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Tesla Model Y Big Family Test: Mostly Good, But There Might Be One Death Star–Type Weakness

I noticed recently that El Paso, Texas, got a Tesla showroom. This is good news for the whole region, because you’d previously have to drive to Phoenix, Dallas, or Denver to check one out in person. The city has had a service center for a long time, but adding a showroom made it a lot easier for around 2 million people in Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua to get an in-person look at the cars.

I’ve been wondering for a while whether a larger family like mine could fit in the Model Y, and with the recent opening, it’s a lot easier to test this. With other manufacturers, I’d talk to a press contact and get a car to review for a week or two, but Tesla now has nobody to ask about that because it has completely dissolved its PR department. So, going in like a customer to take a 30-minute test drive is about all one can do (even when Elon Musk follows the publication you write for).

So, on Friday, that’s what I did. I found a lot to like, and one thing that scares me.

The Touchless Test Drive Experience

Getting a test drive scheduled is super easy. If you aren’t picky about something like a seating configuration, you can easily schedule the test drive on Tesla’s website. If you need to test something less common, like a 7-seat Model Y, you need to call the location first and confirm with them that you’ll get the vehicle you need, and they’ll schedule it on the phone.

The morning of the test drive, I got a text sending a link to upload my driver’s license and sign a waiver. Easy. Then, they sent an instructional video explaining the vehicle’s gear selector, since that’s something people from other brands tend to struggle with. Once again, easy peasy.

When we left the house, we ran into some snags getting the kids and the doggo loaded up, and ended up behind schedule. I texted my local contact about it, and they just bumped my appointment to the next half-hour time slot. Not a problem at all.

When I arrived, the guy (socially distanced, and with a mask) asked me if I had any questions and told me when to be back by.

The Driver’s Seat

Honestly, the driving experience of the Model Y was a little better than I expected. I’ve driven all of Tesla’s other vehicles, and have the most wheel time in a Model X, so I’m familiar with driving Teslas. The power was quite a bit better than Kyle Field’s single-motor Model 3 I tore up the freeways in Los Angeles with. The vehicle was very, very stable, like any Tesla, but it felt a little more grounded than the Model X.

Mostly, it felt a lot like driving a smaller car, but you could feel the weight of it in sharper turns, of course.

Once it was done calibrating the cameras (as this car was 100% brand new), Autopilot performed about the same as any other Tesla I’ve tested, but was a lot better about not obsessively centering on highway ramps the way it was in 2018. It cut toward the inside of the turn a bit like I would, and that was far more comfortable. I only had a few minutes with it, though, and couldn’t test any of the newer features unfortunately. TACC and centering were great, though.

The Second Row

The second row was more cramped than I expected, but comfortably fits adults. It had plenty of room for three carseats or boosters across (for parents with young kids). It was also adjustable, so if nobody is in the third row, or they’re really small kids, you can slide it back a bit for some more room.

If you have 4 or 5 kids, you can seat the older kids in the front and the younger ones in the back with no problems. Although, you’d probably want to keep an infant in the second row to make it easier to get them in and out.

With a big, thick seat protector we brought along, our dog sat comfortably in one seat without damaging the vegan leather, but at the end of the ride she revealed that the second row might have one big weakness, even if your family doesn’t have a dog. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

The Third Row

As expected, the third row was rather cramped. My 10-year-old was comfortable, as was my 7-year-old. For the two older kids (12 and 14), it was a lot harder. My 14 year old is basically adult-sized and couldn’t sit back there without staring at the front of the liftgate or slouching to see out the front of the car. Same for us adults when we attempted it.

I’ll let my 12-year-old describe her experience:

“At first sight the back seat looks cool and comfy, but once you sit down you are squished and have to position your feet a specific way to be comfy. You’ll get used to it and be more comfy.

“I like how when you look up you can see the sky and stuff. However, when the trunk closes I get scared of my head getting hit, but it doesn’t get hit.” [Editor’s note: adorable.]

So, basically, the line for who’s comfortable back there for more than a very short drive is around 10 or 11 years old. If you don’t have more than 3 kids who are too big, then the 3 row Model Y could be a good fit, as you can put the younger ones in the back. If you’ve got 5 teenage boys, it’s not going to be a good vehicle for you, and you should consider a Model X (even if you need to buy used) if you want an EV to carry the whole crew.

Also, be sure to consider the future. If your kids are all going to be too big in the time you intend to own or lease a Y, that could be a problem.


With all of the seats full, there was still plenty of room for groceries and other day-to-day cargo needs in the rear and the frunk. The back, in particular, is very deep if you remove the divider. I didn’t get to test it, but it was clear that there was room for most needs.

For a road trip, though, there isn’t room for 6–7 people’s luggage. There would be plenty of room for 5 people’s suitcases if you folded the third row down, though. If you want to road trip with a full complement of humans, you’ll want a hitch or roof rack of some kind to make the room. Personally, I’d go with a hitch rack to try to keep drag down and preserve range.

The Second Row’s “Thermal Exhaust Port” Weakness

At the end of the test ride, things went downhill fast. Little did I know, one of the kids had given doggo a snack right before we left the house, and the Tesla’s acceleration was probably a bit much for for the canine stomach. She strategically aimed her regurgitations right where one of the gaps in the special doggie seat protector was, which was there so seatbelts could be buckled. My daughter, who was sitting in the third row, also had her feet directly below this, and wasn’t too happy when it dripped down on her sandals.

When we came to a stop in Tesla’s lot, I figured it would have landed on the big seat protector we brought along, but I soon found out that the hound put it all in just the wrong spot (what are the chances?). It had gone all over the seat, down into the seatbelt mechanisms, and onto the floorboard. Yikes.

A relatively simple cleanup, right? Well, that’s where I was wrong again, despite all my experience with kids throwing up in cars over the years. It turns out that the second row has a big weakness that could wipe out the whole thing the way Luke Skywalker wiped out the Death Star.

As it turns out, the service center can’t take the rear seat assembly apart for cleaning. The seat itself? It wiped right off. Carpet? Also easy with their detailing tools. But, getting the used dog food out of the seat belt clickers wasn’t something they were sure they could do, and they didn’t even have tools to replace just those clickers.

From what I was told, the company only allows the service center to replace whole sections of the interior, and not replace small parts (and even then, many small parts cannot be removed/replaced at all without replacing the whole thing).

I was told that they’d try to clean it all out, but don’t be surprised if they call to tell me that I’m liable to replace an entire second row seat assembly, which is rather expensive.

My wife and I also felt very uncomfortable after this happened. While I hate dealers, I’ve seen them be very understanding about things like this. They want the sale, and would probably tell you multiple times “don’t worry about it,” because the detail guy will handle it. They want you comfortable to get that sale.

Tesla’s people? They left us feeling like we weren’t welcome, and that we’re bad people for what, in reality, is (or should be) a small problem.

Why This Could Be A Real Problem For Families

When you have kids, you basically sign up for years of puke, poop, and drool. You don’t think too much about this when you start the process off (because that part is a lot of fun), but you can expect for there to be messes for at least a decade, and many of them will happen in the car.

Beyond puke, kids are pretty good at getting soda, crumbs, and even coins in seatbelt clickers. If there’s a way to mess things up, kids will find it no matter how careful you are.

If a kid (or a pet) makes a big mess on most cars’ seats, you can clean the mess up with some work. Even if it gets down in the seatbelts (which has happened to me several times over the years), you can remove the clickers, take them inside, and clean them out. At worst, you’re out a few bucks to buy new clickers and bolt them back in (I had to do this once). A detailing shop can do all this, and for a fee that’s shockingly small considering that they’re cleaning up puke in some cases.

Do this to a Model Y (and possibly other Teslas), and you might not be nearly as lucky.

Even if you don’t have kids, you might have a drunk adult leave their dinner or drink on your seats, and if you use the car for Uber or later as a robotaxi, expect this to happen multiple times per year, and probably multiple times weekly if you count drink spills and other non-puke messes.

But the Model Y apparently isn’t as easy to deal with. If a kid, dog, drunk adult friend, or paid passenger tosses their cookies, spills soda, or otherwise makes a big mess on the seat belts, you might be out big bucks to replace the whole second row of the car.

(If any Model Y owners have somehow found a solution to this that is not so expensive, let us know!)

Final Verdict

I’d really like to get more time with a Model Y to get a better review, but there’s nobody at Tesla to ask about borrowing one for a week or two these days.

Other than this one big weakness my dog found in the car, I really liked it. It would make a great family car, especially around town. It’s fun for mom to drive, has room for everyone in my particular family (and will for years), and could work for road trips if we put a rack on the back. It could even pull a (very) small camper and make for some epic cross-country adventures without buying $1000+ of gas.

But, if I need to replace a whole row of leather seats every time someone can’t hold down their lunch or spills a drink, that’s going to be hard to financially justify.

I really hope Tesla comes up with a good solution for this, because otherwise I really liked it.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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