Range and Charging While Towing a Trailer - 2016 Tesla Model X Long-Term Road Test

2016 Tesla Model X Long-Term Road Test

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2016 Tesla Model X: Range and Charging While Towing a Trailer

by Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing on June 9, 2016

2016 Tesla Model X

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My trip to Flagstaff is complete. I successfully towed a teardrop trailer over 1,000 miles behind our 2016 Tesla Model X crossover SUV.

I'm not sure I ever want to do it again.

I can't blame the excellent Off the Grid Rentals trailer, a well-balanced rig that tracked straight and true throughout. Its feathery 1,260-pound weight was less than half the 3,500-pound rated towing capacity of our Model X Signature. Heck, this trailer weighs only about one-fourth of the 5,000 pounds a Model X equipped with 20-inch tires can tow.

And the Model X itself served up an abundance of power, stability and grade-climbing ability. The driving experience was effortless.

Effortless, that is, until it came time to charge the blasted thing. That's where this towing exercise turned into a real drag.

The problems are numerous: towing speed, range, recharge time and the physical incompatibility of Superchargers when you roll up with a trailer. The first three issues are interrelated. That last one stands alone.

Unless you're merely towing across town, these issues conspire to make the Model X a very poor tow vehicle.

Let's walk through the trip, one Supercharger at a time.

2016 Tesla Model X

Fountain Valley, California

Arrival range: 163 miles
Charge time: 1 hour, 6 minutes
Departure range: 251 miles

This place was busy. There were eight spots, and all of them were full. Usually there were one or two cars waiting, with the deck shuffling every five or ten minutes as a random car unplugged and a new one took its place.

I didn't have my trailer at this point. I came here to top up before driving the 15 miles to Rebel Off-Road, my local Off the Grid Rentals host. My plan was to hook up and head out of town as soon as the paperwork was done.

I backed into one of the spots and plugged in before wandering to the back of the car to check the trailer hitch. And then it dawned on me: I won't be able to back in to a spot like this with the trailer in tow.

The fill took longer than usual. What's usual? A couple of years ago, Kurt and I drove our Model S to New York and back, using the Supercharger network. Our average Supercharger dwell time was 38 minutes. Batteries charge quickest when they are empty, but the process gradually slows throughout and fades to a trickle as they approach full. Kurt and I managed consistently short stops by arriving empty and never bothering to fill up more than necessary to get to the next one — usually 60 percent.

For this trip in the Model X, I started out charging to 100 percent until I came to grips with towing consumption and range. Starting here at 60 percent full, it took fully 66 minutes to top it off.

2016 Tesla Model X

Indio, California

Miles since last charge: 138 miles
Average energy: 488 Wh/mile
Arrival range: 35 miles
Charge time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Departure range: 254 miles

California's towing speed limit is 55 mph, so that was my target speed on the highway. I'm accustomed to this pace after years of towing in this state, and it suited my cautious initial approach to this trip.

Still, the X used a lot of electricity in getting here. The next leg would be shorter, but has two long grades to climb. I figured I needed to fill up all the way once again.

This Supercharger has eight slots. Six of them are back-in spots that I couldn't use without disconnecting the trailer. Two are nose-in spots, one of which was empty.

Luckily, the open one can be accessed by driving straight in from the adjoining aisle, but the trailer was going to stick out and partially block the lane. I probably should have uncoupled, but this was a mid-afternoon weekday in a deserted corner of the lot that's far away from the storefronts.

And it was more than a hundred degrees out. I needed lunch and iced tea. I didn't want to worry about a disconnected trailer getting stolen while I ate in air-conditioned comfort around the corner. Besides, there was room to drive around. They'd see what was going on. Maybe they'd even understand. So I let it hang out and headed for the Mexican place for a plate of Chili Verde.

2016 Tesla Model X

Quartzsite, Arizona

Miles since last charge: 118 miles
Average energy: 636 Wh/mile
Arrival range: 13 miles
Charge time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Departure range: 254 miles

Quartzsite isn't very far inside Arizona, so most of this leg was driven according to California's 55 mph towing speed limit. I can tow faster in Arizona, but I don't think I could have risked it — I arrived here with just 13 miles of range remaining. This was accompanied by the highest "Average Energy" consumption readout I'd ever seen for a sustained freeway cruise: 636 Wh/mile.

At one point I wasn't sure I'd make it past Blythe, California with enough juice to climb the final hill on the Arizona side of the border. To maintain a sufficient margin, I'd spent the last hour with the A/C off and reduced my pace slightly to 53 mph.

The Quartzsite Supercharger has eight stalls, and all of them are back-in spots. But it was a Wednesday night in what qualifies as the middle of nowhere now that the snowbirds have taken their motorhomes back to the northern US and Canada. No one was here. The Phoenix chapter of the Tesla club was unlikely to swoop in on me.

So I once again left the trailer hooked up and cut across four spots, the minimum I can Bogart in order to maneuver the charge port close to a Supercharger. Four others were still freely available as I walked into Carl's Jr. to hunker down with an iced tea and nab their free Wi-Fi. Anyone with a complaint knew where to find me.

It took 1 hour, 51 minutes to bring the battery from 13 to 254 miles. I finally unplugged and headed out at 9:40 pm, some 8 hours and 45 minutes after picking up the trailer just 241 miles ago. That's a blinding average speed of 27.5 mph, folks. 

2016 Tesla Model X

Wickenburg, Arizona

Miles since last charge: 105 miles
Average energy: 678 Wh/mile
Arrival Range: 21 miles
Charge time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Departure range: 248 miles

The consumption meter looked even scarier on my way here, even when running at 53 mph on the deserted emptiness of highway 60 with the windows cracked and the A/C off. It was after 11:00 pm when I got close to town, so I stopped to camp for the night instead of immediately heading for the Supercharger. I used to live in the area, so I had no trouble finding a stunning undeveloped campsite in an isolated spot down a stony dirt path near Vulture Peak.

The sun woke me up before it cracked the horizon. Vulture Peak is a better sunset backdrop, but I still took advantage of the remaining pre-dawn light for a few photographs before heading into town to find the Supercharger and some breakfast.

There was one stoplight when I last lived here 20 years ago. Now there are three stoplights, two roundabouts and a six-stall Tesla Supercharger station in a narrow lot in front of City Hall. All of them are back-in spots. Adjacent non-Tesla parking slots gave me room to pull forward and hog just three of the Supercharger spaces this time. None were likely to see visitors this early on a Thursday morning.

I came back from the Horseshoe Cafe after burning up 1 hour, 50 minutes to find that our Model X was still not quite full. But the charge current had dropped below 10 amps at this point, a figure I decided to use as a "full enough" indication from here on out. Those last four miles aren't worth the 15 or 20 minutes required to get them. 

2016 Tesla Model X

Cordes Junction, Arizona

Miles since last charge: 75 miles
Average energy: 635 Wh/mile
Arrival range: 97 miles
Charge time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Departure range: 248 miles

Ever heard of Arosanti, that weird arts enclave? It is this exit's claim to fame. There's also fast food, a gas station and a six-spot Tesla Supercharger. All of them are back-in spots, with the last one tight against a curb. The best I could do without unhooking is hog four of them.

A Tesla Model S wandered up and took the last spot, leaving one more between his car and the butt-end of my trailer. We talked for a bit and he didn't seem bothered in the least by my questionable parking behavior. Quite the contrary, in fact; he was excited to see me towing, loved the Off the Grid Rentals trailer and wanted to see the Model X up close.

Then a guy in a BMW i3 with Colorado plates rolled up and squeezed into the last spot. He was driving the range extender version — the only one that could get this far — but was unhappy with his choice. He was here because he saw a YouTube video from "a guy" that claimed he figured out how to hack a Supercharger for use by i3s and other EVs. I was dubious. So was he. We'd both hate to see him fry his car. Thankfully, he was just looking.

The Model S that came after me left before our Model X was done charging. But at 1 hour and 29 minutes this wasn't a terribly long charge because, well, Wickenburg was only 75 miles behind me. For its part, Flagstaff was no more than 78 miles ahead of me, but I wasn't taking any chances because it's an uphill run from here to an elevation of 7,000 feet.

2016 Tesla Model X

Flagstaff, Arizona

Miles since last charge: 78 miles
Average energy: 666 Wh/mile
Arrival range: 83 miles
Charge time: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Departure range: 244 miles

I had arrived at my destination, the halfway point of my trip, near the end of lunch hour on Thursday. So far, I had towed this trailer 501 miles in the space of 20 hours, 30 minutes of driving and charging time.

The rig would sit idle while I went off and attended to my work obligation. Since I wasn't needed until that evening, I had the option of filling the batteries sooner rather than later. I cruised over to the Flagstaff Supercharger to scope it out.

Once there, I realized it was critical that I recharge right now. This Supercharger is located in a Courtyard Marriott parking lot, and there are only four back-in stalls. The red Model S from Cordes Junction was in one of them, but even if it wasn't I'd be unable to arc across because of landscaping on one flank and the charging transformers on the other.

I needed to disconnect the trailer to recharge. Worse, this lot was likely to be parked up if I waited to recharge upon my departure on Saturday morning. And I'd not have a guaranteed spot for me to stash the teardrop while the Model X charged. And the charge stalls are sequestered in a dead-end row that doesn't begin to have enough room to turn this rig around.

Overstating my plight only slightly, it was now or never.

This was ridiculous. Flagstaff is the gateway to the Grand Canyon, Sedona and other nearby attractions. It's a busy place all summer. You'd want to tow your trailer here and camp nearby if you were a camping sort of person. But this Supercharger is a hopeless mess for any towing scenario.

I'd used a lot of juice coming up the grade, but not as much as I'd feared. The cool temperatures helped the charging time along. I was only here for 1 hour, 16 minutes... but that does not include the time to uncouple and recouple the trailer.

2016 Tesla Model X

Cordes Junction

Miles since last charge: 89 miles
Average energy: 563 Wh/mile
Arrival range: 84 miles
Charge time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Departure range: 251 miles

I was going home the way I came. The Supercharger stations are spread farther apart along the I-40 route, and I didn't think I could bridge the gap to Kingman, let alone a subsequent gap between Needles and Barstow. It might have been possible in perfect conditions, but the weather forecast was calling for strong headwinds all day.

Besides, I had plans. If I went back home via Cordes Junction I'd have had enough spare range to explore a dirt road that cuts between Kachina Village and Highway 89A. I could rejoin the pavement at the top of the twisty section and descend into Oak Creek Canyon and enjoy the drive through Sedona.

The wind was indeed strong, and it nearly negated the benefits of driving downhill. Though it wasn't as high as I'd seen, the Tesla's Average Energy reading was an unhelpful 563 Wh/mile. The Cordes Junction Supercharger lot was empty when I arrived, so I once again arced across four spots. Two Model S sedans showed up to fill up while  was there, but no more. I didn't have to move for either of them, and the uniqueness of my towing exploits kept them pacified. That and copious demonstrations of the Model X's doors.

2016 Tesla Model X

Wickenburg, Arizona

Miles since last charge: 76 miles
Average energy: 643 Wh/mile
Arrival range: 96 miles
Charge time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Departure range: 254 miles

Half of the leg to get here was downhill, but the last half took place on flat ground more or less directly into the wind. The distance wasn't great enough for range anxiety to kick in, but it got me to thinking hard about the next leg to Quartzsite, a span that had been too close for comfort without wind a couple of days ago.

Some old friends still live here in Wickenburg, and I was determined to see them this time after arriving too late and blowing through town last time. We met for dinner at Anita's Cocina, a Mexican food place I love that is — like nearly everything else in this town — within walking distance of the Supercharger. I'd manage to position my rig so I was only taking up two Tesla spots this time.

We all took advantage of the fact that I needed a full charge and lingered over the unpaid check. That the wind would die down as the sun set didn't hurt, either. We eventually parted ways and I unplugged after 1 hour and 42 minutes, some 15 minutes longer than the battery probably needed.

2016 Tesla Model X

Quartzsite, Arizona

Miles since last charge: 93 miles
Average energy: 657 Wh/mile
Arrival range: 61 miles
Charge time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Departure range: 252 miles

Waiting was a good move. The headwind had calmed down from its peak, but it still played a big factor and took a significant bite out of my range.

How big a bite? This was the leg I started playing with a new predictive battery use screen our Model S didn't have. It plots a navigation route's predicted energy use on a graph and overlays real-time actual use updates as you drive. It knows the terrain, and Tow Mode tells it there's a trailer attached. But it cannot predict the rather alarming level of extra consumption caused by the wind or heat. It figured I'd arrive in Quartzsite with more than 50 percent of my battery left over. As I rolled into the lot, it was down to 24 percent.

It was a few minutes before 10:00 pm as I cut across my four preferred spots and plugged in. No one was there except a couple of Nissan durability engineers on a coffee break. They wee standing next to a pair of Titan pickup prototypes that had their badges taped over, one of which was pulling a heavy box trailer. I recognized it as the 2017 gasoline V8 half-ton version that isn't yet for sale.

This wasn't a particularly long leg, but the magnitude of the wind effects I observed on the way here had me more than a little nervous about the next leg, which I would tackle the next day after stopping and crawling into the trailer somewhere to sleep. It would be the longest leg of the trip, the headwind was supposed to be back in full force and there was a long summit to climb. I probably didn't need a full charge in Wickenburg, but I certainly needed one here.

2016 Tesla Model X

Indio, California

Miles since last charge: 118 miles
Average energy: 612 Wh/mile
Arrival range: 21 miles
Charge time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Departure range: 252 miles

I made it, but it was a nail-biter. The wind was up, the terrain was up and down, and I trundled along at 53 mph with the A/C off much of the time.

The graph showing actual energy use kept deviating more and more, which pretty much matched the trend of my anxiety level. In the end I arrived with 8 percent battery left and a low battery warning.

The headwind was fierce here, about 30 mph. This isn't unusual in this part of the desert, though. I pulled into the same nose-in spot I used before, grabbed a coffee and sheltered in the car with a book while I waited for the battery to take on more juice.

2016 Tesla Model X

Cabazon, California

Miles since last charge: 40 miles
Average energy: 923 Wh/mile
Arrival range: 134 miles
Charge time: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Departure range: 253 miles

You're right: I didn't stop here on the way out. But there's a significant grade to climb out of Palm Springs and Indio, and the windmills that line the grade were spinning madly.

How bad was it? The Tesla's real-time range prediction dropped well below the minimum necessary to get home, never mind tomorrow morning's trips to return the trailer and recharge at the Fountain Valley Supercharger. I knew the grade would soon let up, but would the wind? I wouldn't know until I was well past the Cabazon exit. I had to stop.

The numbers were staggering. Over the last 39.8 miles my average energy was an alarming 923 Wh/mile. I'd used about half my battery since leaving Indio, but I was only a third of the way home.

2016 Tesla Model X

The Cabazon Supercharger is a 10-stall affair in the corner of an outlet mall parking lot. All of them are nose-in spots —  which is great — but only two of them were accessible to me and my trailer because of a curb that made it impossible to maneuver into eight of the spots without completely blocking a main parking lot artery and trapping at least one charging Tesla.

Nine of the spots were occupied, but I was in luck. The lone open spot was one of the two I could access. The trailer stuck out, but there was plenty of maneuvering room because of an adjoining aisle. But I got dirty looks because most of the cross-traffic consisted of unsympathetic non-Tesla owners headed for the McDonald's and the outlet mall.

2016 Tesla Model X

Fountain Valley, California

Miles since last charge: 104 miles (15 non-towing)
Average energy: 484 Wh/mile
Arrival range: 90 miles

It was over. The last leg was fairly calm because the Cabazon fill had given me enough extra range to cover all contingencies. The winds slacked off, the terrain sloped down and the usual Sunday afternoon inbound traffic bottlenecks kept my speed down.

I dropped the trailer off 15 miles ago, and I was back here because I want to record the stats using the same start and end points. Strictly speaking, I had enough juice to get me back to the office without stopping here. I didn't have pull into a spot and plug in.

But I did anyway, if only to remind myself how painless the Supercharger experience can be when not towing anything.

I could use any spot. Head-in, nose-in; it made no difference. There was no trailer to get in anyone's way or to disconnect.

I didn't have to fill it up. I was no longer concerned with cross-country travel, the distance to the next Supercharger, the drag of the trailer and the possible deleterious effects of grades or headwinds. I could sit here as long as I like.

2016 Tesla Model X

Total trip stats:

Towing distance: 1,003 miles (1,033 total)
Number of Supercharger stops: 11
Average stop time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Average Energy consumption: 612 Wh/mile
Travel time: 40.25 hours (23.02 hours driving, 17.23 hours charging)
Average travel speed: 24.9 mph

Just look at that travel time. That boils down to two 10-hour travel days to cover the 500 miles to Flagstaff and another two to get home. That's a ton of road time for such a short trip.

More familiarity might allow me unplug a bit sooner and save time. But I can't assume there will never be headwinds, and I'd really like to be able to use my air conditioning or drive closer to Arizona's higher towing speed limit. I don't think I could permit myself much less margin.

The Model X might do better with a low-slung street-oriented teardrop, but the Off the Grid Rentals trailer is far from worst case. It's not the culprit here. Could you imagine trying this trip with a 5,000-pound or even a 3,500-pound square-fronted camping trailer with stand-up room? I can't.

None of this fixes the Supercharger network, which is woefully incompatible with the act of towing. I was fortunate that the stations I visited were uncrowded when I arrived with my trailer in tow. I'd have had to unhook if I had arrived to see even one car charging at Quartzsite or Wickenburg or Cordes Junction. It was solely dumb luck that the nose-in spots at the Indio and Cabazon Superchargers were unoccupied when I arrived.

Besides, hogging spaces and sticking out into driveways is simply not a sustainable mode of operation. Next time (if there is one) I need to plan on disconnecting the trailer at every single stop and locking it to something while I go off somewhere to eat, wash up and wait. And it's not just the seven locations I visited on this trip. None of the three or four dozen other Superchargers I've used in the past have been set up any better.

Bottom line: the Tesla Model X is not something I'd recommend if you plan on towing. Any other vehicle with a 5,000-pound tow rating would be a less painless and ponderous alternative that wouldn't chew up nearly as much travel time.

As for the Off the Grid Rentals teardrop, I could definitely go for towing one of these again. But next time I'd rather pull it behind something like our 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road and take it much farther off the grid — and by that I mean far off the Tesla Supercharger grid.

Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 3,329 miles

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