The Tesla Model 3 isn’t just the planet’s best-selling EV. It’s a world dominator of Marvel proportions, whose 300,000 global sales in 2019 were nearly three times as many as China’s BAIC EU-Series sedan, and more than four times as many as the Nissan Leaf.
The recipe for the Tesla Model Y, then, is simple. Start with that Model 3 sedan. Reshape it into a roomier crossover-like body with the commanding views and standard all-wheel-drive that are catnip to not just Americans, but increasingly global buyers. It seems like a safe bet that the Model Y will, as Elon Musk predicted, supplant the Model 3 as the world’s most popular EV.
The race among electric SUVs might be more interesting if the Model Y faced serious competition. But it doesn’t. Compared to would-be rivals — the Audi E-Tron, Jaguar I-Pace — the Tesla wins on matters large and small. (The Ford Mustang Mach-E is next up, but is still months away from showrooms). Let’s give the E-Tron the swanky-interior trophy. Let’s grant that the Jaguar looks the sexiest. But most everything else falls in the Tesla’s ledger, often by wide margins.
The Model Y Long Range I drove starts from $54,190. Handsome blue-metallic paint and 20-inch black alloy wheels kicked that to $57,190. The Audi starts at $75,795, and reached nearly $86,000 in a test model. The Jaguar starts from $70,875, with my tester topping $81,000. In defense of the legacy luxury brands, both the Audi and Jaguar read “richer” than the Tesla, from materials to fit-and-finish. But $25,000 to $30,000 “richer” is a stretch, considering their other handicaps.
To wit: The Model Y Long Range’s 316-mile boundary embarrasses the Audi’s official range of 204 miles, or the Jaguar’s 234 miles. That yawning range gap is the difference between easy round-trips and thumb-twiddling charging stops and detours — or roads not taken at all. (The Model Y’s ingenious heat pump, a first for any Tesla, should help preserve driving range in cold climates).
Even the $62,900 Model Y Performance version, with 456 horsepower and 497 pound-feet of torque, manages 291 miles of range. And the Performance’s vicious, 3.5-second slap to 60 mph will leave the Jaguar and Audi wondering what hit them. That 3.5-second moon shot is faster than several vastly pricier fossil-fueled SUVs, including the Porsche Macan Turbo and Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio.
For $10,000 less than the Performance edition, the Long Range — also with dual electric motors, one per axle — generates 384 horses, 376 pound-feet of torque, and a Tesla-cited 4.8-second scamper to 60 mph. Perhaps more impressive than stoplight speed is the way the Model Y catapults from 30, 70, or 90 mph, with the merest squeeze of throttle. Passing internal-combustion cars in the Tesla is so easy, it’s not even fair. But it is fun.
Tesla buyers will spend just $550 a year on electricity (by EPA estimate) to cover 15,000 miles, versus $900 for the Audi and $850 for the Jag. And while the Audi drives wonderfully — just not for very far — it plops nearly 1,400 extra pounds on the scales, at 5,843 pounds versus a maximum 4,475 for the Model Y.
I’m still dreaming of the day when another carmaker or company comes up with a fast-charging network to rival Tesla's, but its proprietary Supercharger network remains a huge selling point. Tesla has blanketed North America with more than 9,000 Supercharger stalls at more than 970 locations, exponentially more than any rival. Track down the latest, 250-kilowatt V3 Supercharger, and the company says the Model Y can add 158 miles of range in 15 minutes flat. Even on a slower hookup at my neighborhood Tesla dealer in Brooklyn — coincidentally, the same Red Hook neighborhood that hosts an annual Formula E race on the New York waterfront — the Model Y slurped up an 80% charge in barely 30 minutes.
Some may argue the roughly $80,000 Model X is the fairer comparison with the Audi and Jaguar given their price tags. But the Model X is actually a full size up, a legit three-row, seven-passenger SUV that’s 14 inches longer than the Jag. Even the compact Model Y is about 3 inches longer than the Jaguar, and just 6 inches shorter than the E-Tron.
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Yet the Tesla’s packaging helps it swallow 20% more total cargo than the Audi, at 68 cubic feet versus 57 cubes, or about 52 for the Jag. Of course, that capacity includes a storage frunk "under the hood," and a deep cargo well below the hatch floor. It doesn't represent one large contiguous space.
Aided by slim-profile front bucket seats — admittedly, not as supportive and multi-functional as the Audi’s rich thrones — the Tesla also wins the backseat battle, with a sprawling 40.5 inches of legroom. Unlike its sedan sibling, the Model Y’s rear seats recline. The Model Y’s arching roofline and space-saving glass roof also deliver a massive headroom advantage, though the Model Y’s ride height is barely an inch taller than the 3 (its roof peaks about 7 inches higher overall). The company also plans to begin producing a seven-passenger Model Y next year.
Tesla’s Silicon Valley ethos gets full expression inside, where a 15-inch center touchscreen is enshrined as virtually the sole user interface. Even traditional controls for exterior mirrors and vents are operated with screen menus, but somehow I didn’t find that a hassle — and I’ve often railed against poorly designed or feature-hogging touchscreens. The difference here is that Tesla’s screen — in tandem with the most natural, glitch-free voice controls in the business — is so smartly engineered that it’s mostly a breeze to use. Yes, the sheer expanse of screen, and some tiny icons, can require too much hunt-and-peck while driving. The absence of any driver’s gauges has also confounded traditionalists, but the adaptation curve is brief: A digital speed readout in the screen’s upper-left quadrant seems no harder to scan than a typical speedometer.
Whimsy is onboard with a “Toybox” of apps, including a now-infamous selection of digital fart noises — from Neurostink to Ludicrous — accessed via a whoopee cushion icon, or via the turn signal or steering-wheel scroll wheel. A clever “Dog Mode” alerts passersby that pets have been left inside intentionally, with a large display of the active temperature setting.
The lack of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto might seem a demerit, but I didn’t miss them, either: I logged into Spotify via the onboard WiFi, which not only saved phone data, but let me use voice commands to cue up even obscure songs and artists on the first try, in a way that made rivals systems feel primitive. And where so many new cars still haven’t figured out where to put your smartphone, the Tesla’s wireless charger is a masterstroke: Two phones can charge on a rubberized console pad, held steady even under the hardest cornering, in full view of both driver and shotgun passenger.
Using its array of cameras and radar, the Tesla also reassures you of its situational awareness, with real-time renderings of surrounding vehicles, animated as sedans, coupes, SUVs, motorcycles and bicycles. At a Starbucks drive-thru, the system even faithfully rendered rows of orange cones — in reality, a mix of cones and orange buckets — set out to keep customers on path.
If my design eye finds anything to squint at in the Model Y (and Model 3), it’s this: Apple-style minimalism is one thing, but without similarly elevated materials and craftsmanship, minimalism comes off as merely bare-bones. I’m also fine with a leather-free, green-minded interior in an EV. But the Tesla’s steering wheel, for one — a key touch point in any automobile — is so wan and generic that it might be sourced from Pep Boys. If Tesla applied even another $1,000 to $2,000 (per car) in key areas, this cabin really might resemble a Macbook Pro on wheels.
Those issues fade, quickly, once you’re in motion, including during relaxing stints using Tesla's "Autopilot" advanced adaptive cruise control and steering assist system. This latest "Navigate on Autopilot" version follows a course (with automated lane changes) on major highways, from “on-ramp to off-ramp” in Tesla parlance.
Basically, the Model Y drives as you’d imagine, like a taller, slightly-less-agile Model 3, with the same flypaper stick from the limbo-low center of gravity that characterizes EVs. The steering transmits precious little road feel, but you quickly learn to trust the Model Y, which can corner at speeds that will confound the typical SUV family.
There are two levels of regenerative braking. But unlike previous Teslas, the Model Y can come to a complete stop without having to brush the brake pedal, by blending in a skosh of physical braking below about 3 mph. (Tesla’s regenerative braking is managed entirely by throttle-pedal position, with the left pedal devoted entirely to old-school mechanical braking).
I didn’t sample the Performance model, with its sportier suspension tuning and tires, but I was perfectly content with the Long Range for $10,000 less: Compared with most conventional SUVs, it already felt like a plug-in Ferrari, only with whispering electric motors rather than a shrieking V8 or V12.
One performance caveat. I love quick steering racks, but the Tesla’s is just too quick for a family-friendly SUV, at two full revolutions from lock-to-lock. Especially at rocketing speeds, the Model Y will overshoot your steering target if you’re not careful, requiring extra concentration to place accurately in its lane. Knowing Tesla, that issue could be fixed with the flip of an over-the-air software switch — another area where legacy automakers are still playing catch-up.
So, what will it be, Model Y or Model 3? Personally, I still favor the Model 3 for its lower stance, lighter weight, sharper handling and more affordable price. But I realize I’m in a shrinking minority. In America and elsewhere, the SUV rules. And the Tesla Model Y rules among electric SUVs.