Tesla S Electric Is Motor Trend's Car of the Year

(Image credit: Tesla)

Motor Trend magazine named Tesla Model S its 2013 Car of the Year, the first time a non-gasoline powered vehicle received the honor, but Americans are still warming to the idea of driving an electric car.

The Model S beat finalists including luxury and family cars, such as the Ford C-Max Hybrid, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, BMW 3 Series, Lexus GS, Porsche 911, Porsche Boxster, and Subaru BRZ, according to the magazine.

Edward Loh, editor-in-chief of Motor Trend, said the car was "truly a game changer" and the fastest American sedan tested.

Tesla Motors, based in Palo Alto, Calif. and founded in 2003, made headlines when it created the first all-electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster. Tesla calls the Model S the "world's first premium electric sedan," and is priced at $49,900 to $97,900, based on battery options and upgrades.

Tesla Motors became "incredibly controversial" during the election season. During one of the presidential debates, Mitt Romney famously called Tesla and Solyndra "losers" that had received support from the federal government.

"People like to politicize these kinds of projects that receive federal funding," Loh said. "These kind of things don't get done unless these companies can be incentivized to reach boundaries, which is what Tesla has done."

Motor Trend tested the high-end versions of the Model S and found its acceleration, handling and space impressive.

"It's a gorgeous car and a packaging miracle," seating up to seven passengers, Loh said, adding that it was an electric car that "doesn't look dorky. "

Despite the increasing options of electric and hybrid cars, President Obama's hope of having one million electric cars on the road by 2015 seems to be a daunting goal. Through September, electric vehicle sales since 2011 yielded fewer than 50,000 cars, or 5 percent of the goal, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In his re-election acceptance speech, the president reiterated that he planned to work with Congress in "freeing ourselves from foreign oil."

In October, Nissan sold just 1,579 all-electric Leaf vehicles, compared with 984 Leafs in September. Meanwhile, sales of the hybrid Chevrolet Volt jumped nearly two-fold to 2,961, the highest in one month but still a very small number compared with Toyota's hybrid Prius, which sells an average of over 70,000 cars a month.

Despite a $7,500 tax credit to electric car buyers, higher price tags and battery range seem to cause hesitation from some buyers.

"Electric vehicle sales are going to be on the rise simply because there are more available," Loh said. "I know Leaf has faced a couple challenges. They're trying to figure out how to reach the Midwest and some places in rural environments where the charging infrastructure is problematic."

The 2012 Nissan Leaf costs around $27,700 after a federal tax credit with a 106 city MPG, according to Nissan. The 2013 Chevy Volt costs $31,645 after federal tax savings.

Motor Trend's panel of 11 judges voted unanimously for the Tesla Model S after testing 25 contenders in a closed-course environment. Motor Trend tested acceleration, brakes, handling, noise, suspension tuning, among other factors.

The Tesla S has three battery choices-40 kWh, 60 kWh, and 85 kWh. Travelling at 55 mph, the kWh figures can be translated to the stated range capabilities of 160, 230, and 300 miles, respectively, according to the manufacturer's website. The firm plans to make 20,000 of the cars next year.