Tesla Roadster

$98,000
www.teslamotors.com

Since the Prius arrived in dealerships nearly a decade ago, Toyota has seen its entire line of passenger cars and trucks—hybrid and non-hybrid, gas guzzlers and sippers alike—luxuriate in the eco-friendly sedan’s long, green shadow. In response to the Japanese carmaker’s success, GM, Chrysler, and Ford scrambled to develop hybrid systems of their own and banked heavily on ethanol and flex-fuel vehicles, which burn a mixture of corn-derived alcohol and conventional gasoline. But in the rush to invent a car that cuts oil consumption in half, Detroit and Japan all but forgot about a third, virtually nonpolluting option: battery power.

In the late ’90s, General Motors dabbled in electricity with the lease-only, lead-acid–powered EV1. But the EV1 was awkwardly styled—its enclosed rear wheel well mercifully never became an industry-wide design motif—and could range only about 100 miles on an overnight charge. A commercially viable electric vehicle needs not only to perform as well as its gasoline-burning peers but also look good doing it.

This is what distinguishes the 2008 Tesla Roadster. Nothing about its carbon-fiber body—save for a missing exhaust tailpipe—indicates that its blistering Corvette-caliber performance originates from within a lithium-ion battery pack, the same thing that’s powering your laptop. The steeply raked windshield, reptilian hood scoops, and highly visible cross-drilled brake rotors are hallmarks of limited-production sports cars like the Lotus Elise, on which the Roadster is largely based. By shrewdly employing a lust-inspiring, bankable typology (the British two-seat track star), its designers cast the Roadster’s radical innards as a pleasant surprise, not the main attraction.

Martin Eberhard, an accomplished computer engineer, and Elon Musk, the original founder of PayPal, are the Silicon Valley savants who created Tesla Motors in 2003 with the goal of putting purely electric, non-CO2-emitting sedans, compacts, and subcompacts on the road. But as lifelong car enthusiasts, they wanted to launch their company with what manufacturers call a halo car—one worthy of an adolescent boy’s bedroom wall. That theirs would be capable of traveling 250 miles on a single charge and would reach full power after about 3.5 hours plugged in to a conventional outlet would be only part of its appeal.

Nearly 700 preorders have been filled to date with the Bay Area company, mostly by individuals who have never sat behind the Roadster’s wheel or heard its insistent acceleration, which is marked not by the open-cylinder growl of a Ferrari, but by a subtle, pleasing whirr. Tesla stands by its battery pack for 100,000 miles, the length of the best powertrain warranties available on conventional passenger cars. A package offering speed, beauty, efficiency, and exclusivity: It should be just the catalyst to put Tesla’s greater dream of petro-independence in motion. — jonathan schultz

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