Elon Musk’s master plan has always had the Model 3 circled in fat red ink as Tesla’s mega-selling, do-or-die affordable car. But since then, those fickle car buyers out there have been having other ideas and ditching their sedans for crossovers. Although the Model 3 has been selling remarkably well nonetheless, it hasn’t been enough (probably because of its price) to avoid a $700 million loss last quarter. Moreover, the predicament’s been compounded by slipping sales of the more profitable Model S and X (the S is seven years old now, but still going strong, check out our exclusive Model S long-range test) and the headwind of evaporating federal incentives.
Answer? Scribble out that first circle and draw a new one around the next car—the Tesla Model Y. Although it’s based on the Model 3 (75 percent so, Musk says), it’ll land in the absolute sweet spot of the market (crossover) and where people are accustomed to spending a little more. Everything seems hunky-dory then, except for one thing. That sloping roofline that doesn’t look much like today’s crossovers.
So what, then, does a car designer (whose first name isn’t Franz) think of the Tesla Model Y? It just so happens that we know a really good one, Mr. Tom Gale, longtime design maestro at Chrysler and MT’s sage of style. I dialed Tom’s number:
Kim Reynolds: Hi Tom. So here’s my big question: How would you identify this thing? A tall sedan? Or a crowd-pleasing crossover?
Tom Gale: I don’t see it as a crossover at all. In fact, I think a lot of people are going to miss it on the road. Just today I saw a Model 3, and it really is a testament to how well they’ve evolved the proportions of Tesla’s design. The same is true with the Model Y, but to me, this is just a sedan being taller.
KR: At the Model Y’s introduction, our Miguel Cortina got a ride in one that has the optional third row, but they wouldn’t let anybody climb back there. Third row—good or bad?
TG: I think it’s a waste of time. The compromise to overall storage space is a step too far.
KR: So far, you’re being critical.
TG: Actually, you really can’t fault the car’s line work, and I think the Model Y sits on the platform fairly well. They’ve used some of the devices they did on the Model X, where you black out things they don’t on the sedans. And when you look at the way the Model Y’s DLO [daylight opening—the shape of the side glass] finishes within the side view, it’s far more comfortable than on Model X, where it hangs on for so long the car almost looked shifted on its platform.
KR: I’m sensing a “but” coming …
TG: I would have loved to have seen them exercise their design talent trying to figure out a roof that’s better suited to the intended function of this vehicle. I love the design consistency, but I can see the internal struggles that they must be having. I just would’ve let this one break out and say, “See, we can go after this market with some different stuff.”
KR: When I look at the Model Y’s profile, what I see is the price of batteries talking. It’s pack probably costs $10,000-plus, meaning—unlike a gasoline car—the Model Y has to be obsessively efficient to minimize this tremendously expensive cost. Probably why Lucid’s first car, the Air, is an aerodynamic sedan, too. And why I’m sort of amazed by the boxy Rivian. But on the other hand, the Rivian is exactly what people expect a crossover or truck to look like.
TG: I’m no longer on Rivian’s board, but I’ll tell you that it’s far more efficient than it looks. Look—this is the designer in me talking so take it with a grain of salt—I wouldn’t compromise for a few minuscule points of aero. As important as they are, you’re going to throw the baby away with the bath water because the public’s consideration is the most important thing. Without knowing any of the aero numbers, but being taller, you’ve already got the frontal area. And there’s a lot of aero devices you could use if the roofline had a conventional pickup in the back. OK, you’re going to create a larger vortex, but I would question how much of that offsets what you’re losing in terms of the product perception. That’s the central point: If the reason’s aero, that’s a big bet. Look at the BMW X6 or the Honda Crosstour. Not very well accepted…
KR: So let’s imagine that you walk into Tesla design studio just at the point where the Model Y was a full-scale, completed clay model. I hand you the sculpting tools to make changes. What would you do?
TG: Well, that’s tough because Franz [von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer] is living with it day-in and day-out. And I think the openings, the graphics of the vehicle overall, the line work of the vehicle, it’s really very good. But if I were to lead them, I guess I would say, “I want to investigate what you could do with the roofline and still have it be Tesla.” Leave the C-pillar—that is very recognizable of Tesla—and then try to grow something out of the back of it. Then I would look at whether there’s an inventive way to change what you do with the hatch to gain function. Maybe you let some of the top of the hatch move forward into the roof so that you’ve got a taller space to hold stuff.
KR: Go on. You’re on a roll.
TG: From there I would move around to the front and say, “Why don’t we look for a way to create some image equity that would be ours. Maybe make the top of the Tesla ‘T’ part of the upper character line.” They kind of started it already with the noses of the Model S and X. Then I’d ask, “Is there something we can do to accentuate its capabilities?” I would’ve loved to have seen a little bit more track—maybe they could’ve done it with wheel offset. I would’ve been really riding hard on the engineering guys for me.
KR: Back to the roofline; instead of the Y’s big slope, could Tesla have gone with the sort of station wagon-y roofline of the Porsche Gran Turismos?
TG: For some reason, the words “station wagon” are verboten in the U.S. Having said that, I think the Gran Turismos are very successful from a design perspective. But from a marketing perspective, station wagons are too low to be perceived as functional.
KR: Earlier, I Googled images of the Model Y, and at first glance, I didn’t realize that a lot of them were speculative renderings made before the unveiling. You can hardly tell them from the actual car. This must be the most predictable-looking vehicle in a long time. And with its sloping roofline, it’s dangerously undifferentiated from the Model 3.
TG: I think they’re going to cannibalize some Model 3 sales.
KR: A lot rides on Tesla making the case—without advertising; they don’t advertise—that the Y isn’t just a “Model 3 Tall (M3T?)” but instead a new-think aerodynamic crossover. I guess we’ll see, right Tom?
TG: I guess we will.
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