The menacing chug of a big bore V8 pulsated through our test chariot and I can feel the pistons at work as the whole car shakes at idle. At Brabus, famed for its reckless treatment of already substantial Mercedes powerplants, it should come as no surprise. But this isn’t a Mercedes, it doesn’t have a V8, or pistons, or an engine at all. This is the Brabus Tesla, the company’s first step into the brave new world of zero emissions, and something weird is going on.
Brabus will continue to push ozone-burning wares like the 730 bhp V12 Bullitt, the supercar based on the C-Class, but Bodo Buschmann’s outfit finally bit the bullet of the environmental variety and embraced Zero Emissions with a new lightning strike logo. There will be more electric cars, hydrogen power and possibly wind, but the Tesla was the perfect starting point.
Despite the company’s well-publicised financial problems, the Lotus Elise-based electric sportscar is still the poster child for green sportscar technology. It almost single-handedly changed the perception of the electric car, which had previously simply been invalid vehicles and golf karts with four seats and a roof, and showed us we can have fun on four wheels without choking Mother Earth.
With the equivalent of 248 bhp and 38 kgm of torque from its 375 Volt AC induction motor, the Tesla is plenty fast enough, hitting 100 kph in a claimed 3.9 seconds. Without ripping out the generator and starting from scratch – a technique they’ll look at later – there was little Brabus could do to boost the output or the 210 kph top speed.
But pure speed wasn’t ever the Tesla’s problem, as 92 per cent of the power goes to the wheels, compared to the combustion engine’s 80 per cent loss to internal friction and the ancillaries. That electric motor spins to 14,000 and all of the torque comes from 0 rpm, so it’s more than quick enough and Tesla has had well-publicised problems getting the transmission to hold together in any case. As for the sensation of speed, well that was something else. Only when the car scooted off the line at outrageous speed do you know the thing was even on and the dull whine of the electric motor and the crescendo of rolling resistance were just uninspiring.
Worse, it was dangerous, as with no noise erupting from the hood area, plenty of hybrid owners have reported near misses, or not, with pedestrians in town driving. Running over blind folks that didn’t see you coming is about as bad as PR gets.
Now, at least they have no excuse. Because the whole car literally vibrates to the sound of Brabus’ own 6.1-litre V8 that can be found everywhere from their SLK to GL and comes with 462 bhp of feigned output. Strategically placed subwoofers at the front, under the car and four speakers set high and low replicate exactly the sound of a huge engine at work and send vibrations through the carbon-fibre bodywork that mimic a real engine to perfection.
It’s a David Blaine-style deception achieved by the men who normally turn Mercedes-Benz Vitos into mobile cinemas for wealthy customers. Having recorded the note at every single stage of the throttle’s travel, they turned the Tesla into a free-revving petrol-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, then there’s an F1 car programme, too, although thankfully the volume is kept within legal limits. And there are two futuristic ‘space’ sounds, which are more annoying than any ringtone you could ever imagine.
We stick with the V8, and it’s a pure symphony – transforming the whole Tesla experience. It was good before. Now, it feels like an honest-to-goodness sportscar ripping up the road. I simply select D, hammer the throttle and the raucous, throaty tone of the big Mercedes powerplant clearing its lungs adds a whole new dimension to the driving thrills. Never again will I underestimate the power of noise, the sense of drama it brings to the table, and Brabus has given the Tesla that all-important soul.
Now it feels like a go-kart, with one gear reduction drive it is still a strange concept, but with a real engine roar behind it the Tesla feels like a real driver, less of an alien concept. Except for the swift and savage ‘engine braking’ caused by the regenerative braking that results from lifting the drive-by-wire throttle pedal, it feels every bit as light on its feet as the Elise, faster even, in a straight line anyway. Visible acceleration is a rare treat, but on my first blast past photographer Steve, I see only shock and awe and a camera dangling helplessly by his side as the Tesla digs in, squatting slightly before it finds a way to transmit that torque to the tarmac and fires down the road.
Adjustable coil over suspension can drop the car up to 30 mm on to those dirty looking 7x18" front and 8.5x19" rear Titans that widen the track. It all conspires to give the Tesla more bite into the bend and the extruded aluminium chassis feels more connected to the wheels, skipping off every joint in the tarmac.
The inbuilt price of those wider rims is that three-point turns are a nightmare as there is no power steering here, so slow speed manoeuvres take more muscle than a car with a ¤130,000 (Rs 80 lakh approx) price tag reasonably should. On the move, though, it’s pin sharp; the Tesla cuts into the bend and deals with the apex almost as well as the Elise on which it is based, almost…
Because with the best will in the world, there is no hiding those extra pounds. Brabus tried, using forged aluminium to drop the suspension weight by 30 per cent and even fitting lightweight leather to the relatively lavish interior, which apparently weighs 75 per cent less than the sumptuous hides that drape the interior of its Mercedes. But when the lithium-ion battery pack weighs 451 kg on its own and the whole car tips the scales at 1,241 kg, that’s like ordering a diet soda with a bucket of nuggets. So the car sags in the bends, pulling wide off the apex on a hard charge and lacks the ultimate chuckability that you get with the Lotus base car. It’s still fun, it’s still a great car for a greenie, but it needs that caveat, and in the braking zone even that isn’t enough to save this car that dances from side to side. Comparing this to the 200 mm shorter Elise? It has been done, and with about 227 kg less junk in the trunk, it could be true, not yet, although the ceramic upgrade to the 310 mm front and 300 mm rear discs that Brabus is planning will make a big difference.
This isn’t a Lotus, it’s useless pretending it’s a Lotus and even the added stability from the longer wheelbase can’t mask the added weight. It’s a fun car, even a seminal car, but it’s ahead of its time and both Tesla and Brabus are itching for the lighter batteries that will surely come, now the demand is there.
Until then the cosmetic mods will still go down a storm with the rich Silicon Valley set determined to outdo their neighbours. The naked carbon front and rear spoilers are nothing to do with downforce, the car isn’t quick enough to induce it, but they look the part – as do those Audi-style daytime running lights that give the car that touch of venom and the Euro 6,000 (Rs 3.7 lakh approx) matte white paint job. Inside, the master craftsmen at Brabus have removed every last scent of Lotus with the lightweight leather and Alcantara trim and the Tesla finally feels worthy of its price tag inside as well. Brabus has taken the Tesla that vital step beyond the base Lotus, even replacing plastic air intakes with purest carbon, to give it the exclusive edge. The underfloor lighting and backlit kickplates we could do without, but they’re optional.
The Tesla is a great invention, but it was just missing that crucial sound, feel and touch of driving passion that the concept so badly deserved. The Mercedes tuner of choice has stepped in with their own interpretation and made a near-perfect electric sportscar with all the charisma of its petrol-powered brethren. At least it will have, when technology catches up and it loses 227 kg.