Payne: It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Tesla Roadster

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Like a “Justice League” toy found in a cereal box, an electric supercar emerged from Tesla’s semi-truck last week and stole the show. Boasting breathtaking acceleration, long range — and maybe even the ability to fly — the Tesla Roadster’s performance makes it one of the most capable sports cars on the planet. All that’s missing is a cape.

The first Tesla product to evolve to a second-generation — the Roadster was the brand’s first product in 2008 — the supercar will be a $200,000-plus halo car. Like Ford’s GT or Acura’s NSX, the Roadster pushes the envelope of Tesla performance.

“The Tesla Roadster will be the fastest production car ever made. Period,” said Tesla CEO and ringmaster Elon Musk before a packed house in an airport hangar outside Los Angeles last week. “It’s the first time any car has broken 2 seconds (zero-60 mph acceleration). The point of doing this is to give a hardcore smack-down to gasoline cars.”

The event was supposed to be about Tesla’s entrée into the truck market. But as the sleek semis exited stage left, one lingered. Escorted by a swirl from dry ice, the Roadster appeared from the truck’s rear doors to bedlam from Tesla fans. It circled the tarmac, stopped, then shot into the distance like it had been fired from a silent cannon.

Due in 2020, the details of the Roadster are sketchy beyond the dizzying numbers Musk provided in L.A.: zero-60 in 1.9 seconds (topping current-champ Dodge Challenger SRT Demon’s 2.3 seconds); 620 mile-plus range (the first EV to eclipse 620 miles); and a 250 mph top speed.

Musk has endeared himself to speed freaks by naming performance upgrades “Insane” and “Ludicrous” — the latter taken from the sci-fi movie spoof “Spaceballs.” Will the Roadster eclipse Ludicrous?

“In ‘Spaceballs’ there is one thing beyond Ludicrous and that is Plaid,” said Musk.

Tesla didn’t disclose chassis details, but the Roadster’s four-seat configuration and copious cargo room suggest the same batteries-in-the-floor, EV-style architecture that undergirds the companies’ sedans. The original Roadster, by contrast, converted a mid-engine Lotus Elise chassis to battery-power and was confined to two seats.

Musk continued to tease Roadster details over the weekend — including its flight potential.

“Not saying the next gen Roadster special upgrade package *will* definitely enable it to fly short hops, but maybe,” he tweeted Sunday. “Certainly possible. Just a question of safety. Rocket tech applied to a car opens up revolutionary possibilities.”

Nothing sounds out of bounds in a new age of automobility where manufacturers talk of driverless cars and “smart” highways — especially from a CEO who also owns rocket-company SpaceX and was the first to put gull wings on an SUV.

“I don’t know what to make of that,” laughed IHS auto analyst Stephanie Brinley. “There are at least four other companies that are playing with the concept of a flying car.”

What the Roadster does bring into focus is Tesla’s luxury strategy. Like other premium automakers, the electric-car maker builds an entry-level sedan (the Model 3) at $35,000 that’s book-ended by a halo supercar in the $200,000 range. Acura and Audi have similar supercar strategies with the Acura NSX and Audi R8 V-10 sports cars. Even Ford, a mainstream brand, produces a supercar — the GT — which starts at a stratospheric $450,000.

Like the second-generation R8, introduced in 2015, the Roadster appears to be here to stay. Tesla built 2,500 copies of the original Roadster from 2008-2012. Packed with 53 kWh of lithium-ion batteries, it shocked car enthusiasts with its 3.7-second 0-60 sprint and 200-mile EV range — a first for an electric car.

“Tesla is still a long way from becoming a normal car company,” says Brinley. “But this is the first time they have done a second generation of something they have done before.”

The second-gen car promises performance numbers that eclipse even million-dollar hypercars like the Porsche 918 hybrid and Bugatti Chiron. For $2.8 million less, the Roadster’s claimed numbers beat the Bugatti down the quarter-mile by a full second. Its sub-2 second, 0-60 spec would put it on par with specialty mods like Brighton-based Lingenfelter Engineering’s 800-horsepower Corvette.

“I want a Roadster,” says Joel Szirtes, one of the first Model S owners in Michigan. “Objectively and aesthetically, at $200,000 this car is a great value proposition in the supercar segment.”

Whether Tesla can deliver on its 2020 delivery promise remains to be seen as the company burns through billions of dollars in capital to produce its bread-and-butter volume seller, the Model 3. Musk promised production of 5,000 Model 3s a week by December, but delays have already pushed that promise off to March. Current production is about 250 vehicles a week.

The Roadster will get in line behind the semi-truck — scheduled for 2019 — which already has production orders from commercial interests like the Meijer grocery chain. The “falcon-winged” Model X SUV was delayed about two years due to production issues.

“Tesla’s biggest challenge,” says Brinley, “is ramping up production of the Model 3.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.