I’ve had many reservations about Tesla over the years and have never considered buying one. However now my wife and I are looking for an AWD EV that isn’t a ridiculous beast and can still tow a small travel trailer. We love our Bolt but it can’t do all of that. We’ve had our collective eye on a couple of EVs for this purpose and, now, the Tesla Model Y Long Range is in the running. Since we’ve started seriously looking at the Y I have to admit it’s pretty compelling. Efficiency, size, charging, comfort, safety, air filtration, range, cargo space, tow capacity, useful tow software, and no hard sell all combine into just about our ideal vehicle.
Here are some of the soul-sucking rationalizations we have to get past first.
Friday the 13th
Until January 13, 2023 none of these rationalizations mattered; with a roughly $65K price tag the Model Y never even made it on our list. But three things combined on that day (or maybe it was the day before…) to make the Y look a lot better:
- A massive price drop
- Potential for a $7,500 tax break
- The realization that there wouldn’t be a marginally affordable SUV-style vehicle with AWD and adequate tow capacity available for the foreseeable future. We had our sights set on the Chevy Blazer EV but they still haven’t released specs on the tow capacity and the pundits, including Chevy sales folks themselves, are saying 1,500 pounds. Unbelievably the same number that has been officially released for the smaller and later-to-market Equinox EV and not enough poundage for us. Our backup plan was the Fisker Ocean. Nice looking car, great towing capacity of 4,000 lbs, but much more expensive than the base Y when you add in all the options to reach parity and ineligible for the tax break until (if) they start making it in the US. Tesla scores some points here for a simple and sensible options story.
Even with all this the Y is an embarrassingly expensive vehicle. Now for the remaining rationalizations.
This is America, why worry about yet another rich, entitled oligarch?
I wonder what Nikola would think. Like Apple before it, Tesla has successfully transitioned from scrappy start-up “breaking all the rules” to bona fide cult. God save us from the rabid fanbois. I very much do not wish to be confused with one of Elon’s disciples but like any good Christian I can pick, choose, and manipulate to get what I want out of the Doctrine.
No one needs to go from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds on a public US roadway, ever. Auto manufacturers, please stop leading with this ridiculous specification. And drivers, please get your adrenaline fix on a closed track where you can show off Track Mode to all your Mario Andretti wannabe friends. Maybe Tesla will sponsor you on the NASCAR circuit. And for Elon’s sake stop posting YouTube videos giggling into a GoPro camera with your cheeks pressed against the headrest.
For me, Tesla offers Chill Mode. I’m good.
155 MPH Top Speed
Misleading marketing names like Autopilot and Full Self Driving combined with spectacularly and repeatedly overpromised / underdelivered FSD threaten to tank any hope we have of mainstream autonomous automobiles. That’s OK for now as long as adaptive cruise control works while towing. But I’m gonna be a (more) bitter old man if I’m not able to trade up for autonomy when it’s time for me to hand over the keys.
About that adaptive cruise. In a Chevy Bolt, less than half the price of a Model Y, I can set the cruise speed and the car will reliably cruise at that speed. Simple enough. If I want I can turn on adaptive cruise and it will cruise at that speed until I encounter a slower car in front, at which point it will follow that car at a polite distance. Perfect.
In a Tesla I have Autopilot. It might do everything the Bolt can do. Or it might decide to stop in the middle of the highway when it gets confused. There is no way to simply set a cruise speed without all the other automated nonsense that introduces phantom braking. My only recourse is to
- wait for Tesla to eventually fix the problem. But this has been going on for at least a couple of years now. Or
- drive on Autopilot with my foot continuously hovering over the accelerator pedal, always ready to override any phantom silliness. That sounds more exhausting than driving without cruise control. Or
- drive without cruise control.
I’d be satisfied for now if they simply added a cruise setting that does nothing more than stick to the set speed until I tell it not to. Like every other car on the planet. Let’s call it “Bolt Mode.” Maybe that’s too embarrassing for a company that’s been telling us for so long how genius their Autopilot tech is. Tesla is seriously screwing up on this one.
Tesla’s charging infrastructure is impressive and orders of magnitude more reliable than the CCS charging mess we have today. But superchargers aren’t everywhere, especially not state highways in rural parts of the country. Our favorite route between Boise and Bend is a lovely drive in the Bolt but it doesn’t pass a supercharger.
I might buy that Tesla’s mission is to “accelerate the advent of sustainable transport” when my Bolt can charge at a supercharger just like a Tesla can now charge at any CCS charger on the planet. Now that Tesla has an opportunity to land some of that sweet federal infrastructure money it might actually happen.
Didn’t we already know how this was going to end? Not with proprietary Ford and Chevy filling stations. Thanks Tesla for throwing us backward a century. But while we wait for the inevitable, having elite access to every charger in the country is a sweet deal indeed.
Tesla Service Centers
It’s difficult to imagine Tesla can compete with ubiquitous legacy car dealerships when service is needed. While it’s encouraging to see more and more service centers pop up– they even have one in Boise now– reviews I’ve seen for them aren’t particularly good. To be fair, neither is my experience with most legacy service centers. I’m willing to roll the dice on this one.
Rear Charge Port
Nothing says badass like backing in to a parking spot. But it was gonna happen on its own, did Tesla have to encourage this behavior with a rear charge port and short supercharger cables? I’ll just drop the trailer when the rare nose-forward charging stall isn’t available. I guess the prophets at Tesla missed that Nissan had already figured this one out.
No 360 degree Backup Camera
Both of our current cars, a Chevy Bolt and Nissan Rogue, have a fantastic 360 degree backup camera. Seems like Tesla could merge all of their Autopilot camera images into a similar 360 view. However for towing, having those two rear views on the Y available at any time is a huge advantage. And it may actually be better than a 360 view when backing, we’ll have to see.
Few Physical Controls
With voice commands and a reasonably well designed UI with quick response time on the center screen, it’s not as bad as I imagined. Far from our preference but we can live with it.
No Passenger-side Lumbar Adjustment
On trips together my wife will be in that seat. I hope she can find the right pillow.
No Driver Display
There is a reason every other car in production has a display in front of the driver. Our Chevy Bolt has a beautiful, functional, well designed display in front of the driver. Cars substantially less expensive than the Bolt have a display in front of the driver. The much more expensive Model X has a display in front of the driver. WTF Tesla? Of all the ways they try to be different for the sake of being different this might be the dumbest.
Cocking my head to the side to see basic information like my speed was annoying in the test drive. If it remains annoying I could always install one of several aftermarket driver displays.
Fake Wood Grain
My parents’ Plymouth station wagon in the 70’s had fake wood grain. I think that says it all. But I gather I can upgrade the dash to carbon-fiber if I begin driving like my dad. Better get that on order.
No Android Auto
Another in the category of how not to differentiate your product. Pay more for less is not a winning strategy in my book. Tesla appears to suffer the delusion that their infotainment system is so capable and the UI so stunning and performant that there is no rational use for something like Android Auto or Apple Car Play. Fisker went down this rabbit hole with a quote attributed to Henrik himself, paraphrased “…with such a beautiful and intuitive infotainment system on the Ocean, why would we bother with AA or Car Play?” Oh the arrogance. So to use my preferred EV routing system I have to fiddle with my phone while driving. So much for Tesla’s (and Fisker’s) claims about safety.
Still, I can always duct-tape my phone to the side of the Y’s infotainment display and dangle the power cord down to the USB port that’s buried somewhere inside the center console. I wonder how that squares with Tesla’s “minimalist design aesthetic”.
Funny, whimsical, or just plain dumb? I can watch Beavis and Butthead at home. Or Elon’s Twitter feed.
No Physical Key
Most modern vehicles, EV or ICE, have some form of electronic key system and they all need a backup to get inside the vehicle in case the battery dies– a small physical key tucked stealthily inside a key fob. As far as I know only Tesla backs up their battery-dependent electronic key system with another battery. So what do you do when you need a jump because the low voltage battery is dead? Why you pull that spare 9 or 12 volt battery out of your back pocket to open the frunk. You still won’t be able to get into the cabin of the car but you can at least get to your emergency starter battery and attempt to jump the car.
Oh but you don’t carry a battery with you? Call someone with a battery. No cell coverage? Smash your $1,000 iPhone with a rock to expose the battery. And make sure you have the Tesla key card on you so you can start the car because your phone is now in pieces. I’m sure MacGruber would have a few more suggestions but realistically at this point you’re SOL until someone drives up with jumper cables.
Of course there’s a workaround: stuff a small a23 12-volt cylindrical battery inside the cover for the front tow hook, where the two leads live for the emergency frunk release. Rube Goldberg would be proud.
Finally, the rationalization that almost couldn’t.
3,500 pounds is enough capacity to safely tow a Safari Condo Alto that maxes out at 2,700 pounds GVW. So far so good. The Y is wired from the factory for a brake controller necessary to activate the trailer brakes on the Alto. Excellent. The factory tow package includes trailering software that detects trailer sway and activates those brakes accordingly. Fantastic.
Then I read the fine print in the owner’s manual, conveniently linked from the Model Y web page (I sincerely appreciate that).
Seems innocuous enough. Until you realize the receiver on the Y sits pretty low, around 14″ from ground to the top of the receiver. Many small travel trailers, including some Altos, need 20″ or more between ground and the the top of the coupler to keep the trailer level. When you add up the 14″ hitch height, 3/4″ rise, and 2.75″ ball height it’s still more than two inches shy of the mark.
That seems like a strange specification even for a sports car pretending to be an SUV. I checked the manual for the Cadillac Lyriq, comparable in many ways to the Y, and saw no such restriction for their 3,500 lb capacity tow hitch. (Prohibitively expensive and, well, Cadillac). So why the restriction? Can the tow bar really not handle the added rotational force of a rise beyond .75″? Is it a question of clearing the plastic bumper on the Y? Impossible to tell from a dumbed-down blurb like this in the manual. But some engineer somewhere presumably thought this was a necessary limitation. So I asked our Tesla sales representative and got this reply:
… like you referenced the manual states the rise limit is 3/4″. I understand if you need to look else where for a vehicle that can match your towing capacity needs. Tesla’s were not built to be an all inclusive towing car. They were built more to be a computer on wheels. If there is anything else I can assist with please let me know.
I see, because a Tesla isn’t really a car it doesn’t have to abide by those pesky car things like a tow package that can actually tow something. That’s a $250 lesson I’ll never forget.
Then I contacted Tesla on their toll-free number. After the Customer Service guy lost his place in his script and asked again “who am I speaking with?”, he launched into his own mumbo-jumbo about Tesla’s strange spec. “blah blah blah user discretion blah blah designed for towing things like lawn mowers.” I pointed out that 3,500 lbs is an awfully big lawn mower and that nowhere in the manual does it specify what can be towed behind the Y. He agreed to put me in touch with someone who could answer my question. I’m not optimistic. Both of these folks were super polite. But c’mon guys.
After scouring You Tube, the Tesla and Alto groups, and various other places on the web I realize that the consensus is to just ignore this limitation. Which I get, what else can you do if you want to tow a travel trailer with your Y? And of course to a person they all enthuse about how great the Y is at towing their trailer. Which I also get. The thing about exceeding tow limits is that everything is fine until you have to do something unexpected, like stop in time to avoid that moose in the road. If we total our Tesla and trailer in a tragic moose incident will insurance pay out when they notice we’re using a riser that doesn’t even come close to meeting the mysterious specification clearly called out in the owner’s manual?
Turns out, for the Alto F1743 we’re interested in, the top of the trailer coupler reportedly sits at 17.5″ above ground when level. And 14 + .75 + 2.75 = 17.5. Even with some suspension squat this is probably close enough, assuming my Y and Alto numbers are correct. So we may have dodged a bullet here. We won’t know for sure until we have both vehicles in hand.
We’re beginning to see some competition in the US for a smallish electric SUV with enough capacity to tow a small travel trailer. The Cadillac Lyriq and Fisker Ocean come to mind. But in an apples to apples comparison including some of the features we care most about– range, AWD, tow capacity, adaptive cruise, winter package, and price– nothing comes close to the Y and I think won’t for the foreseeable future. However purchasing a vehicle from Tesla feels a lot like buying a car from Microsoft if Microsoft made cars. If you like what they’re selling, good. If you have any questions or problems, good luck. Wish us luck.