Review: 2021 Tesla Model Y (vs Model 3)

In less than five minutes of exploring the cabin of the 2021 Tesla Model Y, I have my thesis: The SUV is a vertically-stretched Model 3, but its rear bench and trunk don’t offer enough additional space to tempt me out of my beloved Model 3 sedan. I’m pretty confident about my (premature?) verdict, but the weekend’s trip to the mountains will reveal if I’ve rightly judged this book by its cover.

So we lift the Model Y’s powered hatchback, and our party of four swarms the little SUV, loading it with gear and provisions. In go the suitcases, daypacks and boots. Stuffed in the remaining nooks and crannies are bags of food and water. Hiking is in the plans!

It’s a nice little trick that the Model Y can accommodate four adults’ luggage, though it’s a little nerve-wracking that we are leaving the trunk’s privacy cover at home. (Will our valuables be safe at charging stops?) However, with some crafty Tetrising, I think my Model 3 could carry the same load, even though the Model 3’s trunk isn’t as tall.

I ride shotgun as we hit the road. Though the Model Y’s front seats appear identical to my Model 3’s, their feeling is cushier and more supportive of my lower back. Is this the difference between fresh versus broken-in seats, or has Tesla tweaked the design for the SUV? I don’t know… Regardless, I like how the raised seat bottom gives me a more chair-like seating posture. This lofty position is standard SUV fare, but it will be more comfortable on our long trip.

Sitting behind me is another 6’ 2” string bean—my friend Joe. He claims to be comfortable on the backbench, but Joe is not one to complain, so I peek behind to verify. Joe has two inches of clearance between his knees and my seat and another inch of airspace between his head and the glass ceiling. So yes, adult males fit in the rear of the Model Y.

On the highway, we trundle along with the Friday commuters and weekend getawayers. Tesla’s familiar Autopilot paces traffic, easing the driver’s burden. From the right seat, I fiddle with the navigation—it’s identical to my Model 3’s—hoping to stretch our remaining charge and avoid a stop on the way to Tahoe. In the end, I decide it’s too risky to go non-stop, so we plan a pause in the foothills.

As we cross the Central Valley, I scan the Model Y’s interior for anything new. The center console has a matte-gray finish and wireless charging pads, and the door releases are now clearly marked. These are improvements over my 2018 Model 3, but the newest Model 3s got these features, too. The only bits unique to the Model Y are its reclining rear seats and its seamless glass ceiling. (The Model 3 has a middle cross-beam that splits the roof in two.)

But the visuals only tell half the story because I’m finding myself much more comfortable in the Model Y. Whereas the Model 3 whirs with road noise and thumps over expansion joints, the Model Y is hushed and compliant. I’m pleased with these improvements, as they address two of my Model 3 bugaboos.

We stop in Placerville for a quick charge. As I open my door, the Model Y reveals one of its sound-deadening secrets: The windows are actually double-paned with laminated cores. (The Model 3 gets single-pane glass.) Tesla has purposefully engineered more peace and quiet into the Model Y.

I peek at the tires and find 255/40R20 Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 5’s on all four corners. This is a much larger wheel—and smaller sidewall—than the 18-inch wheels on my Model 3, so it must be the suspension that’s adding compliance. This is more proof that Tesla focused on comfort with the Model Y.

In 10 minutes, the Supercharger has slammed enough charge into the battery to make it to our destination. I take the helm and point the Model Y into the mountains.

With my hands on the wheel and my feet on the pedals, I’m struck by how similarly the Model Y and Model 3 drive. Both have surprisingly quick and commendably feelsome steering racks. Crank the wheel, and they lunge at the apex. When using passenger-pleasing footwork—gentle squeezes, thank you—the throttle and brake responses are nearly identical. Both cars are torque forward and eager to go, then reassuringly confident on the brakes. Driven mildly, this dual-motor Model Y doesn’t flaunt its power advantage over the single-motor Model 3.

As the road coils tighter, I’m happy to find that the Model Y’s elevated stance and added weight haven’t killed its driving dynamics. Versus the Model 3, I sense a hint more weight transfer and body roll, but the SUV still drives like a well-tuned sports sedan. I have no complaints here!

The final blocks of our journey wind through South Lake Tahoe. Thanks to the higher ride height and redesigned A-pillars, I can easily see pedestrians and cross-traffic at intersections. (The Model 3’s A-pillars create significant blind spots.) The Model Y’s taller windscreen makes monitoring traffic lights easier; I no longer need to hunch as I look for green. More Model 3 flaws have been improved with the Model Y!

We arrive at our lakeside lodging and unload for a weekend of fun. We crack open adult beverages and cook our dinner feast while the Model Y sips electricity from a garage outlet. Come morning, man and machine will be ready for an alpine adventure!

The next day’s hike is graced with deep blue skies. Brilliant sunlight bombards us from above—and below!—as the rays bounce off the snow. After a strenuous ascent, we lunch on the shores of an ice-shrouded lake, gazing up at the serrated peaks above us. Maybe some summer, we’ll try to summit one of these monsters.

When I get back to the Tesla, I’m riding high on endorphins and nature’s beauty. The only thing that could make me happier would be a shot of adrenaline!

So I grab the Tesla’s wheel and stomp the go pedal at the first opportunity. The Model Y kicks back, thrusting me into my seat as it claws forward with all four wheels. Okay! I was right to avoid the AWD Teslas; this dual-motor Model Y has permanently spoiled my enjoyment of my single-motor Model 3.

It’s the response, not just the additional power, that puts the single-motor Model 3 to shame. The dual-motor Model Y delivers full torque in a split second, whereas the single-motor Model 3 doesn’t pull its hardest until 30 mph. To put it in gas car terms, the SUV launches like a high-rpm clutch drop while the sedan seems to be rolling onto throttle at 5 mph.

So yeah, it looks like I needed to read the book to get to the right verdict. Although the Model Y is only slightly more practical at carrying people and stuff, it’s more comfortable, refined and polished than the Model 3. All without losing its sporting chips! It’s almost as if Tesla learns from its prior art when designing its next models…

And will the Model Y’s many advantages pull me out of my Model 3? Not today—I’m still pleased with my sedan, and I don’t see value in the $20k upgrade. (This long-range dual-motor Model Y costs $65k.) But when it is time to replace the Model 3, I’ll certainly shop the Model Y first!

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