still working the bugs out of its transmission?

Even with those restraints, though, this car feels Ferrari-fast. Tesla has tuned it to maximize one of the best features of an electric car: instant torque, that acceleration force that snaps your head back. Old-school gasoline cars build up torque as they speed up. But with the Tesla, you floor it and immediately feel the G-forces wash over you.

But this drop-top is about more than simple straight-line speed. Based on the exotic Lotus Elise—a road-ready race car—the Tesla slides through the switchbacks like some supercharged snake. With its lithium-ion battery pack and 248-horsepower motor located just behind the driver and passenger seats, the car is weighted just right to hug the road tightly, but lightly. There seems to be no heaviness in how it handles (though, of course, I can't say that with 100 percent certainty since my hands are not on the wheel).

Inside the cockpit, the feel is sports-car spartan. The thin, high-backed seats are so low to the ground, your legs barely bend at the knees in the deep footwell. You feel every bump in the road and, on this test car, hear the rattle from the back hatch. "That definitely needs to be adjusted," says Vespremi. A thin carbon-fiber tunnel runs between the driver and passenger seats, containing the aluminum stick shift and climate-control knobs. A small information screen, providing useful data like how much juice is left in the battery, is located awkwardly near the bottom of the dashboard to the left of the driver (away from the passenger's prying eyes). Clearly, this car is not about creature comforts.

Still, it's a thrill ride, unlike any electric car I've experienced. In fact, it's more akin to Vipers and Porsches. Just without any pollution or sound. As we reach San Gregorio Beach at the midpoint of our drive, I can hear the Pacific and I smell the eucalyptus in the air. If ever a one-ton piece of machinery can peacefully coexist with nature, this is surely it.

It's All Zoom—But No Vroom | Business