“From everyone’s first turn behind the wheel, we were all really blown away,” says Automobile Magazine deputy editor Joe DeMatio.

He’s speaking of the Ann Arbor-based publication’s nervy choice for its highest honor: the Tesla Model S, a battery-powered car from a California startup that, in last fall’s presidential debates, Mitt Romney scorned as a “loser.”

“To say there’s a healthy skepticism regarding Tesla and its new wundercar is an understatement,” associate editor David Zenlea acknowledged in the magazine’s January issue. “[I]n many industry circles, it borders on outright hostility.” Tesla founder Elon Musk rubbed Detroit vets the wrong way by promising to build a better car, irked free marketers by taking a $465 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy, and ticked off climate-change deniers by insisting, Zenlea wrote, “to be doing it for our own good.” Musk–who earlier co-founded PayPal–told the magazine that he wants to sell electric cars to lower carbon dioxide emissions.

“Tesla has had a rough road,” says DeMatio. “Quite frankly, as recently as a year or so ago, I was kinda saying, ‘Is anything really happening with them, or are we gonna get a press release someday saying they’ve gone out of business?’ They claimed they were developing a car, but a lot of people claim they’re developing cars.

“We started realizing this summer when they gave us a first look at the car that ‘Oh, they really have achieved something here.'”

Model S production has been slow to ramp up, and as recently as August, DeMatio says, they weren’t sure they’d be able to get their hands on a car in time for their October Automobile of the Year evaluation. It was only after he and Zenlea got a long-sought interview with Musk that the company promised a car–which was duly delivered to west Michigan’s GingerMan Raceway.

Editor-in-chief “Jean [Jennings] was a big supporter [of naming the Tesla Automobile of the Year] from her very first time driving it,” DeMatio says. “It was the performance that won us over,” she explained in Zenlea’s article. “The crazy speed builds silently and then pulls back at the edges of your face. It had us all endangering our licenses.”

Each of the sixteen contributors who took part in the evaluation had an equal say, and Jennings wrote that “a few stalwart believers raised a vote for the charming Subaru BRZ/Scion FRS” sports coupes. But in the end, says DeMatio, “an overwhelming majority” lined up behind the historic choice.

Former Car and Driver editor Csaba Csere points out that even with Tesla’s promised network of “supercharger” stations, the Model S can’t compete with a gasoline-powered car for interstate travel. But though he’s “not a big fan of electric cars,” Csere says, he too was impressed with the Model S–“it’s moved the ball on electric cars.”

A month after Automobile announced its choice, Motor Trend named Tesla its “Car of the Year”–an honor that got far more attention than Automobile‘s. “Motor Trend is a sister magazine,” says DeMatio, “But we made our decision completely independently. I did not know that they had chosen the same car until the day they announced it.

“It’s affirmation that we’re not alone in thinking this car’s really important,” DeMatio says of the rival award. But, he concedes, “It does steal a little bit of our thunder.”