This amorphous hatchback is likely the most important car debut of 2020. Just as the Model 3 upended the segment for compact luxury sedans once ruled by the BMW 3-series, the Model Y is poised to rewrite the playbook for compact luxury crossovers, which are, like it or not, one of the chief breadwinners of the modern auto industry.
Although the Model Y shares most of its componentry with the Model 3, it enjoys some significant under-the-skin improvements, such as new processor chip that will underpin future autonomous functions and a more efficient aluminum rotor, rather than copper, for the front induction motor. The Model Y’s 75-kilowatt-hour battery pack consists of thousands of cylindrical cells that are cheaper and easier to package than the prismatic cells used by other EV makers. Last but not least, Tesla engineered a new component for the Model Y called the Octovalve, which allows the HVAC system to efficiently heat and cool the cabin without as much drain on battery range (remember: there’s no engine to heat the cabin or spin an AC compressor).
In Long Range trim, like our well-equipped, $63,190 test car, the Model Y’s estimated range is 316 miles, just slightly short of the Model 3’s 322 miles. The standard $50K model provides a 230-mile range. (The promised $40K model was dead on arrival, but Tesla makes vague statements about introducing it sometime in 2021.) Standard dual electric motors provide all-wheel-drive capability. Also baked into the price is Tesla’s Supercharger network, with nearly 1000 locations and 9000 chargers across North America, but charging isn’t free for the Y like it is for the bigger Model S sedan and Model X SUV. Some locations feature 250-kilowatt V3 chargers, which can deliver 158 miles worth of juice in only 15 minutes. It still can’t beat the convenience of just pulling into a gas station, but it’s years ahead of the charging network for any EV competitor.
The Model Y is not a pretty car. The Model 3’s pure lines, when bloated to crossover proportions, become a visual blob. “It’s like shooting a chrome egg,” noted photographer Cameron Neveu. This is where the striking new Polestar 2, from Volvo’s new EV sub-brand, beats Tesla. (It doesn’t, however, beat Tesla in range, with a maximum of only 250 miles.)
There’s no traditional key for the Model Y. You get a credit card-shaped electronic key, which you must press against the door pillar or place just so on the center console. Or, more conveniently, you just use your smartphone and the Tesla app. The door handles themselves are annoying, as they require you to release them on one end, then grasp the other end to actually open the door. Too clever by half.
Depending on your outlook, the Model Y’s cabin is either a sleek, modern space in complete congruence with the state-of-the-art technology of the electric drivetrain hidden beneath, or it’s a grim, built-to-a-price, soullessly clinical environment that has all the charm of a hospital waiting room. We tend to think of it as the latter; one of our editors likened it to a kit car’s interior. Audi changed the luxury-car interior game a quarter-century ago, with painstakingly crafted assemblages of texturally and visually rich materials, and all other luxury makers followed suit. The Model Y feels like a step backward. But for a populace raised on IKEA furniture and less-is-more smart-phone interfaces, the sanitized aesthetic won’t be a deal breaker and may even be welcome.
The cabin is, at least, very bright, thanks to a well-crafted panoramic glass roof that joins beautifully with the windshield. Headroom, at 41 inches in front, is on par with the BMW X3 hybrid and exceeds the Honda CR-V hybrid. The front seats, clad in fake leather, adjust easily and the driving position is ideal. Rear-seat legroom is much improved over the Model 3, and the rear seats recline. A plank of faux wood spans the entire instrument panel, and the climate control vents are hidden behind it, so on a hot summer day, cool air seeps out as if by magic. A neat touch.
You’ve probably heard Tesla owners rhapsodizing about how quick their cars are. They’re not exaggerating. Our Model Y Performance was no exception. Hit the go pedal and you and your passengers are slammed against the seatbacks. Tesla claims a 3.5-second 0-to-60-mph time for the Model Y with Performance pack, which feels about right. You learn to modulate the pedal so your passengers don’t get annoyed. It’s not just off-the-line power, either; the Tesla rockets from 60 to 100 mph, useful for drilling through freeway packs.
The ability to accelerate like you’re headed to the moon is a great parlor trick, especially in an unassuming SUV. What impresses us more, though, is how Tesla has mastered the subtler traits of vehicle dynamics. The Model Y belies its curb weight of up to 4475 pounds with the sort of crisp steering and incredible body control that has made the Model 3 what the BMW 3-series was to enthusiast buyers 20 years ago. The sharp handling is compromised by the harsh ride, though, especially with our test vehicle’s 21-inch wheels.
Regenerative braking, which has two available levels of effort, takes some getting used to. Lift the accelerator, and the car slows, almost as if you have shifted into a low gear. Once you’re accustomed to it, you barely use the traditional brake pedal at all. Tesla’s infamous Autopilot adaptive cruise control system promises to do most of the steering, but it frequently issues alerts for the driver to grasp the wheel. Still, it’s useful, if not noticeably better than similar systems from Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac.
Tesla’s 15-inch touchscreen, central to the brand’s ethos, controls just about all vehicle functions except the hazard lights. The graphics are too small to read easily when you’re in motion, but the screen responds instantly to your fingertips and doesn’t wash out in bright sunlight. The screen’s ability to display your car’s position relative to its surroundings, relying on the car’s exterior cameras and sensors, is impressive, with quick-acting graphics that represent surrounding vehicles, detailed as pickups, minivans, motorcycles, semis, et cetera. This system allows you to set the car to automatically stop for traffic lights, but we’d leave it off, as it’s annoying. Some decisions are best left to the driver, at least until Tesla perfects that bit of software with one of its common over-the-air updates.
There’s no Android Auto or Apple CarPlay for the big screen—Tesla instead forces you to use its own navigation system and internet radio, although you can log into Spotify. The stereo itself is awesome, and the hands-free dialing function worked flawlessly.
The Tesla Model S and Model 3 revolutionized the luxury car game, turning electric powertrains from oddities into a feature that’s equally compelling to enthusiasts and environmentalists. As a consequence of that success, the Model Y enters a field that will soon be thick with competition. The Polestar 2, Audi e-tron, and Jaguar I-Pace are already on sale, and practically every luxury car maker, from Mercedes Benz to a reborn Hummer, are working on electric SUVs of their own. The Model Y also begs comparison with the forthcoming Ford Mach-E and Volkswagen ID.4.
Nevertheless, it’s safe to say the Model Y will be the luxury SUV to beat—and not just for those set on an EV. By packaging the power and range Teslas have become famous for in the popular small-SUV package, the Model Y will likely win even more electric vehicle converts.
Highs: Class-leading acceleration from any speed, safety features galore, control screen is a techie’s delight, good cargo room between front and rear trunks, Tesla still has the best charging network in the world.
Lows: Anonymous exterior styling, boring interior bordering on cheap, at-home charging remains a challenge for the garage-less; where’s the entry-level, affordable model?
Sum-up: The Model Y will almost certainly be the best-selling Tesla, and the best-selling luxury car, in the world before long.