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Review – 2009 Audi TT-S Roadster

The Good: Sweet-shifting transmission, stellar handling, looks like a roadster should.

The Bad: Turbo lag kind of a bummer, flatulent exhaust can be grating.

The Verdict: Convertible fun in a balanced package.

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While automotive journalists and racing drivers alike often extol the virtues of closed-roof sports cars, there is simply no substitute for the experience of a convertible. Sure, chopping the roof may give up some structural integrity and motorized tops may add weight, but no amount of lightness or strength can replace the feeling of racing along with the wind in your hair, nothing between you and the sky. For most of us, driving a convertible is as close as we’ll ever come to flying.

That said, the Audi TT-S Roadster is a wonderful substitute for a jetpack.

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Thankfully, little of the TT coupe’s clean, elegant styling is lost in the transformation from hardtop to softtop. The styling modifications baked in with the high-performance S package thankfully avoid the gaudiness all too often associated with “sportier” models; if anything, the front lip spoiler and raised wheel arches draw a strong link to Audi’s outstanding R8 supercar. And while “Brilliant Red” might not be the best choice for every car, it sat on the TT-S’s hull like the car was born to wear it. Put it this way – pull up in this car at a party, and you won’t have any trouble snaring some ass. And I don’t mean farm animals. (Unless that’s how you roll.)

The car’s expensive looks and feel are all the more impressive, given that under the skin, the TT-S is little more than a Volkswagen Rabbit (nee Golf), sharing its chassis (hence the car’s rather diminutive size) and engines – in the case of the TT-S, an uprated version of the GTI’s 2.0 liter turbocharged inline-four cranking out 265 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque.

All this juice is routed to all four wheels through the Volkswagen Group’s dual-clutch gearbox, formerly known as DSG but currently called S tronic. Whatever you call it, the dual-clutch box operates almost seamlessly. As with the dual clutch tranny of the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, the TT-S’s gearbox offers multiple ways of choosing your next gear.

Leave it in automatic, and it’ll shift itself without a second thought. Slap the shift lever sideways into Sport mode, and the car assumes you’re trying to recreate Ronin, holding gears close to the redline to keep the engine on the boil. And if you prefer manual override, you can pick your own gears using either the lever or the small metal paddles affixed to the back of the wheel, which feel great but can be hard to find during turns. In automatic mode or under hard acceleration, it snaps off shifts like rifle fire; driving sedately in manual mode, there can be a pause between toggling the shift paddle and the desired effect, but the gap is short enough to effectively be a non-issue.

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Slightly more annoying than the transmission’s quirks is the tendency of the quite exhaust pipes to burp quite loudly on every upshift. While it certainly adds a welcomed sense of fuck yeah! during hard-charging acceleration, it can grow a little tiresome while tooling around town. A system that restricts the belching to hard-core acceleration would certainly be appreciated.

Still, there’s little to complain about in regards to the car’s performance. Acceleration runs towards the back of the sport roadster class – not surprising, as the TT-S is quite a bit less powerful than competitors like the Porsche Boxster S, the awkwardly named BMW Z4 sDrive35i, or even the Chevrolet Corvette convertible. However, unless you’ve got the car’s competitors at hand for direct comparison, you’ll only be disappointed with the TT-S’s acceleration if you’re trading down from a Ferrari.

To access that power, though, you’ll have to punch through some turbo lag early on. Below 3000 rpm, the four-cylinder feels a touch anemic; once past that point, though, things stay interesting all the way up to the redline. Still, driving around New York City, I often found myself dropping a gear in order to keep up with traffic. (Then again, if all you need to deal with traffic in New York is a downshift, consider yourself lucky. I usually need something in a 12-gauge Remington.)

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Plus, when the roads start winding, the Audi grabs hold like an angry cat on carpet. Compact car or not, the Rabbit/Golf’s capable handling has often been celebrated, and the lowered ride height and AWD of the Audi only add to it. Should you desire, you can turn cloverleafs into G-force simulators with relative ease (but make sure your soda lid is screwed on tight).

Unfortunately, all that performance makes for quite a bit of temptation, and even if you’re lucky enough to avoid speeding tickets (good luck with that), playing with this Audi can cost you at the pump. The EPA estimates fuel economy at 21 city/29 highway; however, achieving the higher figure likely requires driving with the top up at 55 miles per hour, and if you’re driving your TT-S like that, you should just pull over and give the car to the nearest teenager. My tester’s low fuel light popped on after just 330 miles.

Inside, the TT-S boasts the same sort of quality seen all along the Audi line. You sit low in the car, with the high doors creating a mild case of “bathtub effect.” In keeping with the nature of the car, sporty touches abound, from the snug seats to the metallic finish on the shift lever and paddles and the thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel similar to the one in the Lamborghini Gallardo. (Lamborghini, like Audi, is owned by the Volkswagen Group – along with Bentley, Bugatti, and a host of European carmakers American audiences have probably never heard of.)

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Of course, no matter how committed you are to soaking up the sun – or in the case of Irish people like myself, risking melanoma – eventually some sort of event will occur (thunderstorm, hole in the ozone layer, Mothman attack) that will cause you to raise the top. Thankfully, the TT-S makes it easy; press and hold one button, and the top will rise or fall as you desire, even while driving at low speeds. While power hard tops have come into vogue in the last several years, the TT-S doesn’t suffer for choosing canvas over metal; the top boasts a glass rear window, feels nearly as strong as a hard one, and was just as effective at keeping warmth in and noise out.

The Bottom Line: From its humble roots in the Volkswagen family, the TT-S has grown into a genuine sports car. While it may lack the mid-mounted engines or hefty V-8s of other roadsters, the little Audi still kicks ass and takes names while making you feel like an action hero. Sure, it’s not the perfect convertible for everyone – there are faster roadsters, more convenient roadsters, flashier roadsters and cheaper roadsters – but the TT-S strikes a nice balance between value, size and style. Lay your eyes on one, and it’s hard to look away; drop the top, crank up your favorite Foo Fighters song and floor it through a couple of gears, and you’ll be hooked.

All figures are for 2010 models; the car is effectively unchanged from 2009.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $54,950/$54,950

0-60: 5.1 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

EPA Fuel Economy: 21 city/29 highway

Key Competitors: BMW Z4 sDrive35i, Porsche Boxster S, Mercedes-Benz SLK350, Chevrolet Corvette.

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Recap – 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show

(We apologize for the lateness of this posting. Unfortunately, it was a pretty hectic week here, as we were prepping for our move to a new space. However, we’re now settled into our new, better office, so we can bring you even more of the coverage you love! Or tolerate. Or hate. Just so long as you read it.)

For car enthusiasts, the Frankfurt Motor Show tends to be one of the more consequential events of the year. Not only does it segue nicely into Oktoberfest, but it’s usually home to dozens of palpitation-causing model revelations. (Though that might actually be caused by all that wurst.)

Blissfully, this year’s show was no exception, with quite a few exciting cars showing their front fascias (fasciae?) for the first time. Sadly, due to the sagging economy, we were unable to send any correspondents to Germany this year, but we’ve still prepared a recap of this year’s highlights for your viewing pleasure, divided up into appropriate categories.

SUPREME SEDANS:

2010 Aston Martin Rapide

After years of waiting and teasing, Aston Martin finally went public with all the details about its sleek sedan – or “four-door sports car,” as they prefer to call it. We don’t really care what they call it – so long as they let us stare at it. Thankfully, the sports car maker’s attempt at domestication hasn’t resulted in any loss of attractiveness; like a six-foot-three supermodel, all that extra length just means you have to look at it longer.

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Motivation comes from the same 6.0 liter, 470-horsepower V12 motivating the DB9 on which it’s based, connected to a six-speed automatic. No word yet on whether Aston will see fit to bring out a more aggressive model based on the DBS at some point, but it wouldn’t be too surprising.

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Pricing hasn’t been announced, but expect something in the $200,000 range – about $60-$100K more than its direct “competitors,” the Porsche Panamera Turbo and Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG. But odds are if you’re in the market for a six-figure sedan that performs like a supercar and prefer the looks of the Aston Martin, you can swing the difference.

2011 Bentley Mulsanne

After taking the wraps off its new flagship at the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance last month, Bentley officially unveiled the Mulsanne in all its glory at Frankfurt – and it’s pretty freakin’ glorious.

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Power comes from a 6.75 liter turbocharged V8 (presumably the same basic one motivating Bentleys for half a century), putting out 505 horses and 725 lb-ft of torque. All that twist heads to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic – and no, there’s no good reason why a car with as much torque as a Mack truck needs eight forward speeds.

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Bentley says the Mulsanne will also come with a variety of 21st century features, such as Bluetooth, sat-nav, MP3 player hookup, and a 6-disc CD changer. Of course, if all you wanted were those features and leather seats, you could save yourself in the range of $275,000 and buy a loaded Mazda3 – but where’s the fun in that?

2011 Rolls-Royce Ghost

If there’s a new Bentley, a new Rolls-Royce probably isn’t too far behind. (After all, Kanye and Fiddy can’t both be rolling in the same whips, can they?) However, the Ghost and the Mulsanne aren’t direct competitors – the big Bentley stacks up against the heftier Rolls-Royce Phantom, while the Ghost is a “discount” model aimed at the “cheap” Bentley Continental.

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Of course, cheap is a relative term – the Rolls will retail for around $245,000 when it hits the States next year. Sure, that’s almost $75,000 more than the Conti, but that’s not too much to ask for a little brand loyalty, is it?

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Like the Continental, the Ghost is also based on a less expensive vehicle from its corporate master’s stable. The Continental shares many of its unseen bits with the Volkswagen Phaeton luxury sedan (remember that car? Well, no one else does, either.); the Ghost, in turn, shares a platform with the new BMW 7-series. Motivation comes from a slightly uprated version of the BMW 760Li’s powertrain – the Roller pumps out 563 horsepower from a 6.0 liter turbocharged V12, through yet another eight-speed automatic. Prudent buyers will probably pick the far cheaper Bimmer…but Rolls-Royces have never been about prudence.

Bugatti 16 C Galibier

While the Galibier wasn’t actually featured at Frankfurt – it was unveiled at the company’s headquarters in Molsheim, France – it deserves inclusion in this list because of its mind-boggling magnificence.

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The hatchback sedan concept looks more or less like the offspring of a Porsche Panamera and a Bugatti Veyron, and given its supercharged 8.0 liter W16 engine and all-wheel-drive, presumably performs that way as well.

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While Bugatti officially has only said the Galibier is  one of several concepts for the next Bugatti road car;however, AutoExpress claims it has been approved for production, and should start rolling out in 2013.

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Should the Galibier go into production, expect around 800 horsepower, an eight-speed dual clutch gearbox and a pricetag of about $1,400,000 – meaning the average Goldman Sachs employee will have to save up slightly more than two whole years’ worth of bonuses to buy one.

CLEAN LUXURY:

2010 BMW X6 Active Hybrid

BMW dropped the production version of its high-end hybrid SUV at Frankfurt this year, which should be going on sale here soon.

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The 2010 X6 ActiveHybrid (as opposed to the PassiveHybrid line, which mostly sits around in the driveway eating potato chips and watching The Bonnie Hunt Show) is strapped for performance, with two electric motors added onto its already hearty 4.4 liter turbocharged V8. BMW quotes total combined output at 480 horsepower and 575 lb-ft of torque – not too far from the balls-to-the-wall X6 M. However, the X6 M can’t claim to travel at up to 37 mph without using a drop of gasoline, unless it’s being pushed by a T.rex.

BMW says the hybrid X6 does 0-60 in 5.4 seconds and tops out at 130 mph, while still using 20 percent less gas than the regular V8 model. If they deliver on these promises without hurting the X6’s playful performance characteristics or jacking the price up too much, I doubt anyone will want to buy the regular old X6 xDrive 50i.

Mercedes-Benz Vision S500 Plug-In HYBRID concept

Equipped with the sort of obscenely long name currently in favor with German luxury automakers, the plug-in S500 remains merely a concept – for the moment. Mercedes-Benz engineers say the technology is being prepped for production sometime in the near future.

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The S500 Plug-In doesn’t operate quite like the famous Chevy Volt; in the Benz, the gasoline engine still powers the wheels directly, instead of simply recharging the battery. Still, by plugging the battery into an outlet, it can store up enough juice to run the S-class for a whopping 19 miles before the 3.5 liter V6 kicks in.

Mercedes estimates combined fuel economy at 74 miles per gallon, though as with many hybrids today, eking that out could prove harder than squeezing sanity from Glenn Beck. Still, if a production model can achieve even 50 mpg while still cranking out a 5.5 second 0-60 time, Mercedes will have a winner on its hands. (But can we get at least 30 miles out of that battery, guys?)

LEAN, GREEN, FAST MACHINES:

Audi e-tron

Do you like the Audi R8, but want to take the metaphorical Beano and say goodbye to gas? Then feast your eyes on the electric-powered e-tron concept, based off Audi’s sweet supercar.

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According to Audi, the concept packs four electric motors punching out 313 horsepower and an unfathomable 3,319 lb-ft of torque. Of course, you can’t use all that twist at once – it would probably send the wheels flying across the continent – but it sounds cool. Audi also claims a 4.8 second 0-60 time, a top speed of 124 mph and a range of 154 miles…but not if you’re going 124 mph.

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Of course, those figures are pretty academic, as Audi hasn’t announced any definite production plans for the e-tron. Of course, if Mercedes-Benz’s electric-drive SLS proves successful, don’t be surprised to see an electric R8 sailing silently past the gas pumps within four years.

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BMW Vision Efficient Dynamics Concept

Not content to just slap an electric motor in a pre-exising car, BMW instead toted out a brand-new concept designed to showcase what a fuel-efficient supercar of the near future could look like.

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According to BMW, the ED (snicker) gets its power from the unification of a 163-hp, 1.5-liter turbodiesel and a pair of electric motors, creating a maximum output of 356 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque. Lightweight design (is that why there are no doors?) helps the ED scoot to 60 in 4.8 seconds, while achieving the usual Bimmer top speed of 155 mph.

Not sure who this image is supposed to appeal to...aliens?

Not sure who this image is supposed to appeal to...aliens?

Fuel economy is reportedly estimated at 63 mpg, with 31 miles of electric-only driving possible. While a  production version is pretty unlikely, some of the fuel-saving technology seen here will probably show up on the rumored “Z10” supercar that’ll hopefully be coming our way in a couple of years; however, that car will reportedly run a twin-turbo 3.0 liter inline six making 450 horsepower (awesome).

SPEEDING BULLETS:

Ferrari 458 Italia

We’ve featured the Italia here on the site several times before, but since it was officially revealed at Frankfurt, it only seemed appropriate to look at it one more time.

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Replacement for the F430 and heir to Ferrari’s long line of mid-engined V8 sports cars, the 458’s 4.5 liter V8 makes 570 horsepower and 398 lb-ft of torque, and sends it to the rear wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. 0-60 comes in 3.4 seconds (probably less – Ferrari tends to be conservative), top speed is 202 mph, and combined fuel economy on the European cycle comes to 18 mpg. Pricing hasn’t been announced, but if you go into your Ferrari dealership with $300,000 in cash, you’ll probably be able to buy a baseball cap or two as well.

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Lamborghini Reventon Roadster

Likewise, the Reventon is no stranger to this site (it’s the car in our headline banner), but it’s always worth taking another look at – especially when a new version comes out.

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Mechanically and physically, the roadster is pretty much the same as the coupe – 6.5 liter V12, 660 horses, 487 lb-ft of torque, six-speed sequential manual transmission, outlandishly gorgeous styling. The only real difference is the lack of a top and the increased rarity – Lambo will be making a mere 15 roadsters, as opposed to a bountiful production run of 20 for the coupe. As Lamborghini itself proudly boasts, the odds of owning a Reventon Roadster are 1 in 700 million; however, at $1.6 million a pop, the odds of getting laid in the passenger’s seat are about 1 in 2.

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Mercedes-Benz SLS

Again, we’ve already shown you the SLS here on CCO, but since it too received a public unveiling at Frankfurt, we thought we’d take another look at it (even though it hurts our eyes to do so).

Packing a 571-horsepower version of AMG’s 6.3 liter V8 running through a seven-speed transmission, the SLS blasts from 0 to 60 in 3.8 seconds and tops out at 197 mph. When it goes on sale sometime next year, expect to pay around $175,000 before any options – slotting it neatly between the Audi R8/Porsche 911 Turbo and the Lamborghini Gallardo/Ferrari 458 Italia.

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Reportedly, the SLS is a blast to drive, capable of holding its own with any of the aforementioned competitors; hopefully the looks improve in person, as well, because it really doesn’t look too good in those pictures. But at the very least when you’re inside, you won’t have to look at the car’s ass…

GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME:

Mini Coupe/Roadster

Now, at first, you might wonder why Mini would be building these cars. After all, doesn’t the Mini already only have two doors…and isn’t there already a convertible?

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However, you would be thinking rationally. If so, you’re not who Mini’s looking for for these two. Go buy a Clubman. No, these are for the drivers who take their Minis to the max.

[Ed: Really? Are you kidding me? That’s the best you can do?]

Shut up, Ed. You try writing this on seven Red Bulls. Anyway, the Mini Coupe will reportedly hit the streets with the turbocharged 208-hp 1.6 liter inline-four from the John Cooper Works Mini, while the Roadster plays it a bit lighter with a 175-horsepower 1.6 liter turbo four. You should be able to buy them in early 2011.

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2010 Porsche 911

Ah, 911. Tragic connotations aside, those numbers will always have a special meaning for car enthusiasts. For more than 40 years, the penultimate rear-engine sports car has been undergoing constant evolution, and this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show gave Porsche a chance to show off their latest subspecies. Both cost about the same, and both share an engine – but they’re aimed at different people, for sure.

For those who only feel alive on a racetrack, there’s the 911 GT3 RS, a 450-horsepower naturally aspirated race-ready RWD machine that’s so plugged into you, you’d swear it has one of those neck plugs from The Matrix. 0 to 60 in 3.8 seconds, top speed 194 mph, and a price of $132,800.

2010 Porsche 911 GT3 RS, seen here being enjoyed by General Zod.

2010 Porsche 911 GT3 RS, seen here being enjoyed by General Zod.

But if you need something you can drive to work every day, the new 911 Turbo offers a turbocharged 500 horsepower 3.8 liter flat six. All-wheel-drive means improved traction in all conditions, and there’s even a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission for those too lazy to row the gears themselves. 60 mph comes in a stunning 3.2 seconds, and top speed is 194 mph as well. The coupe also starts at $132,800, while the convertible starts at $143,800.

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And Porsche, if you’re reading this, we’d kill for a Turbo Coupe for a week…

BMW 5-series GT

Wrapping things up for our Frankfurt Show coverage is BMW’s wagonoid, the 5-series GT. Not as roomy as a station wagon…not as tall as an SUV…and not as svelte as a sedan, this hatchagon sacrifices the bitch seat in back to offer prime seating for four. In addition, the rear hatch can open in two ways – the trunk lid alone can open, or the whole hatch can go up, too.

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The GT comes in 535 and 550 forms, offering a 306-hp twin turbo 3.0 liter I6 in the former and a 407-hp 4.4 liter twin-turbo V8 in the latter. An eight-speed auto provides the motivation; rear wheel drive is standard, AWD optional. And while it may seem a bit odd in pictures, we’re willing to bet it’ll prove a surprisingly convenient all-weather all-task vehicle.

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So, BMW, if you want to throw a 550 GT our way too, that’d be great.

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Preview – Tesla Model S

If people could invest in automotive powertrains, the handful of people out there with electric car stocks would be seeing those very-long-term investments finally begin to pay off. Back in the early years of the 20th century, electric motors were plenty popular among the nascent automobile industry; of course, so was steam power.

Tesla Model S

But while the days of water-vapor driven cars cruising down Main Street are as defunct as sock hops and Molly Ringwald’s career, the electric car is undergoing something of a renaissance. Between last year’s hair-tearing increase in gas prices and the sudden awareness of global warming as more than a conspiracy theory, people are starting to reconsider the benefits of electric cars.

Some of this interest, unsurprisingly, has come from the world’s big automotive manufacturers – for example, GM’s Volt and Chrysler’s ENVI family, such as the 200C sedan. However, other ventures have been put forward by companies you’ve never heard of – Fisker’s Karma sedan, for example.

Fisker Karma

Fisker Karma

But Tesla – the manufacturer of today’s Preview subject – sets itself apart by being the first to put boots on the ground – or rather, tires on the pavement. While Fisker, Chevrolet, Chrysler and a slew of other manufacturers large and small have been touting upcoming models, Tesla has been selling its loosely-Lotus Elise-based roadster since last year. Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, and Cameron Diaz are among the greenies who’ve unloaded around 100 grand to say goodbye to gas forever!

Tesla Roadster

Tesla Roadster

Well, only if they’re planning on driving less than 220 miles, because then the batteries run out of juice and you have to spend seven or eight hours recharging. (You can get a higher-ampere home charging station that’ll top off your battery with electrons in about three and a half hours, but plugging into a regular old outlet means a full night, more or less.) And only if you’re planning on carrying one other person, since it’s a two-seater. And only if you don’t need a whole lot of luggage – hey, it IS based on a Lotus Elise.

But the good folks at Tesla Motors (named after Serbian inventor and alternating current enthusiast Nikolai Tesla, whose last impact on the zeitgeist was when David Bowie portrayed him as a Hugh Jackman-duplicating scientist in The Prestige) are no fools; while a sexy convertible may draw in attention (and venture capital bucks), to take the company to the next level of profitability, they needed something more practical.

Hence, the Model S. A mid-sized luxury sedan designed and priced to take on the BMW 5-series, the Mercedes-Benz S-class, and the Jaguar XF, Tesla’s new model promises gasoline-car range and performance, greater seating capacity and superior versatility – all for less than the competition, once fuel costs are rolled into the equation.

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As John Travolta noted in Pulp Fiction, “That’s a bold statement.”

Let’s take a quick look at those claims. Better yet, let’s see how it really stacks up against the competition. For argument’s sake, let’s weight it against the standard 2009 Jaguar XF sedan – among the newest of the mid-sized luxury sedan class, and already acclaimed as a class-leader by quite a few factions in the motoring press.

Jaguar XF

Jaguar XF

Range: Tesla claims the Model S achieves a 300-mile range with its optional high-capacity battery; regular models can roam a mere 160-miles before seeking sweet, sweet current. The naturally aspirated 4.2 liter V8 in the Jag has an 18.4 gallon fuel tank, and is rated at 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway. So one tank of gas in the XF will get you somewhere between 294 and 460 miles; figure an average range of about 375 miles. Plus, fueling up the Jaguar only take about five minutes. Advantage: Jaguar

Performance: Tesla isn’t mentioning horsepower figures yet, but claims the Model S will do the 0-60 sprint in 5.6 seconds, the quarter-mile in 14 flat, and tops out at 120 mph. The XF, by Jaguar’s numbers, does 0-60 in 6.2 seconds, with the party ending at 121 mph. Advantage: Tesla

Practicality: The Jaguar, while inordinately pretty, is a fairly normal mid-sized sedan in terms of packaging. Four adults will fit in comfort, five if the three people in the back seats would help the others move out of their apartments. 17.7 cubic feet of packing peanuts will fit in the trunk. The Tesla, on the other hand, claims 7-passenger capability – or rather, 5+2 capability, since the two seats in the way back are about as suitable for adults as those in the back of a Porsche 911. Still, it’s a handy feature to have, especially given the tendency of most people to buy heavy, gas-slurping SUVs when they have to transport more than three kids. Due to the low-lying nature of the powertrain, there’s a second trunk up front as well, a la Porsche Boxster. Advantage: Tesla

Price: The XF starts at $49,975. The Tesla starts out a bit higher – $57,400 – but should be eligible for a $7500 federal tax credit, lining it up nicely with the Jaguar. Of course, that’s without the extended-range battery, so expect any saving from that tax credit to vaporize pretty quickly if you foresee your life taking you more than 80 miles from your house. (The company claims you can also swap the battery in 5 minutes for a fresh one, but doesn’t say how easy this might be or how much a spare battery costs.)

But the Model S does have a couple neat features the Jaguar lacks – a 17″ touch screen on the console (yikes!), along with claimed 3G wireless capability, which I simply don’t understand. Is there a cell phone tower built into the car? A panoramic sunroof, xenon headlights, smart-key technology, and a few other goodies will either be standard or optional – the press release isn’t clear. You should probably expect to pay a few grand more than a comparably-equipped XF if you want that extra range.

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The Tesla’s big cost advantage, however, should come not at the initial check-writing phase, but as the years trickle by. Depending on how much you’re paying your electric company, filling the extended range 70-kilowatt battery might cost less than $10, which certainly beats the hell out of the $36.80 it’ll take to fill up the XF at $2 a gallon. Even if your electric company decides to be a pain and it costs you $20 per full charge, you’ll still save $315 or so for every 10,000 miles you drive. Tesla predicts the Roadster’s battery should last about 7 years or 100,000 miles; if the Model S follows a similar price structure, so long as the battery costs less than $3150, you’ll save money by going green. (Tesla currently quotes a jaw-dropping $36,000 fee for battery replacement on the Roadster; hopefully they can knock that down a few dozen percent for the sedan.)

(However, in the ethical spirit of journalism, I have to remind you that the Tesla’s numbers will vary greatly depending on how much your electric company charges. If you’re only paying $7 per 300 miles, you’ll save $748 per 10K over the Jag, and Tesla can charge $7479 for your new battery while still claiming you save money.)

So value-wise, I’m gonna have to go Advantage: Jaguar. While going electric saves money from day-to-day, the battery replacement fee probably negates it. And (hopefully) the engine on the Jag will last more than 100,000 miles.

Of course, all of this is still rather academic, as the Model S won’t be plugging into consumers’ garages until the summer of 2011 or so. Given the billions of dollars being sunk into lithium-ion batteries for cars, the price should come down quite a bit over the next few years – and by 2016, when the first wave of Model S’s starts rolling over that 100K mile mark, the batteries might well cost a tenth what they do today.

So in the end, is the Model S a real car, or simply a curiosity? Well, it certainly plays the part of real car well enough. Until people from outside the company can test it out, we won’t know for sure, but if they can live up to their claims, it will probably hold its own well with its gasoline-powered competitors.

But its major flaw lies in the time it takes to power up. One of the things that makes internal combustion engines so wonderful is the miniscule amount of time it takes to refuel – a car or truck can drive for hundreds of hours straight, so long as fuel is put into the tank very now and again (although you really should turn it off while filling up, folks). As long as you have to stop for three to eight hours every 300 miles or so, pure electric vehicles will have difficulty catching on as a family’s “first” car.

Chrysler 200C concept

Chrysler 200C concept

So what’s the solution? Well, it’s the one seen under the hoods of the Fisker Karma, the Chevy Volt, and Chrysler’s ENVI vehicles – hook up a small gasoline engine as a range-extending generator for the batteries. The “plug-in series hybrids” being touted by these companies will run about 40 miles on plug-in electric power, then several hundred more as the engine recharges the battery – just like plugging your laptop into a gasoline generator. Using the gas engine as a generator means greater fuel efficiency – somewhere between 50 and 150 mpg for a car like the Volt – and for shorter trips, no gasoline will be used at all.

Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet Volt

That’s not to say pure electric cars don’t have a place or a future. If we can figure out how to charge the batteries in five minutes instead of three hours – maybe a nationwide network of high-amp stations to replace today’s gas stations – electric cars might be all we drive, fifty years from now. And they make sense today for most day-to-day travel people take. But as long as Americans have a love for the open road and a desire to follow it day and night, pure electric cars like the Tesla will simply have to find a place as very capable bedfellows in a two-car garage.

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