If you were unfortunate enough to watch an old 2008 episode of Top Gear in which Jeremy Clarkson ‘tested’ a Tesla Roadster and duly ran out of range, twice, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a terrible car. However, true to the frequent inconvenient truth this was a hoax. For many, it was their first introduction to Tesla as a brand at all. It wasn’t a good start for the fledgling company’s first attempt to cross the channel. A lawsuit ensued, with BBC walking away with its tail firmly between their legs, at the admission it was all in the name of TV entertainment.
For those who saw beyond the TV nonsense, here was an electric car that was genuinely interesting. Up until that moment, electric cars hadn’t been praised for their performance or looks, yet here was a Lotus Elise based roadster that could outpace the hottest Ferrari of the day. There’s plenty of online videos demonstrating the Tesla’s astonishing acceleration that embarrasses motoring royalty aplenty.
Move on several years and today Tesla is more or less a household name, at least in car circles. The Model S might be the car that catapulted the small company to global fame, but the Roadster set the precedent and served as the development mule too.
Powered by thousands of laptop derived lithium-ion cells stuffed into the back of the car, the Roadster wasn’t exactly what you might call engineered. Instead, it was designed and developed by a bunch of computer nerds, who each had more knowledge of their mum’s PC than of motorcars. This was definitely a good thing, as they managed to create an outstanding machine that is destined to be a future classic.
Typically in our buying guides, we’d caution anyone looking at an aging EV because of possible battery problems. However, if you have the money Tesla will sell you a new battery pack for a cool $25,000. There’s no question that’s a lot of money, but if you find a bargain roadster with a shot battery pack, it’s reassuring at least that Tesla hasn’t forgotten the old Roadster and still offers support for it. The new battery pack also extends the original range, which wasn’t exactly short to begin with – 220 miles.
Similarities with the Lotus Elise don’t end with the use of the car’s chassis. The windscreen, dash, steering wheel and canvas roof are all standard Elise meaning that spares are obtainable, even if they’re expensive. Despite replacement batteries being available at extreme cost, the original cells have mostly fared well.
There are, however, some interesting exceptions that sadly don’t highlight Tesla in a good light. One owner claimed their Roadster had lost significant range while under warranty but had no luck in getting Tesla to replace the allegedly faulty cells. This turned into a stalemate situation with Tesla demanding payment for replacement parts of the battery they claimed were not included in the warranty. The lesson here is to make sure the Roadster has a decent set of pills in it by checking the range. One would expect some degradation by now, but the car should still be easily capable of 150 miles, just as it did when new. If called upon, the performance of this car will dramatically reduce this figure. Original cars came with a 5 year/100,000 mile battery warranty so if purchasing a 2012 car, you’ll benefit from it still being covered. There was much controversy about so called ‘bricking’ of Tesla Roadsters, although this could easily be avoided by keeping the vehicle charged and not leaving it for long periods of time at 0% charge. Very early cars were a bit too easy to over discharge, damaging the battery in the process. Later cars have counter-measures to prevent this. At any rate, the advice is to, “keep the Roadster on external power when parked.”
There were some minor differences between early and late cars too, including a few interior changes like a centrally mounted computer readout in later ‘2.0’ cars. There was also a Sport model that improved accelerative performance from 3.9 to 3.7 seconds for the 0-62mph dash. It also came equipped with carbon fibre trim and other niceties inside.
Being a performance vehicle, it is imperative to check for damage repair and do an HPI check to make sure it hasn’t been written off. Most Roadster owners took care of their prized possession, but this didn’t make them infallible or the world’s greatest drivers. The near instant torque is enough to catch anyone offguard, although acceleration is strangely controlled thanks to the lack of gear change.
Originally, the Roadster cost near £88,000 for the normal model and £103,000 for the Sport. Nowadays you can pick up a second hand 2011 Roadster for around £50,000 with fewer than 10,000 miles on the odometer, which is a relative bargain is the larger and newer Model S isn’t your cup of tea.
The motors have been as reliable as any, with no faults that we’ve heard of. They’re kept cool by fans in the front of the car, much like a petrol engine would be. One moving part means there’s little to go wrong.
A biggy this; the battery could be discharged beyond economical repair if not kept plugged in. It’s the one major thing to watch and tricky Tesla avoided warranty claims with some clever wording.
Extremely basic by any standard, taking inspiration from the Lotus upon which it is based. The Roadster was, however, better equipped with parking sensors, cameras and sat nav on 2.0 models.
The Roadster did not undergo Euro NCAP crash testing, but it did undergo thorough testing in America where it proved itself to be incredibly strong compared to its peers, thanks to a strong build and airbags.
WHAT WE THINK
+ Stunning supercar beating performance.
+ Useful range for motorway cruising.
+ Great fun, handles like an Elise with an extra 300 kilos.
– All the impracticalities of an Elise.
– Pricey battery replacement.
– Parts can be expensive with Lotus or Tesla price tags.
WHAT OWNERS THINK
+ Exclusivity, rare and exotic.
+ Performance + silent drive.
+ Fun, interesting twoseater.
|– Battery concerns.
– Reliability isn’t great.
– Lack of rapid charging.
Tesla Roadster 2008-2012 From £50,000 to £100,000
By Elon Musk’s own admission, early Tesla Roadsters were a nightmare. Always breaking down and completely unsafe, the Roadster wasn’t the success story people perceive it to have been. However, 2009-on models represent an improved picture. The problems were mostly sorted and the Roadster now makes an interesting used first EV, if you have the money. With big pockets, this is definitely a future classic, being a part of Tesla’s origin story that will, one day, be as an important as a classic Ferrari is now.
MODEL Tesla Roadster
MAX SPEED 125 mph
EV RANGE (NEDC) 220 miles
0-62MPH 3.9 s