These days, there’s also a lot of variety with Tesla, ranging from the Model 3 sedan to the Cybertruck.
Some design themes have been consistent, yielding attractive vehicles that have stood the test of time; but Tesla has missed the mark, too.
I’ve ranked Tesla’s past, current, and future designs, from best to worst.
Tesla has come a long way with the design of its vehicles since it rolled out its original Roaster in the late 2000s.
That car changed perceptions of what an electric car could be. It was fast, it was good looking, and it was fun. But it was also completely impractical, rather uncomfortable, and it could seat just two adults — two not-very-tall adults.
It was also based on a Lotus chassis, so it was important for Tesla to create a “clean sheet” design for its first proper vehicle. That was the Model S, which arrived in 2012 and set Tesla on a path that has enabled it to completely dominate electric-car sales in the US, delivering more than 360,000 vehicles in 2019.
More cars followed. Design chief Franz von Holzhausen developed a style that was uniquely Tesla: conservative but timeless.
That said, even though Tesla’s designs have endured, some are better than others. Here’s a ranking of the fleet:
7. The Model Y.
Tesla’s first foray into the common auto-industry practice of using the same engineering platform for multiple vehicles, the Model Y is a crossover SUV that’s based on the Model 3 sedan.
The Model Y is supposed to arrive in force this year, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has predicted that it should be the company’s top seller. That makes sense — crossovers are a hot segment for consumers, especially in the US.
The Model Y itself, unfortunately, looks like a squatting turtle. It embodies a flaw in von Holzhausen design language, which has found lovely expression in sedans but that struggles with SUVs.
Not that this should surprise anybody …
6. The Model X.
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… because the Model X SUV, launched in 2015, indicated that Tesla had weird ideas when it came to utility vehicles.
The vehicle was, to put it mildly, a disaster. Inordinately complicated, Tesla endured what Musk infamously termed “production hell” to get it on the road. The upswinging “falcon wing” doors are dramatic, but spend any time with the vehicle (I’ve tested it twice) and you quickly long for good, old-fashioned, hinged points of entry.
On the plus side, the Model X went through a seat crisis prior to launch, prompting Tesla to start making its own saddles. The result is that the Model X’s seating is terrific — and with white upholstery, quite cool. That doesn’t mean the optional third row is suitable for adult humans, however.
What about the looks? Well, jeez … the Model X resembles a “Star Trek” shuttle craft, with more curves. I don’t really want a shuttle craft in my driveway. But if I did, I’d prefer that it say “NCC-1701” on the side instead of sporting a Tesla badge up front.
5. The Cybertruck.
OK, I get what von Holzhausen is up to with this wild (in a good way) post-apocalypse mobile. His design vocabulary has been so severely disciplined that he needed to do something wild to break out of a rut.
So, bravo for that. Otherwise, while the Cybertruck has a certain visual shock value, I wouldn’t call it a beautiful piece of work. It looks like nothing else on the road — or off — and that’s the idea. As such, it functions more as marketing for Tesla’s next phase than as anything we might admire for its aesthetic virtues.
4. The Semi.
The roadworthy-spacecraft vibe that we first experienced with the Model X — and have now witnessed in a heavily mannered way with the Cybertruck — was massively scaled up for the Tesla Semi.
Of course, because trailers are almost completely standardized, Tesla’s all-electric tractor couldn’t completely reinvent the big rig. So while it appears sci-fi, the Semi is at least a formal cousin to a tractor made by Mack or Freightliner.
Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the Semi isn’t its exterior design but the layout of its interior, where the driver sits in the middle of the cabin and enjoys an expansive view thanks to wraparound glass windows, and has a pair of large touchscreens before them. It’s a futuristic layout that anticipates fully autonomous freight transportation.
3. The Model 3.
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Now we’re getting somewhere! The Model 3 is my favorite Tesla of the moment, crisply designed yet crammed with ideas about the future of mobility.
While the exterior is classic von Holzhausen — in many ways, the Model 3 is simply a scaled-down Model S — the interior is borderline radical, moving most vehicle functions to a central touchscreen and eliminating the traditional instrument cluster.
This makes for a unique driving experience: the open-road in front of you, the Model 3’s glass roof above you, no gauges to distract (the speedometer displays on the left side of the touchscreen). Combined with the Model 3’s electrified quiet — acceleration is a whiz and a whoosh, not a roar — the overall effect is calming and meditative.
The Model 3 is a compact four-door, so it’s never going to blow anybody away with its design. But the car is more than the sum of its parts, and on the several occasions when I’ve tested it, I always find it hard to get the Model 3 out of my mind.
2. The Model S.
Believe it or not, I think the Model S is severely underrated.
Tesla first clean-sheet design was radical precisely because it wasn’t. The car of the future looked a lot like the car of the past. It also drove like a luxury sedan — except that if you got the top-spec Model S, you could do 0 to 60 mph faster than some gas-burning supercars.
I make a habit of scrutinizing every Model S I find in the wild, and I’ve never spotted one that isn’t holding up well. The aluminum bodywork certainly helps, and I suspect Model S owners baby their rides.
But the truth is that Tesla captured something special with this car. It’s as important as the Ford Model T — and much better looking — and as groundbreaking as the Toyota Prius … and much better looking!
It’s Franz von Holzhausen’s masterpiece.
1. The new Roadster.
If the Model S is von Holzhausen’s triumph, then the new Roadster is his labor of love.
Revealed in 2017 after Tesla’s unveiled its Semi, the new Roadster is supposed to clock a 0-to-60-mph time of less than two seconds, making it (speculatively) the fastest street-legal car in the world. It should arrive this year or sometime next.
Most car designers want to design a sports car, and that’s what von Holzhausen did with the new Roadster. He retained the key aspects of his design lingo, but intensified everything. The result is a car that shrieks speed. The all-glass roof is quintessential Tesla, and the razor-sharp, delicately articulated fascia gives the Ferrari 458 a run for its money.
Again, von Holzhausen could have pumped it up, but he pointedly didn’t. So the new Roadster is, above all else, a tasteful rocket for the road.
Honorable mention: The original Roadster.
What can you say about a Lotus-based chassis with Tesla electrified innards that, in all of its candy-red glory, was loaded into a SpaceX rocket and blasted into space? Not much. I was basically rendered speechless.
The February 2018 launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, with the Roadster as its test payload, reminded the world of Tesla’s first vehicle. The original Roadster remains my all-time favorite Tesla, but that’s not because it’s a beauty. It isn’t. Miatas looks better.
No, I love the Roadster because it was my introduction to Tesla back in 2010, when I first slipped behind the wheel and headed for the canyons above Malibu to see what this electric-car thing was all about.
Things sure have come a long way since then.
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