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2021 Tesla Model Y long-term update: Utility trailer towing time

EVs are great for many things -- but towing? Let's see how our long-term Tesla managed with its tow hitch occupied.

Tesla Model Y Towing
Yep, that's a pinball table on a utility trailer.
Tim Stevens/Roadshow

We're a few months and over a thousand miles into our Tesla Model Y ownership. In that time the car has been at the center of a lot of pseudo full-self driving histrionics and seen a further $2,000 price hike. (Maybe those appreciating asset claims aren't so crazy after all?) Our little SUV so far has been seeing its way around upstate New York and surrounding environs, ushering us into fall with the threat of winter just over the horizon, where I very much look forward to testing out its all-wheel-drive chops.

But before the snow falls I wanted to get some testing of a very different sort in: towing. Tesla's Class II hitch was a $1,000 option that I insisted we spec on our car, and it was also the one accessory that I had to have explained to me before pulling our car off the dealership lot. The hitch, you see, is actually tucked beneath the bumper cover, hidden behind a pop-off hatch that makes it completely invisible until you need it.

In my initial write-up of the car I called this hitch "neatly hidden." Now, after using the thing, I see why other manufacturers don't do the same thing.

Let's start with the numbers. The hitch on the Model Y is rated to tow a maximum of 3,500 pounds, with a maximum tongue weight of 350 pounds. The maximum vertical accessory weight, for bike racks and the like, is 160 pounds.

Now, 3,500 pounds is good enough to tow a decent sized camper. However, that tongue weight -- the maximum vertical weight the hitch can support -- is quite limiting. I've only found a handful of options that fit within the Tesla's parameters, and sadly, none seem to be available for me to borrow for evaluation. So, we'll have to leave the camper testing for another update. For this update, I dug out my old utility trailer. You know, the Harbor Freight DIY special that everyone buys when they get into kart racing or the like. I've had mine for well over a decade and it's still going strong. Ugly as it is, it's exactly the kind of utility trailer that a lot of you may turn to if you need a load of mulch, some sheets of drywall or, as in my case, a pinball table. 

Yes, I was headed out to pick up a project pinball table. And not just any table -- the 1985 Williams masterpiece High Speed. The roughly 500-pound combined weight of pinball table and trailer was no threat to either the Model Y's maximum tow nor tongue ratings, but again, this sort of load approximates what I expect many who have a utility trailer will be pulling.

Anyhow, the Model Y comes with a hitch receiver but not a ball mount, so that was step 1. I'd anticipated being able to use one of the many I've collected over the years on various cars, but I was surprised to discover that the Model Y has a 2-inch receiver. Most cars with a Class II hitch have a 1.25-inch receiver, so that necessitated a trip to the hardware store. I needed to roll there anyway, because the Model Y also uses a seven-blade plug for the trailer connection, rather than the flat, four-pole connector more commonly used with Class II hitches. 

tesla-model-y-hitch

A rusty chain dragging against your bumper is not considered a good thing. 

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

And it's with that adapter that I had my first headache. The hitch receiver is situated inside the plastic bumper cover, behind a little plate that pops off. The problems began when I tried to plug into the adapter. The edge of the bumper cover actually overlaps with the plug, so I had to bend the bumper out of the way just to shove the adapter in there. And, now that it's in, getting it out again is going to be a real pain.

Slotting the ball mount in is a little awkward, because the hole for the pin is way back there beneath the bumper. I got a fairly long ball mount, but even so the ball itself sits barely 2 inches from the bumper cover, so you'd better not overshoot when backing up to your trailer. 

The biggest issue, however, is that the loops where you hang the safety chains are also tucked well beneath the bumper cover. Once connected, the chains literally rest on the bottom of the bumper cover, against which they'll bounce and chafe for the duration of your trip. This is not good news; who wants their bumper covered in scratches?

Anyhow, adapters seated, chains connected and ready to scuff, I hit the highway for a loop that wound up covering 208 miles at an average speed around 60 mph. Ambient temperature was in the mid-50s Fahrenheit. Now, many EVs on the road today would struggle with that kind of trip even without the trailer, but our Model Y showed an indicated range of 325 miles when I pulled it out of the garage. After my return? I had a scant 8% remaining, a consumption of 68 kilowatt-hours, or 328 watt-hours per mile. 

tesla-model-y-towing-rear

Mission accomplished... though the phantom braking from Autopilot made towing a lot more difficult than it should have been. 

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Yep, the extra drag from my little utility trailer damn near killed the entire battery pack in just over 200 miles at highway speed. That compares to the EPA combined rating of 270 Wh/mi, which is in line with what I've been seeing in my testing so far. In other words, a nearly 25% decrease in efficiency and in effective range. 

What does this mean? Well, if you're looking to tow with your Model Y (or any other EV, frankly), make sure you're conservative in budgeting range and in charting out charging stops. It's a safe bet that a bigger camper will place significantly more demand on the battery pack, and with any luck I'll get to do a little RVing myself before we send our Model Y out west to live with some other members of the Roadshow team. Until then, stay tuned for our full review of the Model Y, in which I'll tell you about just how Autopilot fares now that Tesla has done away with the radar sensor. 

Spoiler alert: It's pretty bad.