Behind the wheel of a Tesla Model Y: back to the future

Tesla Model Y 2023 model
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Jumping behind the wheel of my own Tesla Model Y offers a tantalising taste of the future, yet the Tesla driving experience is soured by a few backward design choices thanks to Elon’s pig-headed determination to ‘think different’.

When my hulking diesel-powered Holden Captiva recently went to that big scrapyard in the sky, the time was finally right to take the plunge on an electric vehicle. Especially when changes to Australia’s fringe benefits tax have made it more affordable than ever to upgrade to an EV on a salary sacrifice novated lease.

After narrowing down my EV options, I settled on the Tesla Model Y Rear-Wheel Drive 2023 – in part for its 430-ish kilometre range and in part for the SUV-style design which ensured I wasn’t giving up much cargo space compared to the Captiva.

After a few delays, I finally picked up my Model Y about a month ago. It’s exciting to be part of the green EV revolution, especially when I can take advantage of my rooftop solar panels to pump free sunshine into the car.

The ability to manage the car and my Tesla Gen3 wall charger from my phone is great, especially when combined with Charge HQ to ensure I make the most of solar.

Of course, Tesla is the Apple of carmakers, with a ‘my way or the highway’ approach to design decisions that can put some people offside. It didn’t take long to find things I love about my Model Y and things that drive me crazy.

Driving a Tesla Model Y in Australia

Forget the instrument cluster

Driving the Model Y out of the showroom and into peak-hour traffic is a bit of a hair-raising experience if you’ve never driven a Tesla before.

It’s not that I’ve never driven an EV, I recently took the Mercedes-Benz EQE300 for a spin to test out Apple’s in-car Spatial Audio. As a traditional carmaker, Mercedes-Benz looks to enhance the driving experience with its EVs, whereas newcomer Tesla looks to re-imagine it – for better and for worse.

The Model Y lacks an instrument cluster, there’s absolutely nothing behind the steering wheel except for the empty dashboard. There are a few physical buttons on the steering wheel but none elsewhere on the dash, even the glove box ludicrously lacks a physical latch to manually open it.

This leaves you completely reliant on the giant 15-inch in-dash touchscreen – even for the most basic of things, like checking your current speed.

As a result, it’s easy to take your eyes off the road for too long while looking at the screen, and you need to train yourself to mostly ignore it while driving.

As an EV, you get a very smooth ride, as the car no longer shifts gears when you take off at the lights and you don’t hear the motor working hard. It’s a pleasant driving experience but one downside is that you lose a lot of the cues that help you know how fast you’re going without looking at the speedo. As such it’s very easy to find yourself creeping over the limit, so I’ve turned on the Speed Limit Warning as an extra precaution.

While reliance on the screen is frustrating, it does have its benefits, such as putting large maps at your fingertips along with streaming music like Spotify (even though Tesla stubbornly refuses to add support for Apple AirPlay or Android Auto).

The screen offers visualisations of the surrounding traffic, and even helps you park in tight spaces by displaying the distance to objects on all sides. You also see the view from your blind spot cameras while you’re indicating. 

Flying blind in a Tesla Model Y

Unfortunately, the Tesla Model Y’s curved back leaves it with significant blind spots when you do a head check, as well as a dangerously small rear window that has you looking through tinted glass.

Looking in the rear vision mirror of most cars at night lets you see the headlights of a car approaching from behind, right up until it’s riding on your bumper.

Not so in the Model Y, where the bottom of the rear window is too high to see the headlights of close cars. This means cars behind you at night simply vanish while they’re still several car lengths away.

Combine this with that tinted rear glass and those gaping head check blind spots, and you’re left flying blind in high-speed merging traffic at night – like Maverick and Goose desperately scrambling to see a MiG on their tail.

Losing sight in the dark of the speeding car behind you, as you jostle for position racing down a freeway onramp that’s merging into one lane, is terrifying – and taught me a valuable lesson on the first night about easing off the Tesla’s famed acceleration.

In this scenario, you don’t even have the benefit of blind spot warning lights on the side mirrors commonly found in other cars. Meanwhile, Tesla’s blind spot cameras don’t activate unless you’re actually indicating.

You might steal a glance at the onscreen traffic visualisation to check for the other car, but I’ve seen the Model Y’s traffic visualisation glitch enough times to know I wouldn’t trust it with my life.

Change for the sake of change 

The Model Y’s total reliance on the touchscreen is purely an aesthetic choice, there’s no reason for it other than to be different to other cars. Just like Tesla’s ridiculous recessed external door handles, which pointlessly attempt to reinvent the wheel.

Relying completely on the screen is very disorientating at first although, to be fair, in most scenarios, you start to adjust after a week or so. It would be even worse in the 2024 Model Y which ridiculously does away with the indicator and gear sticks.

Keep in mind, my 2023 Model Y is my household’s only car, as my wife has an electric Fonzarelli Arthur 3 motor scooter for her daily commute. Adjusting to the lack of an instrument cluster in the Tesla would be much more difficult if we were regularly jumping between other cars.

My daughter is still on her L plates, having learned to drive in the hefty Captiva, but now she needs to get her hours in the Model Y before she can go for her full licence.

The driving test obviously won’t be in a Tesla, so I’ve installed a slimline speedometer readout in the air vent behind the Model Y’s steering wheel. I’m trying to make the driving experience a bit more like a normal car, and I’ve told my daughter to ignore the screen as much as possible and concentrate on the road.

Dodgem car handling

As you’d expect from an EV, the Model Y’s acceleration is impressive and cornering is smooth. That would seem to make the foundations of a great motoring experience, but it’s still difficult to drive at first due to Tesla’s default steering, braking and acceleration settings.

Like most EVs, the Model Y has regenerative braking, which slows the vehicle when you lift your foot off the accelerator, in order to recapture energy and extend the battery life. That’s great but, unlike many EVs, the Tesla Model Y won’t let you adjust the regenerative braking or disable it.

The Model Y’s regenerative braking is too aggressive, meaning that, unlike in a traditional car, you can’t take your foot off the accelerator when you want to slow down slightly. The Tesla behaves as if you’ve pressed down the brake, so much so that the brake lights actually come on to warn the car behind you.

Instead, if you want to slow down just a bit, you just need to ease off the accelerator without removing your foot, a technique known as ‘one-pedal driving’. After a while you adjust but, once again, it would be very difficult to regularly jump between the Tesla and another car.

The Mercedes-Benz EQE300 I test drove offered three regenerative braking settings so you could find what suited you best, but Tesla denies you that choice. Other EVs, like the Cupra Born VZ, also include multiple levels of regenerative braking so you can find your preference.

Tesla’s one-pedal driving is so extreme that it feels like you’re behind the wheel of an electric dodgem car. Especially due to the electric motor’s immediate acceleration, which means you don’t feel the weight of the car, and the extremely light steering which makes it easy to oversteer on corners.

If you’ve stopped at the lights, the Tesla doesn’t creep forward when you take your foot off the brake. Even when you tap the accelerator, the Model Y doesn’t keep rolling, as soon as you take your foot off the car comes to a halt.

All of this makes the Model Y very awkward and unintuitive to drive at first, if you’re familiar with traditional cars. Especially when you want to creep forward at the lights, slowly navigate around a car park or gently back out of a driveway. Once again, it’s particularly troublesome when you’re a learner driver.

Tweak my ride

Thankfully, you can dive into the Tesla Model Y’s advanced settings and make a few changes so it handles more like a normal car. It takes some trial and error, driving late-night laps around the suburbs, before you find the settings that are right for you.

For starters, changing the Acceleration Mode to Chill dials things down a bit. Next, try diving into the Pedals & Steering menu and changing the Steering Mode from Standard to Sport, which increases the effort required to turn the steering wheel. These two changes give you a lot more granular precise control and help the Model Y feel more like a normal car.

Now, look to Stopping Mode and test out the Creep and Roll options instead of the default Hold. The differences are subtle, so you’ll need some time to evaluate them.

You can’t dial down the regenerative braking; it was once an option but Tesla has frustratingly removed it. Instead, Creep basically disables regenerative braking when you’re travelling below about 20 km/h, so the Tesla coasts similar to a traditional car with an automatic transmission.

This makes a massive difference to the driving experience, even though you still need to come to terms with regenerative braking at higher speeds. Alternatively, you might try Roll which, when you’re close to or at a complete stop, sees the Tesla become free-rolling like a traditional vehicle in neutral.

Just as Tesla removed the ability to adjust regenerative braking, it’s reporedly killing off the ability to change Stopping Modes as of 2024 models – yet another reason why I’m glad I managed to snag the last of the 2023 Model Y stock.

All up, Tesla’s 2023 Model Y is a pretty good car but, with a few tweaks, it could be a really great car. Sadly, it appears that the 2024 model is headed in the wrong direction.

When it comes to design, even Apple was eventually forced to concede on Steve Jobs’ “Apple knows best” benevolent dictatorship. It will be interesting to see if Tesla manages to learn that lesson before car buyers start to push back against Elon’s stubbornness and look elsewhere in the growing EV market.

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