Sunday, July 3, 2011

An Uncommon Car

Owning a sports car has pretty much always been a dream of mine. Of course I don't recall the exact moment my dad's (now my brother's) '67 Camaro morphed from the red hunk of steel that sat on four wheels and rarely left the drive-way to an object of desire, worship and prideful fascination. But at some point I realized we didn't drive it all the time because it was special and because it was special it was important. The car is now like a legendary artifact, a literal Holy Grail in my life. Seeing it and being in it, not only invoke the usual joys of a nice sports car, but it also has the mystical powers of nostalgia and it has taken on colossal size and meaning in ways that only childhood memories can properly distort. Stepping into that car is like stepping into a dream, a reversal of time, it's like bathing in the fountain of youth.

So while one might argue that my adventure yesterday had nothing to do with my dad's old Camaro, I'd say it has everything to do with it.

Hello there!

Last year I became a father. For my first Father's Day my wonderful wife and dear daughter rented me a Tesla. This is no small thing. If you compound my love for cars with the fact that the nicest car I've driven in the last nine years is a used WRX wagon (unless you count the numerous times I've driven my old M3 in my dreams) plus Robyn's ambivalence toward cars--at best we can call it ambivalence, but depending on the car it veers sharply toward despise or repugnance--then you can see why this was a pretty dang special gift.

How did it drive you wonder? I'll get to that. You're probably also wondering if there were any limitation on the car since it was rented. The good news is that there were not. It was a stock 2010 Tesla. My preferred driving scenario involves lots of fun turns in the 35-50mph type roads. I did drive the car along 280 from San Francisco to Palo Alto and back but I released most of my 80+mph speeding demons from my system back when I had my M3, so I didn't try topping the car out on the freeway or anything. I didn't exactly go the speed limit but accelerating from 65 to 80 in a blink of an eye is only about 100000 times more enjoyable than cruising at 90+ mph, in this man's opinion.

For comparison I've driven or been in the following cars while they were driven very quickly: a '96 911, a '94 RX-7 Turbo (I never drove this one but had a good time as a passenger) and my '96 Supercharged M3.

The first thing I noticed about the Tesla was its distance to the ground. The car practically sits on the pavement, I'm not sure how anyone over the age of fifty gets in or out of one--I got a cramp in my upper thigh trying to swing my legs in it the first time around (apparently the previous driver had been a shorter person which made my entry all that more difficult). Next time (please let there be a next time) I might implement a stretching routine prior to driving. Related to this is the size of the cockpit. It's tiny. I've been in small cars before, even my old Miata felt like a Lincoln Town Car compared to the leg room you get in a Tesla. But that wasn't a real problem, if I was looking for room to relax I'd have gone on a cruise.

I took a quick trip around the block with the owner in the car mostly because she said it was important to understand the regenerative braking. Anytime you let off the accelerator (I'm not going to call it the gas pedal) the car feels like you've down-shifted and it aggressively loses speed. This was fun, one of my favorite things to do in my M3 was to drop a gear or two when stopping to feel that pull. So even though the Tesla is an automatic you still get that nice down-shifting feel. The second thing that took some getting use to was that the gears are all buttons in the middle console, there is no stick of any type. You press a button for Park, you press a different button for Reverse and a different one for Drive. This took some getting use to and I grabbed Jason's leg multiple times because I was reflexively reaching for the stick I felt should have been there. Jason pointed out after the second time that if I had rented the car trying to trick my passenger into believing it was mine I would have just blown my cover. The regenerative braking also had me reflexively searching for the clutch a few times as well, my mind kept telling me I had to press it before the car died as I pulled up to a stop (which would have been embarrassing).

During that short trip around the block she had me get on the accelerator. Being downtown San Francisco I only felt comfortable going so fast but all I remember from the short three seconds when I hammered it was thinking "oh shit oh shit oh shit." The thing takes off like a rocket, with zero hesitation, and since it's an automatic you get to just mash on the accelerator without a lot of finesse or skill required to feel like your driving the fastest thing ever to roam the streets. The acceleration is crisp and so incredibly smooth. And although I'm sure it's faster than anything I've driven in the past, the smoothness and the lack of the usual sounds I've come to associate with a sports car (and perhaps due to the less-than-accurate memories of being twenty and riding in my first modern sports car) the Rx7 felt faster. I recall moments in the Rx-7 when its turbo would kick in (after you were already accelerating faster than you once imagined possible) and you'd get thrown back into your seat and it would sound like you were sitting on the wing of a jet. That distant experience, in ways that can't be substantiated, still feels faster to me though I'm certain the car wasn't doing 0-60 in under four seconds.

On the drive down to Palo Alto I was amazed by how fast it could go from 60-80. It felt like it had the same power at those speeds as it did starting from a dead stop. I'm so use to driving my Civic now which you have to make decisions about changing lanes years in advance that this felt like a dream where when I wanted something all I had to do was ask for it and it was mine, and sometimes it seemed like the wish was granted before I even finished asking for it. So after one trip around the block and two miles on the freeway I was in love. I even forgave the car its awful red color (call me strange but there is only one car that can pull off red and it's made in Italy and has a horse on it).

It's a strange feeling driving someone else's very nice (understatement alert) car. When I drove my M3 around, even though it doesn't compare to the Tesla in so many ways, I felt a certain sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. I often drove it around just to be seen in it (don't I sound like an awesome dude?). Don't get me wrong there were moments of pure bliss brought about by just driving the Tesla at reasonable speeds (I think I had a least three religious experiences by the time I arrived in Palo Alto), but--and this is where I realize, I know, but it doesn't matter, that I put too much importance in cars--it felt like I was borrowing someone else's life. So while I did miss out on some of that sense of accomplishment that the M3 imparted to me, the detachment, or the awareness of being borrowed, really let me enjoy the car for the sake of the car.

Dang, I didn't realize I had so much to say about this. I had like four or five things I wanted to say and I've only said one of them. This might have to be a double installment.