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 Autospies.com 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.”

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