After months of the customary skillful hype, Tesla has shown the final execution of its compact sport utility EV, the Model Y.
What to make of it? Let's start with some nice things to say. First, it's a Tesla, a brand which, in a short period of time, has gained an enviable reputation as the leader in electric propulsion and semi-autonomous driving. It matters little that close examination reveals much of this to be exaggerated, or that Consumer Reports has had an , love affair with the brand, or that build quality has been, as the British might say, dodgy. The belief is strong, and as any experienced marketing executive will tell you, the "market fact" will trounce the "product fact" every time.
Second, the Model Y's promised performance is outstanding: Zero to 60 in as little as 3.5 seconds, a feat once limited to supercars, and a battery good for up to 300 miles in rear-drive Long Range configuration. Impressive, though it comes with the standard EV warning about driving style and weather conditions.
Third, the announced base price of $39,000 is attractive, but, if the Model 3 is any indication, largely fictional. Having an attractive but hard-to-get "price leader" in the lineup is time-honored industry practice, but Tesla has elevated it to an art form. The Model 3 was on the market for a year and a half before the long-promised, long-delayed $35,000 base model became available, and when Tesla begins delivering Model Ys in Fall 2020, the first six months of production will focus on top-spec variants. We may confidently expect average transaction prices to be in the high $40,000 or low $50,000 range—almost a necessity if the Model Y is to turn even a modest profit.
That's the end of the faint praise. Styling has been a major Tesla strength in the case of the Model S and Model 3, but the Model Y has inherited the traits of the ungainly, falcon-winged, semi-successful Model X. Adapting a visual theme from a large car to a small one is always a challenge. In this case, it's love's labor lost.
One major reason small crossovers are so popular is the convenience of the two-box shape, affording roominess and convenience not available in compact sedans. For reasons known only to Tesla, the Model Y eschews this formula, opting instead for a tall fastback profile. The high, arched roof triggers memories of ... what? The Kia-built Ford Aspire, a sad little puppy that came and went with no fanfare. The Model Y design is a mistake, being neither attractive nor functional. If the Model X emulated a loaf of bread, the Model Y is a bun, a roll.
Bottom line, will it sell? A guarded yes. Hardcore Tesla fanatics will buy it, but with muted enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Tesla will discover an immutable truth of the car business: Added models do not necessarily translate into added sales. It's the phenomenon known as cannibalization, a term so ugly that product planners prefer the more genteel "substitution." Most Model Y sales will come at the cost of the Model 3. Same price range, same performance, similar footprint. In the realm of sub-$50,000 family cars, most buyers prioritize space over style.
The Model Y is not the breakthrough vehicle that will turn Tesla into a large, profitable manufacturer. We'll have to wait for the promised four-seat Roadster—weirdly, a coupe—or even more improbable, the Semi, to see another revolutionary feat from the California automaker. Personally, I'm still waiting for the vehicle that will confound
Bob Lutz has been The Man at several car companies. He's not afraid to call a bun a bun.