In 2006, my wife and I put down a deposit for a Tesla Roadster and started the long wait for production to begin. At the time, I was driving an Acura NSX and was a little nervous with the idea of replacing it with an electric car. We wanted to support the fledgling electric automaker, but the NSX was a sweet ride. Could I really give it up just to be nicer to the planet? In the fall of 2007, we had the opportunity to test drive a Roadster production prototype in the Bay Area hills near Alice’s Restaurant on a wonderful road twisting through the forest. Once behind the wheel, I was instantly taken by the sheer joy of driving electric: smooth, instant acceleration accompanied only by the sound of the tires grabbing the pavement and air rushing by, a pure visceral driving experience. After that, I couldn’t wait for the Roadster to arrive. After driving the Roadster for just a few weeks after it arrived in 2009, the NSX felt like a dinosaur. I’ve been hooked ever since.
In the years since, I’ve come to appreciate much more than the now well-known excitement of electric acceleration. The electric motor delivers smooth, instant torque from a full stop to freeway speeds, with no need for a transmission between the power and pavement. This has profound benefits in all driving situations.
Starting at zero
If you’ve ever driven up a steep hill with a stoplight, you’ve had to learn how to start without stalling. It’s quite a challenge with a manual transmission. An automatic transmission makes it easier to avoid stalling, but results in the car rolling backward until the engine speeds up enough to have the torque to power forward. That just leaves the issue of revving up fast enough that you don’t roll into the car behind you but slow enough that you don’t lurch forward and squeal the tires. There are countermeasures, using both feet with an automatic, or the handbrake with a stick, but let’s face it: the only reason drivers tolerate this is because it’s “normal.”
Driving electric upgrades normal. This whole hill-start problem goes away with an electric car. You have full torque available even from a stop. It’s very easy to get a smooth, slow start from a stop going up a steep hill. No problem. Well, there’s one problem left: when you’re behind a gas car you still have to wonder if they’ll get moving forward before rolling back into you.
Electric vehicles also do better starting on packed snow or ice. What you need is the ability to slowly increase torque so you start rolling without losing traction and spinning the tires. Electric motors do this very easily, much better than gas engines.
Accelerating to pass
When you push the accelerator on a gas car to pass on the freeway, there’s a delay before it responds. It’s short, but it’s there. The engine in all its piston-pumping mechanical glory needs to rev up and the transmission needs to shift gears. This takes time, not much, and I never really noticed it, until I tried doing a quick pass in an electric car. The response was immediate, startlingly so. After driving electric for several years, now I notice how sluggish gas cars are to accelerate.
Driving over the mountains
As you drive up a mountain in gas car, the combination of the slope and the speed often wants to run between two gears in the transmission. This causes the car to lurch every time it has to downshift to get just a little more torque to maintain speed climbing the hill, then shift up after gaining too much speed. An electric vehicle doesn’t have gears, it doesn’t have to shift to maintain torque, it just goes. Whether you’re maintaining speed manually or letting cruise control do it, that lurching and revving is totally missing from the electric driving experience.
The difference between gas and electric is even more pronounced on the downhill side. On a long, steep slope in a gas car, you have to cycle braking and coasting while your speed yo-yos up and down, or downshift and endure the whine of engine braking. In an electric car, regenerative braking works like engine braking, except the electric motor acts as a generator to charge the battery while holding your speed steady. Cruise control works beautifully both up and down the mountain, and on the downhill side you get free electricity charging your battery instead of heating up and wearing out your brake pads.
Fun, practical and affordable
Not every electric car has sports car performance, but they all share the significant advantages of an electric drive train and offer a better driving experience compared to a gas car with similar performance. There are now a wide variety of electric vehicles on the market, running the spectrum from practical cars starting around $30,000 up through performance monsters that handily beat gas cars costing twice, or ten times, as much. If you’re hesitating to go electric because you think you’ll be sacrificing driving experience, I urge you to go test drive one today.
Photo: Tom Saxton drag racing his Telsa Roadster at Portland International Raceways in 2010. Photo credit: Cathy Saxton