My Long Awaited Summer Road Trip Tesla Model Y Rental Review

This summer, I spent a week in Washington, D.C. with a Tesla Model Y rental from Hertz. I wanted to share what that experience was like. I had never driven any electric car before pulling out of the lot with our rental. (Why did it take me several months to finish editing and publish this post? Anyone’s guess.)

I had my wife and 3 middle-school aged children—in the Model Y’s 5-seat configuration—with me for the trip. The kids all already wanted Mom and Dad to buy a Tesla even before living with one. For background, I consider myself a “car guy”, and I design software for a living, so I have opinions on interfaces.

Our time in the car was a combination of driving from our accommodations in Georgetown into downtown for 3 days, parking in a garage, and walking the sites, and spending two days in the Williamsburg, VA area, about 160 miles south of DC.

Taking an electric car on a road trip is the most difficult test. Personal use from home would be much easier, since we would have a charging point in our garage, whereas here, we could only use public charging stations. Before investing in an electric car ourselves, we wanted to see what is was like to live with one.

TL;DR

  • I liked driving the Tesla a lot. It’s clear that electric cars are better than ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars.
  • If you have the means to buy an electric car, unless you have specific reasons not to buy one, you should buy one. If you can find one.
  • Tesla’s biggest advantage is the Supercharger network. I’d like to see a lot more car charging infrastructure—it is challenging to plan out where and how long charging will happen on a long trip.
  • The model we drove sells in the neighborhood of $70k. While I like the car a lot, the build quality and ride does not feel like a $70k car, and I will not personally be buying one.
  • We are leaning towards Ford Mustang Mach-E, with VW ID.4 as a second possibility.

As a side note, it’s awesome you can rent a premium electric car from Hertz. Also, renting from Hertz is a nightmare. I will leave it there.

Car controls come to life as soon as the car is unlocked, AC starts to cool, audio system reconnects. We easily loaded all 5 suitcases in the trunk, without needing the frunk.

One of the elements I was expecting to dislike the most was the single screen to control everything. I’m generally a fan of the minimalist aesthetic and think the design of Teslas inside and out are tasteful and attractive. But I am also aware of the usability advantages of physical (haptic) feedback of physical controls. After a week of living with the car, I disliked the ‘one screen to rule them all’ less than I expected. While the UI design is excellent, it is still a pain to use menus and receive no tactile feedback while focusing on driving.

The navigation system is excellent, although a few times it read directions too late for me to react with turns in close succession. The major reason (I suspect) Tesla doesn’t allow Apple CarPlay or Android Auto is because the Supercharger network roadtrip planning is well integrated into the navigation system. However, the map UI is at times hard to read, and the text is surprisingly small for important information such as exit numbers while traveling on the highway. Apple Maps’ UI in CarPlay is far easier to read while driving. On the Tesla display, you can run in light or dark modes (or have it switch automatically at night). I preferred the light map during the day, but the rest of the UI is easier to use in dark mode. I wish that was an option. And why is there no traffic displayed on the map? This is baffling… I looked for a setting to enable it several times. A web search now led me to a forum post where someone states, “To activate you need to tap on the trafic lights icon on your GPS map.” Why hide something that should be on by default?

While we are talking “infotainment”, let’s talk media playback. The best thing about CarPlay and media is the Apple Music integration. But in a Tesla, Apple Music users are stuck using your phone as a Bluetooth device. It’s frustrating not to be able to select a playlist without picking up your phone, let alone the inability to use any other CarPlay enabled apps such as a podcast player. Spotify and Tidal users can log into their accounts for a native experience and there appear to be other streaming options. This aside, the audio system of the Tesla is rich and enveloping. It is an audio system befitting a $70k car.

Let’s talk about driving. The Tesla handles great, with sports car-like tight steering and low center of gravity. The acceleration with instant torque and AWD is fantastic, even squishing the pedal a third of the way is like launching a rocket ship. This said, the Model Y is supposed to be “an SUV” (the best comparison is “crossover”), and no one passed the memo to the suspension. Feels like a Model 3 sports sedan. You feel every impact on your gut. Many of the streets we took in DC were under construction and we were beaten up on surfaces that would have been smoothed out with little fuss by our Subaru Ascent. Part of this was the beautiful 20” “Induction” (optional) wheels with narrow sidewall tires our vehicle was equipped with, part of it was the suspension tuning. I cannot imagine driving this on rough country roads, let alone rutted gravel roads a CUV should be at home on.

Around town, the instant torque helped merging in traffic and getting around obstacles with less stress. The first thing I had to get used to without practice was “one pedal driving”. For the unaccustomed, an electric motor without current acts as a brake. This braking action regenerates electricity which is added back to the battery, a process fittingly called “Regenerative braking”. This is fantastic, but there is a learning curve. When you stop accelerating, you’re already moderately braking. There is no coasting. In stop and go traffic this takes practice… but once you acclimate, you don’t want to go back. I estimate I touched the brake pedal about 90% less than I do in an ICE vehicle. After a day of use I was a near-expert and a convert. There are settings that simulate coasting, but that costs battery. My advice is to learn, adapt, and save power.

When you say “Tesla” one of the very first things people think about is “Full Self Driving”. The Hertz rental does not come with Tesla’s “Autopilot” driving assistant enabled. You do however get their “Autosteer” and their “Traffic-aware cruise-control”. These are mostly good. Neither, however, are as good as I expected, and my takeaway is that we are not anywhere as near to full-self driving as Elon would claim. Honestly, I prefer my Subaru’s Eyesight cruise and lane keeping systems to Tesla’s. Here are two reasons… if you enable Autosteer in traffic, you must continue to hold the wheel. Despite holding the wheel, you don’t get to have an opinion on where in the highway lane you are driving. In wide-open driving, this doesn’t make too much difference. But on a busier road, you frequently approach vehicles that are very close to your lane. At any speed, an aware driver would move farther in their lane away from an 18-wheeler that’s close to them.

If you try to shy aware from a big rig with Autosteer on, it will fight you, not allowing you to pull away… and then disabling itself with no tension ramp-down, meaning the pressure you’re exerting against the wheel is then freed, which makes you swerve and then you hopeful correct your heading. Furthermore, when you engage Autosteer again, if you’re not perfectly centered in the lane—and you never are—the car will jerk you into line the moment the feature is turned on. Autosteer has no nuance or subtlety. Subaru EyeSight only cares about crossing the line. Otherwise it’s fine with you being a bit to the left or a bit to the right of center. That said, EyeSight does not actively steer. It only encourages you to do the right thing by adjusting how much power steering assist is applied to the wheel. As I browsed the Mustang Mach-e web site the other day, I saw that Ford was advertising that Blue Cruise is aware that other vehicles may get too close. I can’t wait to see how their system works.

I have yet to mention the worst part about Autosteer. If it’s enabled in a lane that has on-ramps besides it, when the dotted line disappears between the on-ramp and your lane, Autosteer will swerve your car towards the ramp, as you are now on the far side of a much wider lane, if only temporarily. Since Autosteer has no subtlety and cannot apparently look ahead 20 yards to see that you will again be centered ahead, it must autocorrect your course immediately. This is unfathomable at this point in Tesla’s existence. How is this that bad?

The cruise control is also subtly flawed. For the most part it is smooth. It can know and automatically adjust your speed based on the speed limit without your intervention. Want to always drive the speed limit on the highway? Easy with one tap on the screen. Always want to drive 5MPH above the speed limit? You can set an “offset” and do this automatically. Very smart. But turning on cruise and autosteer is too awkward. I am used to either only using buttons in Hondas and Subarus, or using very intuitive stalk movements with VWs and Saabs. In the Tesla, you can only turn on and off with the stalk, and then you adjust with a scroll wheel on the steering wheel. It feels like too much movement for too little control.

The first few times, moving the stalk that is also used for selecting forward and reverse is very disconcerting. Imaging using your gear selector in an automatic transmission car to disable cruise control by shifting into reverse! Well, that’s how you do it in a Tesla. In fact, if you hold the stalk upwards to disable cruise and you hold there one second, the car will be placed in Neutral. Disconcerting.

But my biggest complaint about cruise control is also part of its biggest strength. The best cruise control systems make stop-and-go traffic suck less. Tesla takes this to another level. If you have cruise enabled, and you’re stopped for less than 5 minutes, the car will start forward movement again without your input. On my Subaru, I have to tap the accelerator to reenable cruise after the vehicle has come to a complete stop. I prefer the Tesla option. So what’s the downside? Tesla knows only one way to move itself from standstill: rocketship. This is problematic if the car in front of you only gently moves forward a few yards, then stops, because you launch and then immediately decelerate. It’s so bad that I was constantly questioning whether I should tough it out, or manually take over. But it gets worse. Tesla has settings for acceleration! You can choose “Chill” to greatly reduce the sensitivity of the accelerator. But the car does not apply this chill choice when it controls starts itself. Rocketship or nothing.

Moving on to the car body, the roof is tinted glass. This is cool. The back window is a separate pane of glass, but it is all-but unusably small. If given the choice, I’d prefer more usable glass in my rear window than my roof. The car has a myriad of external cameras, and they’re mostly great. But rearward vision is compromised, and best I could tell, there’s no blind spot warning. If a car is in your blind spot, it’s drawn on the center screen, but the part of the screen it’s shown on is partially blocked by your hand on the steering wheel. When you put on your blinker, you are shown a camera shot of your blind spot in the same spot of your center display, but of course, if you’re looking to change lanes, you’re not looking down there, you’re looking at where you’re driving. Not a huge deal, but it feels like they have all the tools while not using them to their fullest potential. Positively, there’s a button on the screen that, at any time will display all the exterior cameras on the display.

In close confines, the car will measure the distance between your car and other objects. This is especially useful during parking. I wish they’d use that same data when using autosteer, to adjust your position in the lanes during traffic. They do use their radar during driving, somehow… 3 or 4 times the car screamed at me to correct what I was doing but I don’t know what I was doing wrong? These alarms are intense.

Lastly, for a car that has such a delivery wait time when you buy, you’d think the build quality would be better. There was one piece in the interior of the driver’s door near the rear view mirror that looked randomly wrapped in cloth and placed. The frunk does not shut well. I understand the car makes use of lightweight materials and the frunk door is likely aluminum, but it’s not too much to ask of a $70k car for the doors to shut well.

If this was a $40k car, I wouldn’t complain, because I know the batteries and the tech are not cheap. But my Subaru was $40k and its build quality is excellent and feels substantial.

Lastly, let’s cover the charging network. It was brilliant for Tesla to build their own network. This could well be 50% of why I see Teslas everywhere. Non-Tesla charging is simply not as seamless. If you want to charge your Tesla at a public charger, you tap a few buttons on the screen, and the map tells you suggested chargers to use, based on availability, how much charge you have, and their distance from you. Prices are displayed, as well as how long you need to charge to get the level of battery you need (which you can further adjust yourself). Once you select a charger, the battery will prep itself so that when you arrive, it will be in an optimal state for a charge. When you arrive, you just plug in. Payments are automatic. There are many chargers in populated areas. I have no complaints beyond I wish every charger could charge at the maximum speed the car can handle.

There is a price I would buy a Model Y for, but $70k is about $20k too high. As Elon Musk gets more and more “eccentric” (let’s just leave the characterization at that), it becomes harder to want to send him money.

If you haven’t seriously looked into electric cars, now is the time. The Federal and many state governments are providing generous rebates, and the cars cost much much less than ICE cars to operate, using one-third the energy to drive, electricity costs less than gas, and you almost never need to service the vehicle. If you can install a charger where you live, every morning you have a full tank, and the car will greet you at a comfortable temperature. For our family, we are sold. The only trouble now is finding one we can buy.