In case you haven’t heard the news, the electric Chevrolet Bolt—with its official 235-mile range (or more, as I ran up 267 miles)—is great. In fact, it makes the best case yet for Americans to own an EV, starting with double the battery range of most its antecedents. The price—$37,495 before options and a $7,500 tax credit—is stiffer than we’d like but a hell of a lot cheaper than a Tesla and not beyond the means of most early-intender-type buyers. The cost is also likely to fall in years ahead with greater volume and advances in battery manufacturing.
The Bolt is not, to be clear, a Tesla Model S when it comes to luxury, flat-screen fantasia, or top-end performance. But then it costs considerably less. And it stands up to Tesla’s popularly priced baby brother, the Model 3, both in the fact you can buy or lease one today and in that it is a fully engineered machine, ready to use daily. The Bolt offers drivers the reassuring sense they’ve not been sent out into the field, tasked to report back on the state of various open engineering and manufacturing questions. It is a Chevrolet, in the proudest sense of the word.
Many are probably unaware that reliability and seamless ease of use are true for most electric cars these days; the Volkswagen e-Golf is also excellent, for instance. Nissan Leaf, Hyundai Ioniq, Kia Soul EV, even the Fiat 500e—they’re all perfectly swell EVs I’ve driven, and I’m probably forgetting some others. They ride and handle well, they’re quiet and quick and pleasant to drive, with accommodating chassis if not ones that cry out for spirited, Tokyo-drift-style flogging.
But the point is, the Bolt is all they are, plus it has more: more range, that is, which is key. It’s a short car, making for easy parking, but not too short, and it’s tall, which accounts along with a substantial greenhouse for a spacious and airy cabin that magnifies the hatchback practicality, with room for big folk and a fair amount of stuff. Overall, its interior doesn’t subtract from but instead adds to the good cheer that dawns anew every time you find yourself realizing you’ll never have to hang out at a gas station again. And there’s that range, which makes ownership viable for more people.
The first Bolts went on sale in December 2016 in California, debuting in various other green states before becoming available in all 50 states later in 2017. Chevy sold 20,000 through the first 11 months of last year, with almost 3,000 shifted in November, suggesting an annualized rate of 36,000 Bolts a year. Not bad for a new and still somewhat unfamiliar technology in a just launched model.
But it could have been better. In fact, it should’ve been better, and it could be still. Why? Because the Bolt is good enough to own the affordable space, however briefly—roughly the time between now and when other cheaper EVs have this sort of range—at a crucial time in the electric car genus’ development and acceptance. Tesla has 455,000 people waiting for Model 3s, suggesting there’s a much larger market for something like the Bolt.
Why Bolt now? Because this is the time when neural connections are being made in drivers’ heads as the whole concept of electric cars and brands takes root. For reasons sound and reasons stoned, Tesla has dominated the psychographic space so far, and the market has rewarded it in the outsized valuation of its shares, if not in profitable operations. Bolt is GM’s product-based chance to start claiming the space for itself, before everyone else arrives with their guns blazing, too. If even half the predictions of an all-electric future prove true, the space will be worth plenty.
Bob Lutz said he’d been mistaken all the years he spent criticizing Toyota for the Prius because on paper it lost money. If he had viewed those losses as a marketing expense … It all made sense.
How could Bolt achieve more success? First off, General Motors could market it like it really meant it. When it wants to sell the hell out of something—say Silverados or Equinoxes—you notice. Television and radio, billboards, noisy dealers, and digital intrusions abound. I don’t pretend to monitor all media scientifically, but no ads for the Bolt have crossed my consciousness here, just outside of New York City, a likely target for automotive greenery if ever there was one. I’ve even typed Bolt into a search engine several times over the last few months and not even once have I been bugged by somebody trying to sell me one.
There are very few cars whose makers lay so far back, and although I don’t want to complain—part of me, in fact, wants to say “thank you”—it does seem strange that GM is keeping its head down. After all, this is a company that startled itself silly recently, if happily, when the stock market responded to the announcement of its plan to accelerate the electrification of its range—20 new electric vehicles by 2023—driving its shares to a modern high. It is not much of an exaggeration to say all GM had to do was say it would do everything it spent the last 20 years fighting, and its shares—mired in concrete, notwithstanding some hugely profitable years—skyrocketed. So I said it, putting up a Facebook post to this effect when it happened. The second person to hit the thumbs-up “like” button was GM executive vice president Mark Reuss.
So why, then, doesn’t GM get busy promoting the Bolt now? We can imagine reasons. Too busy raking in mega shekels selling big trucks and SUVs. Doesn’t want to spend money if it doesn’t have to. Maybe the company is splitting the difference, developing the technology while not losing too much money by selling too many cars. Or perhaps GM is too obsessed with the autonomous future, where people buy ride services instead of cars to fawn over and polish, and thinks it premature to worry about owning the American electric car space now.
But if done right the Bolt can be the setup for the ride service brand. Former GM vice chairman and product maven Bob Lutz once looked back and said he’d been mistaken all the years he spent criticizing Toyota for selling the Prius because on paper it lost money. If he had viewed those losses as a marketing expense, he came to understand, it all made sense. A wider Bolt rollout should be seen the same way. Use it to create some of the rosy good feelings that make a brand relevant again and last for generations. There’s a moment where GM could make it the 21st-century equivalent of Chevrolet’s reputation-building “stovebolt six” motor (1929-1990), but it will pass. Let’s hear it for the Electric Stove Bolt. Now.