Progress of a fashion

These are not words I thought I’d ever read myself writing, but thank heaven for the fickle finger of fashion. Went up to London last week to see a chum and was driven from South Kensington to Clapham in his brand new and rather lovely V8 diesel Range Rover. Without this trip I would probably never have noticed just how far numbers of such cars in the capital have fallen. There were a few parked and driving around, but when three years ago I fled the metropolis after a 20-year stretch, it seemed you could barely move for the bloody things. I well remember witnessing a woman in a Porsche Cayenne take 10 minutes to negotiate a gap any normal car would have scarcely slowed for, while the London rush hour built up around her. And when I heard myself bellowing that it was people like her driving cars like that who caused jams like this, I realised it was time to go. She, by contrast, didn’t even deign to lower the telephone that had been welded to her right ear throughout to shout back.

My friend’s excuse is that he uses his Range Rover for shooting, which is fair enough (though I’ve long thought a battered Toyota Land-Cruiser Amazon the most gentlemanly way to turn up at a country pursuit). But really he just likes the idea of having a Range Rover and has a mind sufficiently strong and pockets sufficiently deep not to care what others think of it or how much the government taxes him to use it. The problem for Land Rover and the manufacturers of other full-size but five-seat SUVs is that he represents a rapidly dwindling minority. Most people who bought these cars did so precisely because they care very much what others think of them. Indeed their desire to be seen as adventurous, outdoors types was so great that they bought cars which suited the life they’d like to lead rather more than the one they actually did. But now they fear being seen as profligate, inconsiderate and out of touch.

And I’ll bet that at least some of them, particularly those in the vicinity of the Golden State, will be trading in their Range Rovers and Cayennes for this little Tesla. There may be no realms further apart in the automotive world than those of the vast SUV and the tiny all-electric roadster, but for many the motive for buying the Cayenne then is the same for buying the Tesla now: it too says outdoors and adventurous, and the fact that they could spend a lot less buying something a lot more suitable will prove no more relevant today than it did a few years back.

In the UK the Tesla costs £94,000 or, put another way, around £13,000 more than the Porsche 911GT3 about which you can read more next month. But its top speed is only 125mph and you can only drive it 170 miles before having to park it for several hours while its 6400 laptop batteries recharge. A Lotus Elise SC (whose chassis format the Lotus-developed Tesla loosely follows) is quicker around a track, will go twice as far between stops, is ready to go again five minutes later and costs little more than a third as much.

It’s a curious thing to drive. I’ll say now that my experience of the Tesla amounts to one run up the Goodwood hill at the Festival of Speed press day, and I’m not in the habit of reaching definitive verdicts on cars after little more than a minute at the wheel, but certain observations can still be made.

For a start, it’s astonishingly quick. At 1238kg it may be heavy by Lotus standards, but it not only develops 248bhp, more importantly it has 276lb ft of torque which gives it a torque-to-weight ratio similar to that of the GT3. But while the Porsche engine needs to be beyond 6000rpm to deliver it, every ounce of the Tesla’s torque is there from rest. Put it this way, just before I drove the Tesla up the hill, I’d had a run in the new Nissan ‘you can’t call it Skyline’ GTR and the Tesla felt just as fast, which means a sub-4sec run to 60mph – and all on battery power alone. It also handled very well thanks to its Lotus-based underpinnings and Lotus-tuned chassis.

However, most notable, and entirely due to its absence, is the noise. The Tesla is not silent as some have said because the wind, tyres and even the electric motor are all clearly audible. But the normal aural stimuli your mind has become conditioned to expect of any car under maximum acceleration are missing and the resulting sensory deprivation created the illusion in my mind that I was merely watching something happening to somebody else. It was a far from unpleasant experience, in fact I found it fascinating, but I did feel one step removed from the action.

I expect you get used to it in time, and I for one am very glad, first that the Tesla exists and second that, at present at least, there seem to be enough wealthy people still out there to ensure both its survival and the development of more practical models with a wider customer base. For while it is as easy as brushing your teeth to criticise the Tesla compared to conventional transport alternatives, much the same could have been said of the relative merits of the mechanically-propelled road carriage versus the horse at the end of the 19th century. Fact is, new power sources need to be developed and those using lithium-ion battery technology, either as a stand-alone or as a plug-in hybrid, are easily the most convincing of those technologies that will be broadly available any time soon.

So would I buy a Tesla, even if I had a spare £94,000? Not a chance. But that doesn’t make me less than glad there are so many fashion victims out there who will. It is they who will nobly spend pots of cash buying massively flawed cars to show off to their neighbours – and ultimately deliver to the rest of us the capable, clean and affordable electric cars of our future. We owe them all a huge debt of thanks.