2016 Tesla Model X: Towing a Teardrop Trailer to Flagstaff
by Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing on June 6, 2016
This is uncharted territory for me. For you, too, I expect. I've got loads of trailer towing miles under my belt, but our 2016 Tesla Model X is the first electric vehicle I've ever towed with. There's good reason for that. Before Tesla came along there was never an EV with enough battery capacity to make it feasible, and no nationwide fast-charging network to make it possible to get anywhere.
The Model X is the first EV that's been blessed with a tow rating and factory-installed towing equipment. You've probably already seen my discussion of its unique hitch, but in case you haven't it's best to hop over here and come back. We'll wait.
Weird, right? You probably noticed that the Tesla Model X is rated to tow 5,000 pounds. And that ours can tow just 3,500 pounds because it has the optional 22-inch wheels and tires. But I'm leery of even this modest figure because of the realities of towing out west: mountain grades, heat, desert winds. Amid such nagging doubts I wanted to start small.
These issues were not purely theoretical because I had a specific destination in mind: Flagstaff, Arizona. All of the above factors (and more) would come into play as I headed there on a 1,000-mile round trip to attend a Ram Trucks event at the Overland Expo.
One specific family of trailers seemed to fit the bill. I started looking for a teardrop, and I found a truly outstanding example for hire at Off the Grid Rentals.
Teardrops are small single-axle trailers with a smooth teardrop shape. They're big enough to sleep in and carry basic gear, but they don't weigh much more than 1,000 pounds. Many have a trunk that contains a kitchen. They generally come in two basic flavors: standard towing height for on-road towing to developed campsites, and lifted off-road ones that can venture off-road to support backcountry camping.
It's pretty easy to guess which category the Off the Grid Rentals trailer belongs in.
At 1,260 pounds, the OTGR trailer has the light weight I'm looking for on this exploratory towing trip. Sure, it stands taller than a pure on-road teardrop, but I figure the Tesla should have to deal with at least some semblance of aerodynamic drag.
I also like the option of venturing onto dirt roads and camping off the grid — or at least well off the pavement. The idea is to make the Model X the limiting factor, not the teardrop. I got my wish with this Off the Grid Rentals trailer.
There's an awning off one side, and its trunk is a stand-up kitchen with a two-burner propane cooktop, a pull-out ARB 12-volt fridge, a couple of nooks for pots and pans, and some counter space. There's also a removable sink that is fed by a 25-gallon water tank.
Two people can sleep comfortably inside, with the option to sleep two more if you rent the rooftop pop-up tent. I'm on my own on this trip, so that extra expense isn't necessary.
The Model X has a tow mode. You select it on the touchscreen, but if you forget it'll engage automatically when you plug in a trailer harness. The icon glows blue if all of the trailer lights are burning and will turn red if a bulb goes out or the wiring harness comes loose.
Tow mode triggers a few operational changes, too. The automatic-lowering and location-based height adjustment features are disabled (but manual changes are still permitted). Autopilot steering controls no longer function (but the adaptive cruise still operates). And the rear parking sensors are shut down so you won't hear constant alarms caused by the trailer itself.
How does the Model X tow? It's like the trailer isn't even there. Well, almost.
The air-suspension system automatically compensates for the trailer tongue load (admittedly not large here), which means the car's attitude remains flat and the steering stays nicely weighted. Crosswinds and passing big-rigs are a non-events as the X steadfastly maintains a secure straight-ahead feel at all times. The tail does not wag this dog.
When climbing long grades there's no apparent strain as the rig utterly fails to lose the barest whiff of speed. It's a single-speed drivetrain, so there's never any downshifting or increase in powertrain noise. Towing up a hill on cruise control delivers the sensation that the passing landscape merely tips up at an angle as I bear down on struggling semis that must gear down with their four-ways blinking as they bleed off 10, 20, 30 mph of speed. There's a surprisingly deep well of reserve acceleration if I need match the speed of fast-lane traffic when I pull out to pass them, but mostly I just float past on cruise control.
The Tesla's speed doesn't overrun on the downslopes, and when it's time to stop there's more than enough lift-throttle regen action to slow the rig without dabbing the brake pedal, just as normal. It doesn't take long to gauge the proper timing and amount of throttle-lift needed to guide the rig to a stop right where I want. And, yes, the brake lights do come on during such high regen deceleration events — the reflected Model X taillights are plain to see on the aluminum front of the OTGR teardrop.
But I'm not interested in spending all my time on blacktop. Up near Flagstaff is a place called Kachina Village, where I detour onto a likely-looking forest service road that cuts between the Interstate and Highway 89A north of Sedona. It's a rocky and stony track, with prominent signs warning that the road is not maintained for low-clearance vehicles. I think about that statement for a bit, crank the air suspension to the Very High setting and press on.
I come upon an old guy in a Jeep Wrangler and ask him what he thinks of my chances. I get the sense he thinks I'm a nut as he studies the mismatch between the sleek Model X and its full-blown adventure trailer. He hems and haws, and in a non-committal sort of way he finally says he thinks I'll probably make it. The "probably" makes me leery, but at least it's not a "hell no." I keep going, figuring I can always turn this rig around.
It rained a couple of days previously, which created fossilized tire tracks, crater-like potholes and hard lumps to go along with the pre-existing exposed rocks that look like half-buried tortoises. I pick my way through them for a couple-hundred yards before it goes smooth for a while. The next few miles contain more such lumpy patches, some smooth and dusty spots, a couple of stony dry riverbeds to cross, too-tall rocks to steer around and a fallen three-foot boulder to creep past.
Though they'd surely have to steer to find the smoothest path, this would ultimately be nothing for a pickup or even a CRV. But I've got silly low-profile 22-inch tires to worry about, not to mention a broad expanse of underhanging battery pack. The Model X is no off-roader, but this proves that with a little care and a moderate dose of mechanical sympathy it can certainly make its way to Forest Service open camping areas and unimproved sites — while towing a little something — so long as they aren't too far from pavement and the all-important Supercharger grid.
This is just a pass-through shortcut, but the previous night I ended up stopping for the night and sleeping in the OTGR trailer. Near Wickenburg I wandered onto a remote clearing on BLM open land near Vulture Peak and discovered the beauty of the teardrop concept: zero set-up time. With my bedroll and pillow pre-arranged when I left home, all I had to do was hop in and pull my shoes off. I was asleep in minutes.
I camped a second night near Quartzsite, Arizona, in a vast open stony plain on another patch of BLM land. It was much windier and chillier this time. But I hardly noticed because I was in a hard-sided cocoon that doesn't flap in the wind, with insulation in the walls and roof that kept the cold nighttime desert temperatures at bay.
The Tesla's seven-pin wiring connector kept the trailer's deep-cycle battery topped up while driving, so inside I had reading lights, a stereo and some USB jacks at my disposal. There were shelves and cupholders, and I could sit up straight and read. When I finally turned in I could fully stretch out because the entire floor is an RV-queen sized mattress.
I totally dig what Off the Grid Rentals is doing. This is a great way to dabble in adventure camping without shelling out a load of money to buy one of these rigs outright. I've most definitely got to rent this teardrop again and tow it even farther into the backcountry with something like our 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road.
By now you must be thinking, "The 2016 Tesla Model X sounds like quite a capable tow rig. If it can handle this, why not up the ante and tow something heavier?"
That was my original plan, too. But now having done this trip, I'm not so sure.
There's no doubt the Tesla Model X tows down the road nicely. There's plenty of power. It's very stable. The steering and braking are spot-on. The air suspension deals well with tongue weight. It certainly seems like it could handle more weight than this.
But the overall picture is not nearly as rosy, and you can probably guess what the complicating factors are by the things I haven't yet discussed: towing range and charging at Superchargers. Stay tuned for a deep dive into that part of the story in the next installment of my Tesla Model X towing saga.
Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 2,810 miles