Okay, let’s get this straight: Contrary to what you may have heard, the original Tesla Roadster, produced from 2008 to early 2012, was not an electrified Lotus Elise.
Yes, these cars closely resemble each other and share some parts, but under the skin they’re worlds apart. In a 2008 blog entry, then-Tesla VP Darryl Siry, tongue firmly in cheek, put it this way: “So you could say that the Tesla is similar to a Lotus Elise, except it has a totally different drivetrain, body panels, aluminum tub, rear subframe, brakes, ABS system, HVAC and rear suspension.
“If you were to try to convert an Elise to a Tesla and started throwing away parts that aren’t carried over, you would basically be left with a windshield, dashboard (complete with air bags), front wishbones and a removeable soft top.” He didn’t mention the outside rearview mirrors.
Early in the Tesla’s development, its designers realized the benefits of using an existing, U.S.-approved platform, and the light and sporty Elise seemed a perfect candidate. But the process turned out to be more painful than anticipated. In a 2012 interview, Elon Musk stated, “We used a highly modified Elise chassis; the body was all completely different. By the way, it was a super-dumb strategy that we actually did.”
You can imagine the challenge engineers faced in dropping a 1000-pound battery into the Elise’s midsection. To accommodate that burden–half the weight of an Elise–they ended up redesigning the aluminum tub for added strength and rigidity, using the battery pack as a stressed member.
They redesigned the chassis side rails, rear subframe and wishbones and lengthened the wheelbase by 2 inches. They also developed larger brakes front and rear plus a beefier crash structure. Turns out, those parts the Roadster shared with the Elise added up to a paltry 7% of the car–including those rearview mirrors.
Still, the Roadster and the Elise look enough alike to have been twins separated at birth. They are both tiny, limited-production models that competed in miniscule market niches, and they both generated enthusiast appeal–albeit to buyers with different interests and pocketbooks.
To learn how they actually compare, we rounded up an example of each and encouraged the owners to examine and discuss their rides. Then we asked them to spend some time behind the wheel of each other’s and share their impressions.
Living With a Tesla Roadster
During the Roadster’s four-year run, Tesla produced only 2450 examples, of which about 1800 were sold in the U.S. Combine that number with the cost–more than $100K–and you’re more likely to spot a Ferrari 360 during your daily commute.
The Roadster you see here served as a daily driver for years and, at this writing, has covered nearly 83,000 miles. Orlando-area enthusiast Rebekkah Parlee bought it new, and while it has presented some problems, she still loves it.
She has always enjoyed driving sporty cars, from an Acura Integra (stick shift, of course) to a Subaru SVX and a Mazda RX-8. So when approving comments about the Tesla Roadster started appearing online and in print (the company did no advertising), she became intrigued by the sporty EV and signed up, paying a hefty deposit. Production lagged and she waited 18 months for delivery.
When her Roadster finally arrived, she was delighted. “It lived up to its hype. I was very impressed with how fast it was and how quiet,” she says. “I was driving on I-4 every day, and that car had enough zip to squeeze in anywhere. Acceleration merging off the ramps became a fun game.”
She also loved the overall design and the attention the Roadster drew–except when curious drivers snapping photos drifted too close. Everywhere she parked, people wanted to look at the car and talk about it.
At stoplights, when she heard an engine revving alongside, she knew the driver–always a guy, she recalls–was challenging her to drag. She reluctantly admits being goaded into the very occasional power demonstration (within posted speed limits, naturally). And since her Roadster generates maximum torque from zero rpm and hits 60 mph–without a peep, no smoking tires, no screaming engine–in under 4 seconds, she’s never had to perform a second demo. This car is a true sleeper.
Ever watchful of range, Rebekkah has yet to run out of charge and typically plugs the Roadster into her garage’s 220-volt charger every night. “You learn to watch your range carefully,” she says. “I once ran it down to 15 miles, which is in the display’s red zone.”
The car’s regenerative braking system helps extend range by converting kinetic energy to electrical energy. “You can feel it,” she says. “When you release the accelerator, the car slows dramatically. It feels like downshifting a manual transmission and sends energy to the battery.”
Completely depleting this Tesla’s battery, dubbed “bricking” because it renders the car immovable, can be a $10,000 mistake. While her car has never bricked, it has required two expensive repairs. The power electronics module failed, as did the motherboard–long after the warranty had expired, naturally.
Otherwise, it’s been routine tire and brake replacements. Rebekkah rates Tesla service during her decade of ownership as somewhat spotty. The car has endured long out-of-service stints, partly caused by the lack of replacement parts.
Despite the occasional problems and quirks, she remains happy with the EV, citing the way it looks and drives. “It’s unique, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it,” she says. “I call the color stealth gray. Plus, it makes no noise, and it always surprises people. It’s a conversation starter.”
Living With a Lotus Elise
Many enthusiasts have heard Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s mandate for a true sports car: “Simplify, then add lightness.”
He explained further: “Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”
Decades later, despite government safety mandates and the relentless march of technology, the Elise delivers on this elusive principle with every drive, and that’s what drew enthusiast Fred Simmler’s attention.
Fred admits to always being a car guy. First came a four-cylinder Chevy Monza, into which he soon stuffed a built 350. Then there was a pair of Triumph TR7s, followed by a 300ZX Turbo and an Audi quattro.
After taking a break from car shopping for a few years (life happens, you know) he bought a 2005 Lotus Elise, which he had lusted after for years–production spans 1996 through today. And not long after that, he bought another, one that had been neglected and abused. Since Fred is an engineer, he loves to tinker and is deep into refurbishing his second Elise. He also uses it as a test mule for the Elise taillight kits and other items he designs and sells.
While several of his Elise’s modifications–supercharger, big-brake kit, coil-over springs and aftermarket wheels–were on the car when he bought it, Fred has made a number of improvements inside and out, including carbon fiber, HID headlights, LED taillights, USB charging capabilities, ECU monitoring via a Bluetooth-connected Android tablet, and a Bluetooth-enabled radio with speakerphone. Yes, he’s a self-admitted data wonk.
Fred loves the way the Elise drives, especially its precise response to inputs. “You wear it,” he says.
He’s also impressed with the car’s reliability: “It’s never stranded me.” He has replaced only the rear tires, battery and the thermostat, which was stuck open when he bought the car. He admits that access to the front and rear mechanicals can be difficult and time-consuming because it requires removing body panels. Overall, he feels the car has far exceeded his expectations.
Like the Tesla, the Elise draws a lot of attention. “Many folks think it’s an exotic,” Fred says, “but I think it’s more of a street-legal race car than an exotic.”
He loves taking it to shows and encourages kids to have their pictures taken in it. The tidy Elise always attracts a crowd and has won many awards. Fred describes the Central Florida Lotus community as “active but very informal” and enjoys comparing notes with other owners at events.
How Do They Drive?
For this comparison, we asked the owners to take a test drive in each other’s car. Rebekkah sampled the Lotus first.
“The Lotus felt smaller,” Rebekkah says. “The Tesla cabin feels wider, and because the doorsills are lower, it’s easier to get in and out of the Tesla. It was harder for me to see out the sides of the Lotus, and I was aware of blind spots.”
Once underway, she noticed that the Lotus’s steering was lighter and perhaps quicker. “The Lotus felt more nimble and sportier, probably because of the Tesla’s weight. Once I got used to the pedal placement, the transmission felt solid and shifted well, and I liked the responsiveness of the brakes. I don’t think the Lotus comes close to the Tesla’s burst of power and acceleration, but what a fun ride it is!” She admits that when she got back in the Roadster, it felt a bit heavy. “I didn’t think that before I drove the Elise.”
After carefully examining both cars, Fred was surprised that they look so much alike while being so different. “Overall, the Tesla design looks more modern and the Elise more exotic, with larger wheel wells and narrower cockpit,” he observes. “The Lotus panels have more curves, giving it more of a Hot Wheels look.”
Inside, he noticed that the Tesla seats were larger and more comfortable but offered less support, while the dash and steering wheel in both cars were virtually the same. He missed the Elise’s shifter, as the Tesla’s console-mounted, push-button “shifter” gave the interior a completely different look and feel. “With minimal carpeting and sound deadening, the Elise’s interior is much more spartan,” he notes. “But I enjoy the sounds of the exhaust. To me, it’s part of the fun.”
Behind the wheel, he was shocked (no pun intended) by the EV’s launch. “It’s super fast off the line,” he says, “with about twice the torque of the Elise. It’s incredible to feel that kind of acceleration–so smooth and linear, no shifting–combined with the sound of a golf cart.”
In the turns and under braking, however, he could feel the effects of the added weight: “The steering was heavier and slower with less feedback. There was a noticeable transition in corners, and it understeered a bit. I felt a lot more confident in throwing the Elise around.”
What We Learned
While both drivers enjoyed the switch, neither volunteered to make it permanent. Fred thinks his Elise, with its perfect power-to-weight balance, exceptional handling and six-speed transmission, delivers true sports car performance and character.
He also feels the Elise offers the better value, considering the Tesla’s stratospheric price. He cites the Elise’s fun factor, comparative ease of maintenance and lower operating costs. He puts it this way: “You can buy an Elise, drive it for a few years, and then sell it for the same price or more because so few were imported.” But as much as he loves the car, he doesn’t use it as a daily driver for his 90-mile-roundtrip interstate commute. “It’s like a fine whiskey,” he says, “to be taken in small amounts and enjoyed immensely.”
Rebekkah confesses that her Roadster is an expensive toy, but she loves the thing, and it has been a big part of her life for a decade. Its high-tech exclusiveness still appeals, as does the visceral punch she feels when she floors the accelerator.
“To me, its quietness and style make their own statements,” she says. “It may not be loud, but it still draws a lot of attention. It’s exclusive. I rarely see another. I’m glad I bought it, and I intend to keep it. It’s me.”
I’d completely forgotten about the Tesla Roadster, but I still think they look awesome. Let me know when their price drops under $10k and I might actually be interested.
8/12/21 10:35 a.m.
I’d love to get my hands on some used Tesla Seats, to see if they are a bit more plush than the Lotus ones. They do fit me pretty good, but they are quite hard.
This was one of the most interesting articles in a while. Love the owner swap comparisons.
Kudos to Mr Webber.
In reply to Tom Suddard :
IIRC they’re $100k+ cars now.
Now, the Mars Roadster, that one’s the most valuable. I look forward to the Classic Motorsports article when it comes up for sale. As is, where is.
8/12/21 11:35 p.m.
$100k for an electric elise? Ouch, I’ll take an (or two?) exige S thank you very much 🙂
Very cool article.
I wonder if you could swap the front clamshells. I kind of like the Tesla’s front end better. I wonder if you could put it on an Elise?
8/13/21 8:43 p.m.
In reply to BA5 :
The radiator takes up a bunch of that space. The Tesla front end looks pretty low to jam the cooling system under it.
My god, this Tesla just takes an ordinary single-DIN head unit rather than cramming all the controls into a screen like the new ones.
Tesla founder Martin Eberhard (not Elon Musk) said his inspiration for the roadster came from driving around Silicon Valley and noticing every house had a Porsche and a Prius parked outside. His thought was, why not somehow combine the two?
It was Elon who drove a lot of the changes from the Elise. After he joined the company and took control, he demanded that the headlights be changed and that the chassis be redesigned to lower the sills. Probably good changes, but the resulting expense and more importantly the schedule slips almost killed Tesla. “Who killed the Electric Car II” has scenes of a depressed Elon trying to calm customers furious that their roadsters are not yet ready for delivery.
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