Model S Awards Redefine Tesla’s Role in Auto Industry

By · November 13, 2012

From its founding in 2003, Tesla Motors cast itself as the iconoclast of the auto industry—a Silicon Valley outsider that doesn’t play by Detroit’s rules and doesn’t need its support. But with Monday’s announcement that the Tesla Model S received one of the most coveted automotive prizes, 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year, the company is being embraced by the mainstream auto industry. The Tesla Model S already garnered other major annual prizes, and is likely to sweep awards this year. The key question now is how these awards will affect Tesla’s prospects, its role in the industry, and the broader adoption of electric vehicles.

Not only did the Model S win Motor Trend’s prize, it did so by unanimous decision—beating out a field of 10 worthy competitors, including luxury sedans such as the Lexus GS and BMW 3 Series and sports cars like Porsche 911 and Subaru BRZ, as well as the new Ford Fusion and Honda Accord. All 11 judges voted for the Model S. This victory marks the first time that an all-electric vehicle was named Motor Trend's Car of the Year. It’s also the only vehicle, in the award’s 64-year history, to win the accolade by unanimous decision.

Motor Trend editor-at-large, Angus MacKenzie, described the Model S as "one of the quickest four-door sedans ever built," noting that it "drives like a sports car," feels as "smoothly effortless as a Rolls Royce," and is more fuel-efficient than the Toyota Prius. "By any measure, the Tesla Model S is a truly remarkable automobile," he said.

Motor Trend said that its award to the “fledgling” American automaker shows that “America can still make things. Great things."

Invitation to Musk to Be Musk

Awards are, after all, symbolic—and don’t necessarily reshape real-world market dynamics. But there’s little doubt the Model S is a true achievement, and will provide unprecedented opportunities to promote electric-drive vehicles as a viable (and to almost everybody that drives an EV, a superior) alternative to internal combustion engine vehicles. On Monday, Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive predicted, “Other car companies will in fact copy us and pursue their own electric car programs with greater vigor as a result of this award."

Reuters also reported that Musk “couldn’t resist a little gloating on Monday.” The award gave him an opportunity to respond to failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s characterization of Tesla (lumped with defunct solar company Solyndra) as a “loser” and a bad bet for loans from the Obama administration. Referring to Romney's remark that Tesla was a loser, Musk cleverly remarked, "In retrospect he was right about the object of that statement, but not the subject."

Musk believes the award could help build government and public support for electric cars. He told reporters, "I wouldn't expect it to get any worse for electric vehicles, hopefully it will get a little better."

New Role for Tesla As a Leader

The headline for my review of the Tesla Model S in The New York Times was, “One Big Step for Tesla, One Giant Leap for EVs.” The Motor Trend award indicates that a giant leap is indeed possible. All the other awards likely to follow will give Tesla and Elon Musk an unprecedented opportunity to not only gloat about the benefits of electric vehicles, but to take a leadership role in the auto industry. The warm reception of the Model S is a tremendous opportunity for the entire EV market. If Tesla hones its communications strategy, electric cars could reach new levels of recognition and legitimacy.

Of course, we can expect EV-naysayers to out in force ready to find fault with the Model S as too expensive, Tesla’s corporate future as uncertain, and the awards it racks up as irrelevant.

In its coverage, Fox News said the Motor Trend award historically “has been a mixed bag as a predictor of market success since it was instituted in 1949.” Fox said it has been given to hits, like the 1986 Ford Taurus and 2004 Toyota Prius—and in its view, to misses like the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, as well as the 1983 Renault Alliance.

A brief post on the website piled on. “It was only in 2011 that Motor Trend gave the honors to the then all-new Chevrolet Volt,” the site states in its top story today. “It was heralded for being an electric dream; however, its sales never picked up and buyers did not flock to the Volt.” (The six criteria for the Motor Trend award does not include market acceptance, but rather factors such as engineering excellence, advancement in design, and efficiency.)

In response to the Motor Trend announcement, the Autospies writer said, “I can't help but wonder if this is a repeat of the same mistake, or if the all-new Model S is that good.”


· Doug Whitehead (not verified) · 5 years ago

This is an "oh sh*t" moment for the auto industry. To be compared to a Rolls Royce for a smooth and effortless ride, and to super cars for center of gravity and acceleration. If the major manufacturers want to down-play Tesla's impact on the industry as they have in the past (just smug silicon valley boutique); then they have to acknowledge that they are missing the boat.

Either Tesla has secret sauce, or it is showing the world that EVs make better cars. Either way its going to accelerate EV attention by the industry.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 5 years ago

Here is what I don't get. Are Volt sales really that bad? Agreed that the Volt isn't selling as well as initially projected. However, it has taken GM a while to figure out how to market that thing. Being a completely new kind of vehicle, it has also taken a while for customers to understand the product itself. And the plugin infrastructure improves on a daily basis. And EV technology (especially at the battery level), is at the fledgling stage of development, while ICE technology is at a 100 year tail end of development (essentially, most new ICE breakthroughs are workarounds to inherent ICE flaws).

Despite there being at least a decade more of constant and significant improvement almost guaranteed for EVs, and almost no improvement is likely for ICEs over the next decade, the Volt's sales are constantly climbing. It is selling more than the Prius ever did at this stage of its life (and the Prius is now one of the biggest modern car successes), and its drivers have the highest satisfaction rating of any car. By a wide margin. So, once again, how does this mean the Volt was a failure?

And finally, the Model S is not the Volt. The Model S is a significantly higher class of car, which is being compared favorably to cars much more expensive than it (Porsche Panamanera, BMW M5, etc). And how do those guys completely ignore the fact that never before has Motor Trends awarded a COTY unanimously, and that the Model S has enough reservations (and they are growing) for production well into mid next year.

For fun I looked back at comments on AutoBlog about an article related to the Model S from 2010.

Most of the comments are about how Tesla is a vaporware company, and how not a single Model S will ever be produced.

I expect, and hope, for the naysayers mentioned at the end of this article to have the same egg on their face by the end of 2014.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 5 years ago

I just wanted to let you know, to mark the occasion, that Volkswagen's CEO Martin Winterkorn is still telling the German media that pure electric cars have no chance in the medium term. Why? Because they cannot go further than 100 miles on a single charge. And this is a situation which wouldn't change in the years to come, because - as he knows as a physician - it's just impossible to construct BEVs with a bigger range in the near future. It's not a joke, it's what he is acually saying. Ignorance, as a result of fear?

· · 5 years ago

I read a Scientific American blog post that said gasoline has 34 Kilojoules per KG whereas Li-on batteries can hold about 3/4ths of a Kj per KG. So that is going to be a problem for electric cars. I like the Models S but it weighs a lot, but so do its competition like the M5 or Panamera. No problem as long as you don't drive in snow a lot.

· · 5 years ago

Congratulations for Tesla for winning prestigious awards. I'm going to view this beauty Thurday night in the new Toronto Tesla Store. Provided my Roadster battery holds up. There's a lot of variables. Wind blowing the wrong way, mandatory defroster usage ( I can never tell for sure how much the window will fog up). And provided Toronto Mitsubishi's Eaton Charger Dock works with a Tesla and is available when I am. Lots of ifs.

The only thing that made we really CRINGE at Motor Trend was when they gave the Renault Alliance the award in retrospect. I was going to purchase this, but then had a few friends who did, and the cars were big pieces of junk, basically just falling apart, almost as bad as YUGOs.

· Frank the Volt Owner (not verified) · 5 years ago

Who listens to FOX news about anything car related? I LOVE my Volt and so do 100 percent of the other Volt owners I have spoken to. My wife and I actually fight over who gets to drive it. (BTW: she is SMART enough to plug it in at night) I fully agree with MT's decision on the Volt and the Model S. Yea, the Volt is expensive, but so were computers, cell phones, pagers, microwaves, etc. when they first came out. FOX is financed by oil companies who are scared to death of this technology. Long live the plug-in-car!!! NPNS!

· · 5 years ago

@Frank the Volt Owner

You of course know that our Volts (my other ev) has been favorably compared to a Rolls Royce as long as the engine is off.

GM Missed the Boat when it didn't also come up with an Cadillac ETS product (supposedly coming in 2 years or whatever, or Converj , or whatever the heck alphabet soup thing they'll change their minds and call it when it is finally released) , just put in nicer power seats, and put on an expensive set of superquiet tires, and those things would sell hand over fist. This is one time where Bob Lutz blew it. Overall I thank Lutz for having the family jewels to come out with the Volt in the first place.

· EVlvr (not verified) · 5 years ago

Yeah, I've a Volt and love it too. In the long run it will prove these pricks wrong. History will look back on the Volt and give it the credit it is due for being the first plug-in, electric powered car to successfully capture mass market interest.

· Montreal EV fan (not verified) · 5 years ago

To answer those who believe that electric vehicles will never succeed because the energy per unit mass (specific energy) of gasoline is so much higher than batteries:

Yes, the specific energy of gasoline is about 50 times that of Li-ion cells, but that's not the end of the story. First of all, electric motors are more efficient, so in terms of the actual energy available to drive the car the ratio is more like 15 times, rather than 50. Secondly, it is not specific energy that counts, but stored energy. Since an electric motor and associated transmission is much lighter than the equivalent gas motor and transmission, this weight difference can go into energy storage. When these two factors are taken into account the weight increase for an electric car with Li-oin batteries is only slightly more (300-500 kg approx) than a gasoline car of equivalent range. With careful attention to materials, some of this extra weight can be designed out of the car's weight. This is what makes a 400 km range electric vehicle such as the model S possible.

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