You probably couldn’t come up with two more graphic illustrations of the fundamentally schizophrenic nature of today’s American automobile industry than the RAM 1500 TRX 4x4 and the Tesla Model Y. Even if you set out to do so, which I hadn’t.
In truth, I’d arranged to borrow a TRX, RAM’s high-riding, supercharged 702-horsepower menace to society from the truck maker’s New York press fleet. It seemed certain to represent the apogee of, er, well, something. So why not check it out? Pandemic-crazed Americans are falling over themselves to buy this, the most powerful production pickup truck ever. The name, its makers say, pays homage to another dinosaur whose name sparks outsized interest, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Meanwhile there is so much interest in this wheeled behemoth that many buyers are paying embarrassing premiums over list price for the privilege of owning it, the latest version of corporate parent Stellantis (née FCA née Chrysler’s) favorite parlor trick, stuffing a Hellcat engine anywhere it will fit.
A jacked up, 6.2-liter brute that’s been widened 8 inches from normal RAM spec, the TRX’ forte is going really fast on rough, but uncluttered terrain (which many will never see) while making lots of noise. Hitting 60 mph in a un-utility-vehicle-like 4.5 seconds it will impress (while deafening) a school bus full of second graders faster than it will handle the pickup’s traditional task — carrying things. Though its crew cab is spacious indeed, its 18" spare wheel with ginormous 35" inch tire fills a considerable portion of its short (57.2-inch) bed, making for a truly miserly amount of useable exterior cargo room. But clearly that’s not the point here.
Finally then the big day came. And what should I happen upon out on my maiden, spine-crushing rumble than a brand new, jet black Model Y, one town over in some neighborly friends’ driveway. Which set me to thinking of the car magazine comparos of yore – did the Pontiac GTO really have anything in common with Ferrari’s 250 GTO besides a purloined name? Surely there were even less likely comparisons out there than these two assuredly fast and heavy Americanos – the substantial 4,600-lb. Tesla vs. the planet-bruising, 6,400-lb. RAM. With all-wheel-drive and two rows of seats as delivered (a third row for small people and dedicated masochists is available in the Tesla,) both sported price tags poised to easily shatter the psychologically delicate $75,000 barrier, (more than $87,000 as tested in the RAM’s case,) fast and expensive haulers that make big, if diametrically opposed, statements about one’s world view. So compare away!
Simply coming across a Model Y I might be allowed to drive was the biggest surprise here. Tesla fired its entire press office a while back and was never very keen on arranging test drives for journalists anyway. Indeed, since my Tesla-authorized maiden voyage in a Tesla roadster around Pebble Beach’s 17 Mile Drive back in the aughts, the only Teslas I’d ever driven belonged to friends and itinerant show-offs. Even in the world’s most valuable car company’s eager good old days, phone calls to the Mother Ship were rarely returned.
But here was the new(ish) Model Y in the driveway of some old chums who I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic began. I had to ask. And, naturally, being generous sorts as well as recent Tesla converts, they said yes. Which brings me to the other surprising part — that it was owned by these particular folks, Olaf and Gina, some crafty but notably austere and non-proselytizing architects who I met on the mean streets of Nyack, NY, around 20 years earlier when Gina and I simultaneously pulled up at a four-way stop sign in our 1960s Land Rovers and had to get out to compare notes.
The thing is, these guys never buy new cars. In fact, last I saw they were rocking an incredibly roasted early 2000s Pathfinder with a bungee cord holding the hood down. It replaced a worn out Honda Element and alongside that had been a comprehensively rusted CRX, which supplemented the old Chevy II-powered Land Rover they’d moved here from California in shortly before I met them, which eventually got replaced by a Pinzgauer, the Swiss Army’s preferred air-cooled, mountain-climbing ear-splitter. So, we can agree, not new car buyers, much less typical ones. There was a case study in the making.
These veterans of very used cars actively chose to buy a near silent Model Y, the more compact SUV offered by Tesla, based on the architecture of the company’s popularly priced Model 3. It is, as you might expect, fast, hitting sixty (as a long-range model with a mere 346 horsepower) in a perfectly spry 4.8 seconds, though Olaf surprised me even more when he confessed that shortly after purchasing the $70,000+ machine, he’d sprung for a $2,000 (plus tax) over-the-air “Acceleration Boost” which lops another .6 seconds off the naught to sixty figure, making it even faster than the TRX. Said Olaf, a technology enthusiast if not someone who’s ever been interested in the latest and greatest in new car technology, “One amazing thing is that I just hit buy on my phone and paid with Apple Pay- a few minutes later it had already downloaded the software — using its own cell connection. The switch for acceleration quality used to be ‘Chill’ or ‘Standard;’ now it reads ‘Chill’ or ‘Sport.’” Keep it chill and the 326 miles of range won’t fall off, but chances are you might not do that.
Speaking of quickly, driving the Model Y I was able to quickly confirm that it is not only blindingly fast, but also rides better than the TRX by several orders of magnitude. Maybe I’m getting soft but the big truck, for all its comparative (for a truck) suspension wizardry, felt like it was pummeling surfaces into submission at the expense of brutalizing me and my passengers like we were tough cuts of old beef being tenderized for duty in a Times Square steak house. The Tesla not only rides better, it corners better, thanks in part to its dramatically lower center of gravity, and actually has, with a full complement of passengers, more room for cargo — 68 cubic feet of cargo space vs 53.9 for Ram not counting the pickup’s mondo spare. “Wait, there’s not even room for the MAGA signs?!” one easily imagines in its bed, a passing critic observed.
What the Model Y won’t do is look manly in the popular toxic masculinity sense, nor despite its AWD will it race through the forest or up a rocky mountainside pass anywhere near as quickly or capably as a TRX. It will not make a noise so thunderous that it inspires awe and horror in me at different times while creeping out all other audiences to the max all the time. Neither will the Tesla get the observed nine miles per gallon around town or 13 mpg on the highway that the TRX showed us. But as a character once observed in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”
Still, I was curious as to what led my friends, after lifetimes in and around the mightily used, to buy a brand new, hardly cheap electric car, one that Gina jokingly calls the “Tesla skin” disguising her “inner sheep.” So I asked in a follow up text, and Olaf came back to me that night. “’Futuristic’ is one of my favorite stupid but complex and beautiful words. Compelling and evocative are two more. But the Tesla isn’t futuristic, even if it falsely to many seems to be.” He cited Buckminster Fuller’s oddball Dymaxion car as another vehicle falsely accused of being futuristic but worthy of respect. Having driven the Lane Museum’s faithfully diabolical reproduction, I was less sure of that, but, then, to flesh out his interest in technology, Olaf followed with some discussion of his collection of Accutron watches, 1960s aerospace cockpit clocks, and a Hamilton Titan 5000 timepiece.
The following day, he came back with some more revealing facts. “I said no at first, but I realized overnight that image and pride were actually a factor for getting the Tesla after all. I had been really embarrassed about the Nissan (and the rusty CRX, and all my parents cars growing up…) Interesting twist is that Gina is embarrassed the other way around—feels that her friends are surprised she could get such an expensive car after cruising around the “Kit Shickers” for so long. They all drive older, cheaper cars and she feels a little like she fits in less.”
But for him, appealing also was “the image of being forward thinking, eco, and smart….Also the Pinzgauer sitting out there next to the rust bucket I feel made it look like we don’t care. Even if the neighbors said they didn’t care.” You can probably say a lot about the owner of a Pinzgauer, but not caring isn’t one of them, I replied.
Finally, Olaf revealed that a brain tumor — which he has had for 25 years and for which he takes anti-seizure medication that has never failed him — made the Tesla’s self-driving features seem especially prudent. Should anything ever arise, he said, “I don’t want to kill anyone.” Which of course is an entirely different vibe than the one the TRX projects.