My Remote Road Trip in the Tesla Model Y
Are electric vehicles ready for the open road and the backcountry?
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I was sitting in a ski-area parking lot, watching an early-2000s rom-com on the 15-inch screen of a Tesla and eating trail mix, when I realized that, if only there were a couple feet of snow on the ground, I would be living my wildest ski-bum dreams.
I usually drive Whatshername, a 2011 Ford Fusion named after a Green Day song. I inherited the low-clearance, front-wheel-drive sedan from my grandpa when I graduated from college. It’s no adventuremobile, but it gets good mileage, and its all-season tires make it not completely unsafe in most on-road conditions. If I fold down the rear seats, I can just barely fit my five-foot-five frame in the back to catch some z’s. Kelly Blue Book says parting with it would net me about $5,000. But this weekend, Whatshername was gathering dust, and I was behind the wheel of a car with a valuation more than ten times as high: a Tesla Model Y. When it showed up at my apartment in a giant trailer, three of my neighbors yelled some variant of “Nice car!” That certainly never happened with my Fusion.
The Model Y is Tesla’s fifth and latest iteration, which hit the road in March 2020 with a base price of $51,990. The version I tested, with the full self-driving package, sells for $59,990. (The rep who hooked me up with a testing vehicle pointed out that the existing models together spell S3XY, which is apparently how Elon Musk wants us to think of his creations.) The Y is a midsize all-wheel-drive SUV with an exceptionally roomy interior. (Tesla has plans to launch a rear-wheel-drive version in the near future.) In size and general layout, it’s comparable to a Subaru Outback but fully electric, and the inside looks like a spaceship. Compared to the slightly cheaper Model 3, on which the Y is based, the Y is a bit more versatile, thanks to that added space. And its 350-mile range makes it, in theory, still well suited for longer trips—a tough frontier, historically, for electric vehicles to breach, despite an increase in charging networks.
One of Tesla’s biggest selling points is its network of Superchargers—nearly 1,000 fast-charging 250-kilowatt stations in North America placed along well-traveled routes, which can fully recharge a Model Y in about an hour for roughly $20. (New Mexico, where I live, has ten of these stations.) The Supercharger network is supplemented by slower-charging destination chargers, which are typically found at places like hotels, restaurants, and office parks, where you’d expect to stay put for more than an hour at a time. They vary in voltage and are generally free for use as the business’s patrons. Finally, there are third-party electric-vehicle chargers, which tend to require payment through an app or a credit card. Most Tesla owners, however, will slow-charge at home while the car is not in use.
I put the Y to the test on a weekend trip through northern New Mexico in late July. During the two-hour drive from Santa Fe to Taos, I made full use of the car’s luxe features. Usually my phone is jammed in a cup holder and tethered to Whatsername via a dense web of tangled auxiliary cables, chargers, and dongles, but in the Model Y, I simply placed it on a charging pad under the display and seamlessly connected it with Bluetooth. As “Go Your Own Way” streamed out of the crystal-clear, bass-heavy speakers, I put on my sunglasses and was filled with that open-road sense of endless possibility. I felt like I was in the middle of a sunny road-trip montage in a Hollywood blockbuster.
On the highway, I dabbled in Tesla’s self-driving mode—an $8,000 optional driver-assistance system which “sees” the road via eight external cameras, forward-facing radar, and 12 ultrasonic sensors to allow for traffic-aware cruise control, in-lane steering, parking assistance, automatic lane changes, and other features. (All Teslas come with basic adaptive cruise control.) This isn’t a fully autonomous system: the driver must remain engaged, with hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road. It was unsettling at first to have the car steer itself under my hands, but also surprising how quickly it began to feel normal. I tested the car’s smooth, electric acceleration, which felt like a high-speed train departing a station or a roller coaster taking off, with none of my sedan’s pained revving as it tries to get up to highway speeds.
I put on my sunglasses and was filled with that open-road sense of endless possibility. I felt like I was in the middle of a sunny road-trip montage in a Hollywood blockbuster.
I arrived 70 miles later in Taos with a little more than half the battery left—not quite enough for a round-trip to the dispersed camping on Forest Service land I was aiming for—and discovered that the small town’s two slow destination chargers were powered off or inaccessible. So I headed 30 minutes north to the ski area to pick up some juice at a third-party slow-charging outlet in hopes of salvaging the next day of my trip.
Not only have I never driven an electric vehicle before, where the time it takes to charge it is as much of a consideration as the distance to a hookup spot, but my Fusion can make it about 500 miles on a tank, so I rarely worry about fuel or distance. I drove to Taos countless times last winter, and while I may have been anxious about my tires spinning on the ice, I wasn’t ever concerned about my dashboard fuel indicator pointing at E.
At the Taos resort, I plugged in. “Three hours 40 minutes,” the display read, letting me know how much time I had to kill until the battery recharged. This was definitely a change from a ten-minute gas-station pit stop. I used the time to explore the grassy ski slopes, but as the sun set and it started to rain, I had to do some electric-vehicle calculus. I could leave with the car partially charged, try to find a level spot along the road in the semidarkness, and limit my range for the next day’s activities, or I could call it a night, sleep in the parking lot with its resident trailer-camping mountain bikers, and hang out with JLo and Matthew McConaughey for a while. It was not a difficult choice.
One drive-in-esque cheesy movie experience and a full charge later, I was snuggled up in my sleeping bag in the back of the car, trying to make out the faint pinpricks of stars through the tinted glass roof. The rear seats laid flatter than the ones in my car, and I didn’t have to jam my feet into a claustrophobia-inducing closed trunk. And there was a view, besides. Still, anyone much taller than me wouldn’t be able to sleep in the car—at just 68 inches long, I was maxing out the trunk space with three inches to spare.
As I drifted off, I thought idly about how terrifying it would be to wait out a hailstorm in a $52,000 car with a full glass roof.
Several bouts of mysterious whirring and clunking sounds and a few inexplicable display wake-ups led me to do some systematic Bluetooth key and door-lock testing. I determined that if I wanted the car to stay locked and powered off while I slept inside, I would need to disconnect my phone after buttoning up for the night to prevent its proximity to the car from turning on the climate control or automatically unlocking the doors if someone pulled on a handle. As I drifted off, I thought idly about how terrifying it would be to wait out a hailstorm in a $52,000 car with a full glass roof.
The next morning, I awoke early to sunlight streaming in through the near 360-degree glass bubble around me. The skies had cleared, and the view of the resort, even from the parking lot, was beautiful. Feeling well rested, I stretched, unzipped my sleeping bag, and pressed the door-open button. The car’s alarm pierced the morning calm, and I scrambled to reconnect to Bluetooth before I incurred the wrath of my fellow vehicular campers. I’m not even sure my own car still has a functioning alarm.
When my heart rate returned to normal, I fired up my stove on the low, flat tailgate to make coffee and oatmeal. I pulled half-and-half from my cooler, stowed in the perfectly sized 24-by-15-by-15-inch storage well beneath the trunk’s floor, where my Ford holds a spare tire, which is probably more practical but—let’s face it—much less cool. Instead of including spares in its vehicles, Tesla provides a free roadside-assistance hotline, which works as long as you don’t break down out of cell-service range. The hatch, which opens to a clearance of 76 inches, allowed me to move freely beneath it, and the enormous amount of storage space meant I didn’t have to dig around for anything while I went about my morning routine.
With both the Tesla’s and my batteries recharged, I resumed my plan, driving back to town and then east to find a campsite and some hiking for the day. My route took me off the highway and onto a classic New Mexico back road: rocky, rutted, and poorly maintained. With 6.6 inches of ground clearance and all-wheel drive, the Tesla was a slight improvement on the Fusion, which only features 5.3 inches of clearance and front-wheel drive. I nervously navigated down a heavily rutted side road to a secluded site with a level parking spot and trees spaced just right for a hammock.
Before I could settle in, it began to drizzle. I postponed my hiking and hammock plans and hunkered down in the car as rain turned to hail. Being in any car during a hailstorm is an unpleasantly loud experience, but I’m never too worried about Whatsername getting a few dings. I figure they show character. In the Tesla, however, it was a nightmare. What if the rutted dirt road washed out completely and I couldn’t get back to the highway? What if the glass shattered? (A search of Tesla owner forums after the fact indicated that the latter was extremely unlikely, and Tesla says its internal tests have shown the glass to be more impact-resistant than aluminum.)
The storm lasted through the afternoon and into the evening, but luckily the hail didn’t grow large enough to be a real threat. Finally far enough from civilization to have lost a cell signal, I put my phone on airplane mode. The car was silent, detached from its Bluetooth lifeline. With another movie night out of the question, and the Tesla’s techy features rendered inert, the forest around me came into focus. For the first time in days, I didn’t worry about where I’d charge next or how I’d get there. I crawled into my sleeping bag and watched the rain through the roof, soaking up the disconnected bliss of being out there and alone.