Idle Musings

on software, philosophy, and other thoughts.
This is a guest post by my partner, Lidia Plaza. We test-drove a Model Y recently and came away with mixed feelings. Her assessment mirrors mine in most ways. It drives wonderfully, like an EV should, like the BMW i3 does, but there's a lot here to give us pause as we consider our next vehicle choice.

No One at Tesla Had Me in Mind When They Designed the Model Y, So I’m Reviewing It. 

Okay, so I have no business writing this. I am not a professional car reviewer. I am no industry expert. I have not done a ton of research about this car, nor have I spent hours comparing specs with other vehicles on the market. I’m just a woman who test drove a Tesla Model Y for 30 minutes, most of which I spent in the passenger seat. So before you continue reading, here are a few other things you should know about me.

I am not a car person. My interest in cars begins and ends with their ability to get me from point A to point B. Otherwise, I am aggressively indifferent to them. My car knowledge is basic at best. I am not impressed by flashy rims or zero-to-sixty speeds, or high-tech apps. I don’t even like driving. I find it simultaneously stressful and boring. I am prone to carsickness, which has gotten worse with age. While I have a particular appreciation for the time-honored American tradition of the road trip, outside of this tradition I have never looked forward to being in a car any longer than absolutely necessary.

I am not a tech bro. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am hardly a Luddite. I have been known to become positively giddy when getting a new laptop or phone. But I’m also not someone who gets wildly excited by each shiny new product release. I am easily annoyed when technology ends up overly complicating my life. I am not easily impressed by flashy tech. If I’m going to spend my money on it, I need to be convinced that it will actually make my life easier and not just be another thing to keep charged.

I am a short woman. No, like really short. I am 4 feet, 6 inches tall (137cm) with disproportionately short legs due to a rare genetic condition. While I am extremely used to living in a world designed for people much larger than I, this does color the way I see the world.

I love all things clean energy and green tech. I remember when the Tesla showroom opened in Austin. I followed the event with much excitement. At the time, I was working for a non-profit organization called CleanTX, which worked with clean energy companies all over Austin and the central Texas region. I even come from a family of clean energy enthusiasts. My mother worked in the office of a photovoltaic company when I was born, and my father’s doctoral dissertation, in part, examined the economics of clean energy.

I love electric cars. I have been driving a BMW i3 for the last 3 years, and I have loved it. I like the maneuverability and pep of the i3. I like how quiet it is. I like regenerative braking. If I have to drive something, I will choose an electric car over anything else.

If after all that you’re thinking, “Well, then, I don’t care what you think about the Tesla Model Y.” Fair enough. There are much more qualified reviewers out there who can tell you so much more about this car. These are just a few humble thoughts I offer in regard to the Model Y in particular, and maybe Teslas in general.  

Pros: 

It drives the way an electric car should.

Granted, Tesla allows you to adjust the amount of regenerative braking, etc., that the car does, which is nice. Personally, however, I believe one should really let the car do its thing. Half the fun of having an electric car is the unique driving experience. One complaint we had about the Chevy Bolt was that it essentially tried to recreate the experience of driving a gas car, which defeated the point in our opinion.

The range. 

This is truly the main thing that keeps me interested in the car in the first place. The one problem with having an i3 as our main (and often only) vehicle for the last three years has been the inability to easily jump in the car and drive to the next town over without some forethought and planning.

The Supercharger Network.

This goes along with my last point about being able to jump in the car and go to the next town over. Again, I am not someone who seeks out the open road, but when I need to drive to Houston for medical testing or to San Antonio to visit family, I don’t want to think about whether my car will make it.

It has great cargo space without feeling huge.

I detest huge cars, so I was conflicted about looking at the Model Y versus the Model 3. However, with a kid on the way, we knew we wanted a little extra space, especially as this is likely to be our only vehicle. Additionally, if the point of looking at this car is to have the possibility of going on a road trip in an electric car, then I want the room to hold all the crap I will want to bring on said road trip. The Model Y strikes a nice compromise in providing the extra room we wanted without making me feel like I’m driving a tank.

It’s pretty, I guess.

As mentioned above, I am not wowed by flashiness in cars, but I can appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the car.

Cons: 

It’s over-engineered to the point of being difficult. 

I get it. Tesla prides itself on being state-of-the-art. However, too often I felt like Tesla took things that were supposed to be simple and made them complicated. The door handles are a perfect example of this, with the need to push down one side to make the handle part pop out. It’s clever and cool, sure. But since I have smaller hands, I find myself having to stretch my hand uncomfortably to be able to operate it. Additionally, it requires my whole hand to do this maneuver as compared to a normal door handle that I can use with just a few fingers. Is this really that difficult? No. But I can already foresee myself hating this car on the day when my hands are full, and I’m wrangling a screaming child, and I can’t get the damn car door open because of this silly design.

Similarly, I have mixed feelings about all the controls for everything being in the iPad-like display. It’s annoying to hunt around the various programs to figure out how to turn the radio down or turn up the air. In all likelihood, I would get over the learning curve of the controls pretty quickly and never think twice about it, but I still feel there is something to be said for a simple knob.

More problematically, there are things that just don’t make sense. For example, Tesla went through the trouble of adding a button on the trunk that will automatically close it. Amazing, I love this. There’s just one problem. They put it on the door of the trunk, you know, the part that rises impossibly out of reach for a shorter person like me when the trunk opens. Yes, one can close the trunk from the magical control panel in front or from your phone. But this means that if I’ve just unloaded a bunch of things from the trunk, I must now empty my hands and pull out my phone or walk all the way to the front of the car just to close the trunk. This isn’t a big deal, but it’s puzzling why they wouldn’t just put that button on the sidewall of the trunk with the buttons they already have perfectly placed that automatically fold the back seats down–a feature that I really love. Again, I can already see myself becoming really frustrated with this.

Update: We went back to the showroom to mess around with the seating adjustments some more, and we discovered that the height that the trunk opens to is configurable, so that's less of a problem. But it still would have made more sense to put the button in a more accessible location than on the door itself.

Tesla drops the ball with quality control. 

This is a common complaint I hear about Teslas and, it’s concerning to me. As we were getting out of the car, I noticed that it was difficult to squeeze my hand into the space between the seatbelt and the center console to push the button to release the seatbelt. The driver’s side of the car wasn’t nearly so tight. I’m not sure if this was a quality control issue or just a bad design, but either is concerning. If we’re going to pay an ungodly amount of money on a car, we shouldn’t be worrying if the car we end up with will have misaligned seats or whatever. But we are.

It’s uncomfortable. 

Yes, yes, the seats are very plush, and the leather is nice, etc. That said, the Model Y just wasn’t as comfortable as it should be. Now, perhaps I am biased. As someone beyond shorter-than-average, I am almost never comfortable in a chair of any kind, especially not car seats. To be fair, the Tesla seats were not the worst I’ve experienced, and I liked the many ways you could customize the seat. That said, the fact that the headrest is static is a huge drawback for me. I understand that modern headrests are designed to push your head forward for safety reasons (which I have strong thoughts and feelings about–but I will spare you), but the angle of the Tesla headrests seemed more extreme than others. This, combined with my shorter torso and the fact that I could not adjust the headrest meant that by the end of our 30-minute test drive, I was actually in considerable pain. Again, I am used to cars being uncomfortable. I always have to strain my leg to reach petals and use special cushions to make seats work, but the fact that Tesla did not do better in this department–especially considering its price tag–was a bit disappointing.

But it was more than just the seats that made the car uncomfortable–it’s the lack of ease of use. It’s the many small things–like the lack of good cup holders–that just contributed to a general unease in the car. When it came to driving, I found that the low-visibility out the back of the car and something about the placement of the side-view windows a bit off-putting. I found myself having to turn my head around more than usual to make sure I wasn’t missing something in a blind spot. Yes, Tesla has all these automatic sensors that tell you where things are around your car, and I’d likely get used to using this feature. Even so, not being able to physically see objects around my car as easily as I would like makes me uneasy.

In my opinion, the best design is a design that almost disappears because ease of use and comfort has been addressed from the beginning, and you no longer think about it. It’s about having a good chair and a nice place to set your drink and having everything you need easily accessible–all points in which the Model Y falls short. Too short.

The verdict? 

In a word: Meh. I didn’t hate it. There are real positives to this car that I just can’t argue with. But for all the hype, for all the expectations, I just found the car underwhelming. This is a bit heartbreaking, really. I really want to like this car.

If you had asked 24-year-old me–a starry-eyed intern excited about the future of electric cars and clean-tech–if I would like a Tesla, I would have screamed a resounding “YES!” But now that the opportunity presents itself, I find myself lacking that enthusiasm. As I walked away from our test drive, I found myself missing the crappy 2008 Honda Fit that 24-year-old me bought. Perhaps this says more about me than it does the Tesla Model Y.

I get that a grumpy, pregnant woman the height of an average eight-year-old who is more interested in chair comfort than flashy apps is not the consumer the good people at Tesla have in mind. But if Tesla is really going to change the industry in the ways it claims it will, in the ways I hope it will, it’s going to have to address these basic issues and expand its vision for the type of customer that loves its cars. Hopefully, one day that will include me.