It’s been a rough decade for American cars. The “Big 3” automakers went from having 7 out of the 10 bestselling vehicles in 2003 … to the brink of ruin in 2008. A big factor is that Toyota stole their thunder, and much of their market share, with successful hybrids like the Prius. On top of that, high gas prices have taken a toll on American-made SUVs.

But this year, an exciting new car model is putting the shine back on the American-made moniker. Only it’s not built in Detroit — it’s built in California.

Will a Silicon Valley start-up put American cars back on top? Meet the Tesla Model S and discover why this homegrown sedan is such big news for the auto industry.

It’s making reviewers swoon

In January, Motor Trend named the Model S as its 2013 Car of the Year. This alone, while impressive, wouldn’t be earth-shattering for a domestic vehicle — the Chevy Volt won it in 2011, and the Ford Fusion in 2010. But then, last week, Consumer Reports (which has a reputation as a maverick among reviewers) announced that it had tested the Tesla and gave it 99 points out of 100. The only other car to receive this score was the Lexus LS in 2007.

It’s all-electric (but doesn’t drive that way)

The Tesla is the first all-electric vehicle to be fully designed and built in the U.S. in more than 10 years — and the first car without an internal combustion engine to ever win Car of the Year. That’s huge!

Not only can you plug it in to recharge it, but once it’s “fueled” up, it can go 200 miles on a single charge (compared to the 75-80 miles typical of most electric cars). Testers say it handles and accelerates like a sports car — Motor Trend called it one of the fastest American 4-doors ever built — all while achieving the equivalent of 74.5 mpg. You’ll definitely appreciate those savings after paying the $107K sticker price.

It’s from the Silicon Valley, not the Motor City

At Esurance, we know great ideas can come from anywhere. This one just happens to come from America’s capital of innovation and futuristic awesomeness (ok, I admit, as a San Franciscan I’m a little biased). Hailing from techville, it’s not surprising that the Model S has a giant touch screen in the center console that controls the navigation system, steering mode, suspension, and other functions. More functionality can be added just by updating the software.

Here’s another non-surprise: Google wants to partner with Tesla to build a driverless electric car.

A new era — or not?

America has always been a land of pioneers, inventors, and entrepreneurs, but Tesla’s Model S shows that Americans still know how to build beautiful, forward-thinking cars (and make a profit too).

What do you think? Does the Model S represent a new era of dominance for American cars, or will it go the way of the DeLorean? Leave your comments below.

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about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.