The Chevy Bolt Is a Huge Win

And not just for GM. For all of us.

Chevy Bolt

In a January op-ed, writer-at-large Alex Roy claimed, in no uncertain terms, that the Chevy Bolt will fail. Which, naturally, got more than a few folks riled up. Here, The Drive contributor Jonathon Ramsey responds to Roy’s piece.

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I’ve never met you, Alex Roy. I only know of you through exploits, and hearing colleagues mention you in tones reserved for Wolverine. But I must make my introduction, because your piece read like the viewpoint of an NYC-based doyen of a certain kind of dashing automotive—and lifestyle—experience.

And it is almost entirely wrong.

Among other things, you entered the Bolt into cage matches outside its weight class, made it out to be a pioneer in the EV segment, and used it as the whipping boy for legacy General Motors issues and regulatory shenanigans.

Those are loads the Bolt’s little body isn't meant to bear. Some of them were addressed in the comments, but I think the Bolt deserves an editorial public defender.

Let’s get this out of the way: I live in an apartment in Venice Beach. My car buying priorities are, “Has only two seats and Mongolian herds of internal combustion horsepower.” I know what it is to blast a car that’s not yet on the market. I really like EVs. I have not driven the Bolt.

And I will limit myself to the 2,560 words you used to make your case. I’ve used 209 so far.

“Is electrification a good idea?”

The Bolt isn’t trying to answer this question. The federal government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy obligations are getting savage. The California Air Resources Board Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) mandate demands 15.4 percent of new vehicles sold there in 2025 be ZEVs. Nine other states plus the District of Columbia adopted CARB’s rules, and since CARB (so far) won’t back down even for smaller automakers, the industry will need to sell 800,000 ZEVs in those 11 regions by 2025. There were 116,597 sold nationwide last year. Automakers must put more butts in ZEV seats, getabouts like the Bolt are how they do it.

Furthermore, Tesla sales are rising. Ford is working on 13 new ZEVs. Volkswagen plans 20 EVs by 2020. Nissan has the biggest gun in the segment and more ammo coming.

The EV game is on. GM either takes the field with a playmaker or it gets cut from the team, penniless.

“Let’s talk about that electric thing, the only rationalization for the Bolt’s existence.”

You say, “if the Bolt wasn’t electric, no one would mention Tesla at all. Actually, no one would mention the Bolt either.” I don’t understand why the Bolt being electric makes it illegitimate.

My hyperbolic response: “If a Boeing 737 Max couldn’t fly, no one would mention it at all.” Which is true, because a 737 makes a terrible school bus. The only rationalization for the 737 is that it can fly. The reason people compare it to an Airbus A320 is that the Airbus can also fly, and the Airbus leads the segment.

Without the histrionics: the only rationalization for the existence of the Model S is that it’s electric. If it had a twin-turbo V6, no one would care. No one.

If you’re suggesting GM vomited up the Bolt simply to have something in the space, like the Fiat 500e (which I like), obviously that’s not the case. Assuming it arrives on schedule, when measured by the EV yardstick – “How far for how much?” – the Bolt kicks every ass in the segment. That’s not compliance engineering. That’s called “above and beyond.”

“I don't think it's a very good value proposition even at $30k, not when compared to a Volt”

Comparing the Bolt to any vehicle with an internal combustion engine that powers the wheels is a non-starter. It doesn’t matter how a Bolt compares to a Volt or a Civic Hybrid, as this isn’t about how much of a different kind of car you can get for the same or less money. It’s as pointless as people who rebut exotic car prices with – borrowing a phrase from Motor Trend impresario Angus MacKenzie – “But a Fox-body Mustang with a pulley can beat that!”

The purist EV buyer won’t tolerate an internal combustion engine, or ICE, powering the wheels. When EV fans found out the first-gen Volt used the ICE to turn the wheels above 70 mph, their bile gave the Internet ulcers. The gnashing of teeth! The humanity! Over speeds that are illegal on most US roads.

An EV purchase is a lifestyle choice, and those always break down in functional examinations. Why buy a $745 Tumi drop-bottom duffel when High Sierra makes “the same thing” for $129? Why buy a BMW M5—like the one Alex used to set the cross-country speed record—when a Chevy SS handles just as well for $50,000 less? Because Tumi gal wants a Tumi, M5 guy wants an M5. Case closed.

Yeah, there’s that line about saving gas money that every survey seems to bear out, to which you respond that the price premium “chops the biggest leg out from under the table of the EVs, as long you have to pay a $5k premium for one." That should have kneecapped diesels as well, which had the same premium. Buyers still adored them.

No EV makes no sense as a gas-saver, but a Tesla makes the least sense of all, as even Tesla buyers will admit. And at $70,000, there’s zero value proposition to a Model S. Zero. I don’t think Tesla buyers are “buying into an ecosystem that includes an EV,” I think they’re buying a cool car from a cool brand, and part of that coolness is a nascent ecosystem.

This isn’t about sense or cents. The EV purchase has the same justification for any lifestyle purchase: “Because I want it.”

“Traditional franchise dealers are like DMV offices with better furniture and often not even. A Tesla store is like an Apple store that sells cars.”

A fine time to bring up Apple, which dominates mindshare in certain tech and investor spaces, then gets beat like a goat with iPhone sales. Samsung alone beat Apple in 2015 globally. It’s the same here: “Apple’s iOS is still getting crushed by Android in the US.” The math is unavoidable. It’s even worse with tablets. The Mac/PC disparity is borderline egregious.

Back to Tesla: it owns EV mindshare and offers a better buying experience, but the dealership comparison to OEMs is irrelevant. Tesla didn’t get 100,000 orders last year, but let’s say it did. US buyers bought 17.4 million cars in 2015, a figure that would leave Tesla with 0.57 percent of the market. That number is so small fleas can’t see it. The real number is a lot smaller.

US consumers will buy nearly all cars from dealerships for the foreseeable future. There are roughly 17,767 dealerships in the US, GM accounts for around 4,300 of them, Chevrolet accounts for about 3,000 of those. The masses might detest DMV and dealers, but that’s where they go to do two particular jobs, and where they’ll continue to go.

By the time Tesla overturns this part of the ecosystem, you and I will be dead. Like, long dead.

“[The] worst Tesla ownership experiences are still vastly better than what is considered normal for almost any legacy brand.”

Emotion is a hell of a drug.

We don’t have enough Tesla ownership experiences to make a valid comparison. From the first delivery in 2012 until the end of 2015 Tesla moved 107,356 Model S’ and Model X’s worldwide. Chevrolet sold 188,794 vehicles in December. In the US.

We have almost no idea what the off-warranty experience of a Tesla owner will be, since 50,557 of those deliveries came in 2015. At least half of Tesla’s total sales is still under the original four-year, 50,000-mile warranty.

But hell, even Tesla’s in-warranty experience gives some people hives when you’re required to spend $600 per year for an annual inspection or have your warranty voided. Let’s recap that: you have to spend $600 per year to maintain your free warranty. You can buy a service plan for a slight discount, but with four years prepaid that’s still $475 per year. If EVs are one-third less expensive to maintain over eight years than ICE cars, a consumer makes the money back easily. But that’s not how owners view such a surcharge. Even the terrific Chevy Volt would be out of business playing that prank.

Your fealty to "Japanese reliability, which I’d take any day over the first year of a GM-manufactured EV, especially one built to a price point" is two kinds of preposterous.

In J.D. Power’s 2015 Vehicle Dependability Study, the first four automakers are Lexus, Buick, Toyota, and Cadillac. They all beat Honda and Mercedes. Chevrolet is tenth, GMC eleventh. Behind them: Acura, Nissan, Audi, Mazda, Infiniti, and BMW. BMW is one little point above the industry average. Tesla, naturally, isn’t even ranked.

And ever since Mercedes-Benz gave up ne plus ultra engineering for the S-Class, every car is built to a price point. Even a Model S. That Spartan interior you mention with Tesla? That’s price-point engineering. Mmmm, smell the compromise…

"The problems with Bolt recharging aren’t remotely solved. They’re just beginning."

Oh boy.

Superchargers are awesome. It’s awesome that Tesla has built them, and yes, they enable the kind of long-distance travel that hurts EVs in the worst way. And I completely agree, OEMs need to get invested in some kind of similar build-out. Still, I think you overstate their importance.

There are four Supercharger stations in LA, including the station in Burbank – which might as well be The Kuiper Belt to people not living in The Valley. Know how many open hydrogen stations there are in LA? Four. Six more are expected to open this year. What’s the first knock against hydrogen fuel cell vehicles? “Where the fuck am I supposed to get hydrogen?”

Tesla owners don’t buy a Model S for the Supercharger network. The Tesla buyer tracks the same as the Porsche Panamera owner and the exotic car buyer – they’re not worried about making a road trip if they need to. Yes, it’s great that they can in a Tesla. But that’s not a litmus decision when buying a $70,000 car or an $80,000 crossover. A Model S makes more sense than a Toyota Mirai because public chargers are numerous and home outlets are legion (and the Mirai is hellaciously ugly).

(On that note about free Superchargers, though, rumor is that Tesla’s ditching free energy for the Model 3. Those skinflints gotta pony up!)

Where are you going to recharge a Bolt, you ask? Everywhere.

“If you street park, you’re not charging at night.” You underestimate the will of an EV buyer. An i3 owner down the street from me, stuck with street parking, has run an extension cord out of his house, across a steel cable, and down a telephone pole to his car. I’m not saying it’s normal. I’m saying this is the commitment.

You claim the Bolt is “all alone,” when it’s actually walking – and widening – the path opened by its predecessors. The Nissan Leaf is the best-selling EV in the world, with more than 200,000 sales. Owners have figured out how to charge it. BMW sold more than 10,000 i3s last year in the US. Buyers know how to charge it. The Fiat 500e, with more than 6,000 sales last year, can be leased for $99 per month. At that price, the folks who buy it might live in cardboard boxes. They know how to charge their cars.

The US market minted six thousand new plug-in buyers in January. Yet, somehow, you think the Bolt will be more difficult to charge eleven months from now? Come on. Shirley. Ewe jest.

"Two hundred and fifty miles of range isn’t great, but 180 miles gets you into range anxiety."

I don’t know where “a real-world range of 170 miles means [the Bolt] is a city car.” Even assuming a two-for-one loss of range at 65 miles per hour, that still covers 85 miles of bedroom communities from the Venice Beach ebb tide to beyond the Beaumont hinterlands, known here as, “Where the hell is that?”

Except no SoCal commuter does 65 mph for 80 miles, so they’d actually have more real-world range. And the Chevy Volt I’m driving now travels from 0.8 to one full mile on EV power at a steady-state 70 mph.

I’d never fear range if I had 170 miles to play with, and that’s here, where a decent coffee could be a 12-mile round trip. The Bolt makes even more sense in San Francisco (have you been to the one in California, or were you talking about a different San Francisco?) where the public charging infrastructure is leagues beyond LA.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s two years late, or $10k more than promised. The Tesla premium isn’t merely about the car. As an EV, the Tesla 3 has everything Chevy doesn’t, and no one else has either."

We don’t even know what the Model 3 looks like yet and you claim it can do the impossible. Right now I could identify a hippogriff if I saw one, but not a Model 3, making a mythical creature more real than Tesla’s entry-level sedan.

You think the $30K buyer will swallow a 33-percent price increase for a car that’s on time, never mind two years late? That assertion is, like Tesla’s recent update, ludicrous. Spend some hours in a Toyota showroom or a Honda service waiting room. Or Ohio. You’ll learn otherwise.

Tesla’s achievement is outstanding. But Tesla hasn’t passed the OEM automaker test yet, which it will start to face when it sells a $30,000 car. Boutique quirks get squeezed at thirty grand. Great warranty service and The Cult of Musk are useless when Joe the Plumber needs to be at work in an hour. GM, conversely, knows this customer very well, and knows how big the challenge is.

Finally: We, the Clueless.

Your riff on how the Bolt “may delay or kill demand for affordable EVs altogether” and how word-of-mouth would doom a car we can’t even buy for a year made me check the scopes for recent troll activity. I didn’t see any, so I’ll assume you’re serious.

No one knows where this is going. The commodities analysts who watch oil prices don’t know where crude is headed. Bolt sales predictions are useless. Tesla almost never hits its estimates, and 2016 will be another F in that department.

Who cares. What Tesla’s done has helped compel automakers to take EVs seriously. Legacy GM would have stuck with the Spark EV, called it a failure and said the marketplace wasn’t ready, then in 2025 with infinitesimal EV share and a CARB beating coming it would have unveiled something new and mediocre.

Instead, GM’s got an EV that, on paper, will redefine the segment, plus a brand new software and technology division to exploit EV potential. Old GM appears to be dead. Tesla helped kill it. We get the Bolt. No matter how the it does, everyone wins. But I think the Bolt and the Model 3 can both win.

So when you say, “It's about whether [the Bolt] makes sense at its price point, and whether the ownership experience is justified at this time," the answer to both questions is: we have no clue. But on paper, it looks like, “Abso-fucking-lutely.”