When you’re reviewing a Tesla, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the man from the machine. After all, when deciding whether a new Volkswagen is any good, one doesn’t first have to sift from one’s mind Oliver Blume’s latest social media posts, or worry about the treatment of VW’s workforce.
With Tesla, as in so many ways, things are different. Elon Musk dominates the debate, whether we’re talking about electric cars or employment practices, and it can be difficult in the extreme to work out whether you’re reviewing the car or Musk’s personal peccadillos. He’s not the first controversial car company boss (check out Henry Ford’s history for more on that), but he is currently grabbing all the headlines that he can.
Which brings us to the Tesla Model Y, and it’s a car that rather perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy of both Musk and the company that he brought to prominence (note: Musk didn’t create Tesla, he invested in it. The company was founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning) in that it’s both laudable and lacking.
What’s primarily laudable is what Tesla has long been good, arguably the best in the business, at – batteries and charging. The Model Y gets a 75kWh (useable) battery pack from which it squeezes a claimed 533km of one-charge range. Even driving it in the recent savage cold snap, weather that sent many other EVs scurrying for a heated garage to protect their batteries, the Model Y was easily giving a real-world figure of between 450km and 500km and that includes motorway mileage. That’s hugely impressive.
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Equally, there’s the charging. It has been said many times before but it bears saying again – Tesla’s network of Supercharger charging points is still by far the best in the business. Where else are you going to find eight-bay charging points pumping out as much as 250kW per plug? A 20-minute charge in the Model Y took us from an indicated 120km range to more than 330km. That’s how electric motoring should be.
While we’re talking upsides, the Model Y is also massively practical. The rear seats are roomy and family friendly. The boot is huge – Tesla, like Land Rover, measures the volume packed to the glass, as (annoyingly) there’s no luggage cover, so it’s hard to compare it properly to rivals, but the claimed volume of 854 litres is big whatever way you slice it. There’s useful under-floor storage space for charging cables, and an extra 117 litres of space in the “frunk” under the bonnet.
Unfortunately, from here on in, the Model Y’s case starts to fall apart somewhat. First of all, there’s the quality issue. Tesla’s, shall we say, variable quality levels have been long noted. Buying a Tesla is rather like buying an old Alfa Romeo. You might get a good one that performs faultlessly and provides reliable transport for years to come. Equally, you might not…
While nothing actually went wrong with our test car, the lack of underlying quality in the cabin was very obvious. With each bump or lump in the road that we drove over, the cabin rattled and clattered as if we were carrying around a bag full of used spray paint cans. It was not edifying, and it was certainly not appropriate for a car wearing a €66,000 price tag. For reference, an identically priced Ford Mustang Mach-E exhibited not a single cabin rattle nor squeak when we tested it recently.
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Some of the fault for those cabin rattles must be levelled at the ride quality. Compared to rivals, the Model Y is noticeably firm on its springs, but it would not feel excessively so were the damping better. Again, comparing it to the Ford, the Mach-E is similarly firm but its damping and suspension control is much better, so you feel that the vehicle moves as a piece when reacting to bumps.
The rest of the dynamic package is equally poor. Unlike the Model 3 saloon, with which the Model Y shares a chassis, this SUV feels perched up and somewhat shopping-trolley-like in corners. The steering is artificial in feel and overgeared, so that small movements translate into sudden responses.
Even in “Chill” mode, the response to the accelerator is just as jerky. It is not a comfortable car to drive. Nor is it refined – even without the cabin rattles, there’s significant tyre roar and wind noise at a motorway cruise. You notice it most when you slow down and realise just how high you had the stereo turned up. A Hyundai Ioniq 5 or VW ID.5 is far quieter inside.
There’s also the question of the autopilot, which is, in spite of the name, nothing of the sort – it’s adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping steering, and you have to very much watch it like a hawk. To be blunt, I never felt safe using the system. The steering control has an inconsistent response, which can see it firmly hold you in lane or suddenly releasing control in response to what felt like very little pressure on the steering wheel. The acceleration and distance kept from vehicles in front didn’t feel confidence-inspiring either. Rivals certainly offer better calibrated systems.
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Speaking of rivals, I feel that the Model Y’s overall performance indicates that what we’ve expected for some time has come to pass – that Tesla’s so-called “legacy carmaker” rivals have caught up and passed it out. Musk’s company still has a lead when it comes to battery performance and charging, but as a car the Model Y has now decidedly slipped behind similarly priced rivals such as the Mustang Mach-E, the Hyundai Ioniq 5, and the VW ID.5 and ID.Buzz. It simply doesn’t have the quality levels to compete at the price level it’s being pitched.
If Elon Musk can unhitch himself from his current social media debacle and refocus his unquestionably large brain on Tesla, perhaps that gap could be made up and even overtaken once again. Either way, Tesla needs to grow up as a carmaker. It needs to stop being part of its owner’s personality cult and instead focus on making cars that are of as high quality as its rivals.
Tesla has, beyond a doubt, utterly changed the global car market and has spurred the rest of the world’s carmakers into making better electric cars. In doing so, it may have sowed the seeds of its own downfall.
Tesla Model Y Long Range: the lowdown
Power: Two-motor 378KW electric drive developing 450hp and 493Nm of torque, powering all four wheels via a single-speed automatic transmission.
CO2 emissions (annual motor tax) 0g/km (€120).
Electric consumption: 16.9kWh/100km (WLTP).
Range: 533km (WLTP).
Price: €66,990 as tested, Model Y starts from €52,990.
Verdict: Not as good as the Model 3 and slipping behind its rivals.