The menacing chug of a big-bore V8 engine pulses through our test chariot and we can feel the pistons at work as the whole car shakes at idle.
At Brabus, famed for its reckless treatment of already substantial Mercedes power plants, this sort of thing should come as no surprise. But this isn’t a Mercedes; in fact, this car doesn’t have a V8, or even pistons. This is the electric-powered 2009 Brabus Tesla Roadster, a first step into the brave new world of zero emissions. Except that something weird is going on.
To be sure, Brabus will continue to push its ozone-burning wares like the 720-horsepower Bullit V12, but Bodo Buschmann’s outfit has finally embraced the zero-emissions future with a new division distinguished by the logo of a lightning bolt.
And this strangely noisy 2009 Brabus Tesla Roadster is its first effort.
Despite Tesla’s well-publicized financial dramas, its Lotus-based electric sports car is still the poster child for green technology. It has almost single-handedly changed the perception of the electric car and shown us that we can have fun without polluting. But it is far from a flawless diamond, and this makes it a perfect candidate for a Brabus makeover.
With the equivalent of 248 horsepower and 276 pound-feet of torque from its 375-volt AC motor, the Tesla is plenty fast enough, hitting 60 mph in a claimed 3.9 seconds. Without ripping out the motor and starting from scratch, there was little Brabus could do to boost the output or the top speed of 125 mph.
But pure speed hasn’t ever been the Tesla’s problem, as 92 percent of the power goes to the wheels, compared to the 80 percent loss of power from an internal combustion engine because of internal friction and the ancillaries. The electric motor spins to 14,000 rpm and all of the torque comes from zero rpm, so it’s more than powerful enough. But the sensation — well, that is something else. Only when the car scoots off the starting line at outrageous speed do you know the thing is even switched on, and the dull whine of the electric motor and the crescendo of rolling resistance are just uninspiring. You could actually get bored and go to jail at the same time.
Worse, it is a bit dangerous, as with no noise percolating from the car, there have been plenty of near-misses with pedestrians. Running over blind folks is about as bad as PR gets.
The Brabus Soundtrack
Now there will be no excuses about electricity without a soundtrack. Because the 2009 Brabus Tesla Roadster literally vibrates to the sound of the Brabus-built 6.1-liter Mercedes-Benz. That’s because Brabus has strategically placed an audio system around the Tesla to mimic the sound and vibration of the 462-hp V8. There are subwoofers under the car at the front and then four speakers set high. It makes the Tesla sound like it has an engine, not a motor.
Having recorded the Brabus V8′s note at every single stage of the throttle’s travel, the engineers have turned the Tesla into a free-revving gasoline-powered monster with a simple set of speakers and sensors strapped to the throttle. It could have been an abomination, a detached video-game-style soundtrack dripping with cheese. Instead this is a work of art.
If the V8 isn’t cool enough, there’s an F1 car program built into the system, although thankfully the volume is kept within legal sound limits. And there are two futuristic “space” soundtracks, which are more annoying than any ring tone you could ever imagine.
New Dimensions in Performance
We stick with the V8, and it’s a pure symphony. It transforms the whole Tesla experience. It was good before, but now it feels like an honest-to-goodness sports car ripping up the road. We simply select “Drive,” hammer the throttle and let the raucous, throaty tone of the big Mercedes power plant clearing its lungs add a whole new dimension to the driving thrills. Never again will we underestimate the power of noise and the sense of drama it brings to the table, as Brabus has given the Tesla some all-important soul.
With the one-gear transmission, the Roadster is still a strange concept, but the engine roar makes it feel like a real driver’s car, regardless of its alien powertrain. Except for the swift and savage engine-braking effect caused by the regenerative braking, the Tesla now feels every bit as light on its feet as the Lotus Elise from which it’s derived (in a straight line, anyway).
Brabus has also given this car adjustable coil-over suspension, so the ride height can be dropped up to 1.2 inches on those dirty-looking 18-by-7.0-inch front and 19-by-8.5-inch rear Titan wheels. A wider track also conspires to give the Tesla more bite into the bend, although the extruded aluminium chassis now skips off every joint in the tarmac.
A further liability of the wide wheels and tires is that three-point turns are a nightmare, as there is no power steering here and low-speed maneuvers take more muscle than a car with a price tag of $180,000 reasonably should require. On the move, though, the handling is as sharp as a pin, and the Tesla cuts into a bend and deals with an apex almost as well as a real Elise.
The Electric Burden
Even with the best soundtrack in the world, there is no disguising the extra pounds that come with an electric car. Brabus has tried to mitigate the consequences with forged-aluminium suspension bits (which reduces the weight of these pieces by 30 percent) and even uses lightweight leather trim to create a relatively lavish interior (material that apparently weighs 75 percent less than the sumptuous hides that drape the interior of a Brabus Mercedes). But when the lithium-ion battery pack weighs 992 pounds on its own and the whole car tips the scales at 2,730 pounds, it’s like ordering a diet soda with a bucket of McNuggets.
So the Brabus Tesla sags in the bends, pulling wide of the apex on a hard charge and lacks the ultimate chuckability that you get with a real Lotus. It’s still fun — it’s still a great car for a greenie — but the Tesla still needs that caveat, and the way the car dances from side to side in braking zones tells you that excuses aren’t enough.
What this car needs is 500 pounds less in the battery compartment, but that’s beyond the expertise of Brabus, so instead it’s working on lightweight ceramic brake rotors. So until then, the cosmetic mods will have to be enough. The naked, unpainted carbon-fiber front and rear spoilers are nothing to do with aerodynamic downforce, as the car isn’t fast enough to make them work, but they look the part. So do the Audi-style LED daytime running lights, which give the car that touch of venom. And then there’s the $8,000 matte-white paint job.
Meanwhile, Brabus has taken the Tesla that vital step forward toward a real exotic car, even replacing plastic air intakes with purest carbon to give it the exclusive edge. The place of the 2009 Brabus Tesla roadster in the Neiman Marcus collection was virtually assured as soon as pen hit paper.
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