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The 2021 Tesla Model Y is nearly great but critically flawed

Roadshow logo Roadshow 11/26/2021 Tim Stevens
a car parked on the side of a road: Tim Stevens/Roadshow © Tim Stevens/Roadshow Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Reviewing a Tesla is a bit like hitting a moving target. Eschewing the traditional model year cycle, Tesla is constantly delivering software updates, battery pack tweaks and new sensor packages. At some point, we just need to take aim and loose the arrow, and so that's what we're doing here. This is a review of a 2021 Tesla Model Y as it was in November of 2021, about three months after we bought one. Yes, unlike most of the car reviews you read here and elsewhere on these great internets, we at Roadshow put down our hard-earned money to take this Model Y home and give it a true and proper test. We'll own it for a two-year lease, but after as many months, it's time for the first of what I imagine will be multiple reviews. 

And, dear reader, I'm sorry to say, this first one will not be good. The Model Y is a phenomenal achievement in many ways, a great blend of range and practicality and even performance mixed with a suite of unique features that are as useful as they are distinct. But, as it stands, you absolutely should not buy one. Let me elaborate on the why.

The package

The Tesla Model Y is Tesla's smaller crossover, a two-row, five-seat SUV that takes the basic formula set forth by the Model 3 and more or less stretches it vertically by a few inches. There's some more headroom, sure, but the most significant tweak is in the rear, where the skinny little trunk on the sedan has morphed into a cavernous hatch. The Model Y offers 76 cubic feet of storage with the rear seats folded down. Seats lowered, the Model Y presents a nice, flat floor with a generous storage cubby hidden beneath. Raised, there's good headroom for rear-seat passengers, thanks largely to the panoramic glass roof.

The bigger talking point is up front, where the stark interior is dominated by a single, 15-inch, landscape-oriented touch display. This was quite a conversation starter back when the Model 3 was unveiled. Today, it's less distinctive, but still a major talking point. Being the sole display means it's not only a speedometer and overall gauge cluster but also aggregates the entire infotainment experience, including climate controls and even things like mirror and steering wheel position. Frankly I'm surprised Tesla hasn't buried the seat and window controls in there, too.

Meet Roadshow's long-term 2021 Tesla Model Y

a car parked on the side of a road: Please welcome Roadshow's new 2021 Tesla Model Y.

Please welcome Roadshow's new 2021 Tesla Model Y.
© Provided by Roadshow

Most of the time it's totally fine, and I actually don't mind the absence of a gauge cluster when it comes to looking over to see current speed. However, looking at the Autopilot status and navigation prompts means having to gaze well down toward the bottom of that display. That means taking your eyes a long way from the road. A simple gauge cluster or heads-up display would solve the issue, but none are available, a curious omission on a car costing this much.


Video: Tesla's rivals roll out cheaper, larger EVs (Reuters)

How much? Well, that varies widely and seems to change every week, but I can tell you what we paid for this one, at least. The Tesla Model Y Long Range you see here cost us $67,490 including $1,200 in delivery fees. The most outrageous expense was the $10,000 premium for the supposed Full Self-Driving package, which honestly I don't think we'll ever see in our 24-month ownership experience. We also paid an extra $1,000 for the Deep Blue Metallic paint, $1,000 for the hidden tow hitch and another $1,000 for the white vegan interior. 

White interior on an SUV? Yeah, frankly it's not a decision I would have made for my own car, but I'm curious to see how well it holds up to use and abuse. After three months, the driver's seat is already picking up a distinct blue hue from denim, while the rear seat is absorbing black dye from the seat cover I was using to protect the upholstery from my dog. Even without those issues, the fabric feels rubbery at best, and while all five seats are heated, not a one of them is ventilated. That, again, is a disappointment on a car this spendy.

Big, beefy brakes aren't needed when the regen is this strong. Tim Stevens/Roadshow © Provided by Roadshow Big, beefy brakes aren't needed when the regen is this strong. Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The performance

So the interior is a bit of a disappointment. The range, however, is not. Our Model Y Long Range is EPA-rated at 330 miles, getting a 12-mile boost over the same car on the 20-inch wheels. (Those wheels, by the way, not only reduce range but cost another $2,000 more and won't do any favors for ride quality. I don't recommend them.) I've found the car to deliver range quite close to that estimate, often promising (and delivering) 320 to 340 miles on a full charge -- when I wasn't towing a pinball table on a utility trailer, anyway. There still aren't many other EVs on the market that can do better, though that is changing fast. 

It's quick, too. Tesla says the 0-to-60-mph sprint happens in 4.8 seconds, but you'd swear that's an understatement. The Model Y feels eager at any speed, ready to leap forward into the most petite traffic gaps or to take advantage of even very optimistic passing zones. And this, again, is the Long Range flavor of the car. You can spend an extra $5,000 for the Model Y Performance if you really want to, but I don't know why you would. That drops the range down to 303 miles in exchange for a 1.3-second decrease in the 0-to-60 time, a boost in speed the car doesn't really need. 

This isn't a performance car, after all. It's definitely fun to drive, but that comes mostly from the acceleration. The car is reasonably nimble but wallows when pushed in corners and even with the smaller, 19-inch wheels the ride quality isn't stellar. But again, that acceleration is so addictive that it's easily able to put a smile on your face. 

Until the active safety systems start to act up, anyway.

Hope you like touchscreens. Tim Stevens/Roadshow © Provided by Roadshow Hope you like touchscreens. Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Autopilot 

While Tesla's active safety systems have been bundled under the umbrella Autopilot term since 2014, the systems themselves, and indeed the very sensors and other components that make them work, have changed radically in that time. Our Model Y, delivered in August of 2021, was produced quite soon after Tesla took the curious decision to remove radar sensors from the Models 3 and Y. Ostensibly this was because the optical sensor-based Tesla Vision system was so good the radar sensors are unnecessary. I'm inclined to disagree.

I can't conclusively say that it's because of the missing radar, but I can say that our Model Y is bad at detecting obstructions ahead. Really, really bad. The big issue is false positives, a problem that has become known as "phantom braking" among Tesla owners. Basically, the car often gets confused and thinks there's an obstacle ahead and engages the automatic emergency braking system. You get an instant, unwanted and often strong application of the brakes. This is not a problem unique to Teslas. I've experienced it on other cars, but very, very rarely. On our Model Y this happens constantly, at least once an hour and sometimes much more often than that. In a single hour of driving I caught five phantom braking incidents on camera, two hard enough to sound the automatic emergency braking chime. 

This is a massive problem. It happens on both the highway and on secondary roads, any time the cruise control is engaged even without Autosteer. It means the car's cruise control is patently unsafe, which means the entirety of Autopilot is unsafe. And that means the car itself is unsafe.

When the system isn't panic-stopping for ghosts, Autopilot works reasonably well.

When the system isn't panic-stopping for ghosts, Autopilot works reasonably well. On the highway it's nigh-on perfect, keeping to lanes and even changing with barely any driver intervention with Navigate on Autopilot engaged. It really is an asset and a potential safety boon -- so long as you, the driver, pay attention. However, on secondary roads, Autosteer is easily confused by lane markings, especially in the case of a second lane opening up to the side. The car is constantly wanting to swerve to the right to take up both lanes, then jump back to the left again. I wish Tesla would take a cue from Cadillac and simply disable this function on roads where it doesn't work well.

Phantom braking is the most egregious issue I've had with our Model Y, but it isn't the only one. After running the thing through the car wash ahead of filming the review video, I popped the frunk to find a good amount of water had gathered within. Definitely don't store anything you need to keep dry. Additionally, the recessed design of the tow hitch means the lower diffuser on the rear bumper will get scratched by your safety chains when towing, and the taillights show plenty of fogging, as well. None of these are significant issues, but again, for a $70,000 car...

a car parked on the side of a road: Maybe next update? Tim Stevens/Roadshow © Provided by Roadshow Maybe next update? Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Wrap-up

The Model Y has a lot going for it. The performance is engaging and the range plenty enough to abolish anxiety. The interior feels low-rent but is eminently practical and I haven't even gotten into the many unique features Tesla brings to the table, like Dog Mode, Sentry Mode and the expansive Supercharger network, the biggest and most reliable in the country. It's a great package and, while it doesn't always feel worthy of its ever-ascending MSRP, it does present an easy entry into the wonderful world of EVs.

Except that it isn't wonderful. The phantom braking issue is a complete deal-breaker. Our car, which is running the latest production version of Autopilot, is unsafe whenever cruise control is enabled. A $70,000 car that can't even do cruise control is inexcusable and so, for now at least, I must recommend against the Model Y. There is an increasingly great suite of all-electric options out there, cars like the Chevrolet Bolt EUV, Ford Mustang Mach-E and Volkswagen ID 4. And, if you're willing to wait a little longer, the Hyundai Ioniq 5, Nissan Ariya, Toyota BZ4X and Subaru Solterra will all join the fun. In the interim, we'll keep testing our Model Y and post updates as the situation changes and Tesla moves the target again. For now, spend your money elsewhere.

This was originally published on Roadshow.

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