Tesla Motors has just delivered its 500th eco-friendly sports car in the US and, this summer, the manufacturer will roll its Roadster into Europe.
How is your carbon footprint? I think mine must be atrocious; I spend half my life on aeroplanes and the other half driving gas-guzzling monsters. But in London, I swapped the internal combustion engine for something much greener for a cruise around England's capital.
These days, it's cool to be green. We recycle, we offset our carbon emissions, but very few of us drive eco-friendly cars as the technology is lagging behind some of the other things we can do to be called green. Electric motoring is not a new thing - who can forget the Sinclair C5, Sir Clive Sinclair's ill-fated electric trike from the 1980s? It cost just £399 plus £29 for delivery (about Dh2,500) and was meant to revolutionise transport. Instead, all it succeeded in doing was knocking Skoda off the top of the joke cars list. There is hope, however, as I discovered on a typically damp day in London, when I picked up the Tesla Roadster. And, outwardly, there is nothing to suggest that this is your typical geek-type greenmobile. It's a sleek, beautiful design that would be at home on any kind of high-end, petrol-powered sports car. In fact, at first glance, it looks very much like a Lotus Elise; perhaps that's because the chassis and body is built by Lotus in its back yard in Hethel, England, but Tesla is keen to point out that the Roadster shares only seven per cent of its parts with its look-a-like, petrol-powered cousin.
Prospective customers can test drive a Tesla in California, New York, Seattle and Chicago and, from this summer, the company is coming to Europe. Their first European showroom was to open this week in London's trendy Knightsbridge area, to be followed by locations in Monaco and Munich. Already, this small car maker has delivered its 500th vehicle worldwide.
This little sports car is powered totally by batteries - 6,831 lithium ion units, to be precise - and transfers that power to the wheels with a motor and gear box unit that weighs just 45kg. Tesla hasn't bothered with any of the new-fangled energy recovery systems; instead, when it runs out of energy, you simply plug it in.
Many electric cars in the past have failed because their range really wasn't practical. However, the Tesla can travel 393km between charges - if you drive it carefully. In real-life driving, you are more likely to get about 280km out of a charge.
The London sales team estimates it will cost about £6 (Dh36) to fully charge the batteries overnight at current UK rates - that's just over two pence (12 fils) per kilometre and, with British petrol prices creeping over the £1-per-litre (Dh6) mark again, it's a welcome saving. This technology is all very encouraging from an environmental point of view, but what is the Tesla like to drive? Actually very good, when you get used to some of its quirks. The first is the sound, or more accurately, the lack of it. Turn the key and the car makes a noise similar to a door bell, and that's it. As you pull away, there is just the faintest hint of road noise and the sound of the wind blowing in your hair.
You will soon get used to this - just turn on the CD player with a disc of your favourite car noises. However there is one serious issue with this silence: pedestrians can't hear the car coming. As I cruised around London, people would walk out in front of the car obliviously; fortunately, the horn is nice and loud. Perhaps some of that electrical power should be directed towards the steering - it's very heavy at slow speeds. Once you get going, it's fine, but trying to park is a nightmare. Thankfully, there is no engine note to alert people to snigger at your red face as you haul on the wheel.
Pulling away, you will instantly realise that this thing is fast: zero to 96kph in just 3.9 seconds. All of that power is linear, as there is only one gear, so the full 270Nm of torque is available at all times - it's akin to driving a full-size slot car. The handling is excellent, thanks to the Tesla's stiff, all-aluminium chassis and its low centre of gravity, although its low height is a little intimidating when fighting with London buses. Although the packed streets aren't the best place to explore the car's handling extremes, it does feel very nimble, but the ride is a little harsh - again, very similar to the Elise. The Roadster is offered with both a removable hard top and a fabric cover that is waterproof and very easy to remove and stow behind the seats. But with the roof up, the Roadster is not the easiest car to get into, and a Pilates fitness regime might be a good idea for the everyday driver.
I was a little disappointed by the quality of the interior - although there are some nice aluminium switches and buttons for the heating controls, the indicator stalks are made out of just a few dirhams worth of plastic and feel cheap. They contrast starkly with the lovely, leather-wrapped sport seats and cheapen the interior. In January, Motoring reported that Tesla was looking at a possible race series here in Abu Dhabi, and that it was in talks to supply cars to Masdar City and other companies. At the moment, the company has no formal comment on its progression here in the Emirates, but Diarmuid O'Connell, vice-president of business development for Tesla, says the company has its eye on the UAE. "We are actively investigating possibilities in the Emirates," says O'Connell. "We have several cars out there already in private hands. We don't have an official presence in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, but it's something we are definitely interested in pursuing.
"It is a very attractive market for these kinds of vehicles. For one, because there is an affinity for sports cars, and also, there is an increasing awareness of transportation with alternative energies right now." As well, Daimler AG has just purchased 10 per cent of Tesla in a strategic partnership, which will see both companies join forces on electric technology. The two companies have already been working closely to integrate Tesla's technologies into the first 1,000 units of Daimler's electric smart car. And just this week, Tesla was awarded a loan of almost $500 million by the US government to develop alternative energy vehicles. The money is slotted for a new factory in California to build Tesla's next car, the Model S saloon. Production is planned to start in late 2011. You don't have to wait till then for the Roadster. But if you want a Tesla parked in your UK driveway now, be sure to have a spare £94,000 (Dh564,000). At local fuel prices, it may take you a little while to recoup your investment. You will also need to replace that battery pack after seven years, but in the meantime, servicing will be cheap as the motor has but two moving parts. Saying all this, however, you don't buy the Tesla to save yourself money, you do it to help the planet. And it doesn't hurt that you'll be having loads of fun along the way - the Roadster is certainly the most impressive electric car I have ever driven. * with files from Neil Vorano