Gasoline prices are staying stubbornly low, making Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts used-car pariahs. The pair are shed more of their original value than virtually any cars on the market. Tesla’s startling numbers aside, sales of plug-in cars have tanked. Even current owners are struggling to keep the faith: Just over half of EV and hybrid owners are trading in for a conventional, purely fossil-fueled car.
So, America, are you ready for the Chevrolet Bolt?
Chevy insists the answer is “yes.” Fuel prices be damned, enough Americans will see the upsides of the world’s first affordable, long-range electric car.
“We’re seeing gas prices we haven’t seen in a long time. But the current environment doesn’t keep customers away from segment,” says Fred Ligouri, Chevrolet spokesman and point man on the Bolt. “The EV customer is someone who’s dialed in and focused on living an EV lifestyle.”
That lifestyle, Ligouri says, centers around the quiet operation of an EV; the peace of bypassing gas stations forever; and the joy of the Bolt’s 200-mile range and peppy operation, including a 60 mph sprint in less than 7 seconds.
Yet how many mainstream buyers, exactly, are ready to dial their local Chevy dealer and drop $37,500 – or $30,000 after an available $7,500 federal tax break – on a Bolt when it reaches showrooms, in time for a Green Christmas?
Karl Brauer, the savvy senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, is both hedging and aiming high. He estimates that Chevy will find 30,000 to 80,000 buyers for the Bolt in its opening year. Only one electric car has topped 30,000 annual sales in history, the Nissan Leaf back in 2014. Tesla found just over 25,000 Model S sedan buyers last year. I’m bullish on the Bolt, but I think even 25,000 sales would constitute a reasonable coming-out for this electric debutante.
Remember, we’re talking Chevy fans, not the fanatics wondering where to put the Tesla tattoo. Giveaway gas prices may mean nothing to the guy whose life depends on getting a Tesla Model 3, the Bolt’s ostensible rival. But I’m convinced they do mean something to the Chevy/GM prospect who can’t help but notice roomier, more-lavish cars – a Malibu sedan, an Equinox crossover – for the same price as a Bolt. Or a Chevy Cruze for several thousand dollars less. Cars whose fuel costs aren’t remotely a burden.
Now, the Bolt’s electricity bill should still be less, by far, than what it costs to fuel up a Prius. But don’t expect Chevy to whip out a calculator to prove it in TV ads. With fuel prices the last thing in Americans' empty, short-term heads, Chevy will almost surely emphasize the Bolt’s other winning attributes.
“The cost savings is a part of it for consumers,” Ligouri says. “But it’s more the ability the charge at home or work, the ability to bypass fueling stations, the effortless joy of driving electric.”
GM will soon test the theory. Bolts are trickling off the pre-production assembly line in suburban Detroit, and engineers are putting them through their paces – along with the 60-kilowatt-hour batteries being produced at the LG Chem factory in Holland, Mich. That Korean-owned factory, according to GM, will supply lithium-ion batteries for an astoundingly low $145 per kilowatt hour. If Tesla enjoys a ludicrous advantage in brand cachet, GM remains the global giant that could eventually squash Tesla through its economies of scale.
Chevy has 3,000 dealers that can sell and service the Bolt, from big cities to the smallest towns. Do not underestimate what that means to the mainstream car shopper. Tesla has fewer than 100 stores and galleries in just 24 of 50 states, and GM has led lobbying efforts to quash Tesla’s direct-sales advance into other states..
The Bolt will also beat Tesla’s Model 3 to showrooms by at least a year, and likely closer to 18 months. Surely, some small fraction of the 300,000 folks who’ve plunked down deposits on the Tesla Model 3 will tire of the wait – especially those staring at 290,000 butts ahead of them in line – and take a flyer on the Chevy instead.
But here I go, playing up the Chevy-Tesla cage match that does no justice to either side. Where some GM execs have thrown shade at Tesla, Ligouri took the opposite tack by arguing – rightly, to some of us at The Drive – that enthusiasm for Tesla and its EVs can only benefit Chevrolet and the Bolt.
“Hats off to anyone entering the electric market,” Liguori says. “The more options for customers, the better.”
That’s why, unless the Bolt fizzles in epic, Cadillac ELR-fashion, the focus on raw sales numbers misses the big picture. Whatever happens with the Bolt, give Chevrolet and GM credit for guts and foresight. Forget Tesla: The Bolt may leave Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, Nissan and Toyota scrambling to play catch-up. In every new trend, from hybrids to crossovers, GM spent decades getting kicked in the rear. Now they’re looking to lead from the front.