The Chevrolet Bolt, the all-electric coupe just introduced by General Motors, isn’t the first or the zippiest all-electric vehicle on the market. And it may or not be the Tesla killer that Farhad Manjoo suggests it is in the New York Times this week. What makes the Bolt important is simply that it’s plausible in a way that earlier versions of the effort to electrify automobiles were not, and in a way that other electric cars on the market aren’t quite yet.
Whether the Bolt represents a revolution or simply the next stage of evolution, it’s worth considering how far things have come.
About six years ago, I test-drove General Motors’ first, much-ballyhooed effort to electrify vehicles. That was the Chevrolet Volt, a basic GM sedan with a big battery. But the Volt wasn’t plausible on environmental, functional, or financial grounds. For one thing, it wasn’t really an electric car—it had a big gas engine and a big gas tank. And given its short all-electric range (about the length of a marathon), it couldn’t do much to flush emissions out of vehicular travel.
The plan that day was for a bunch of journalists to drive a convoy of Volts from midtown Manhattan. But a few minutes after getting through the Lincoln Tunnel—about 20 miles into the trip—the car stopped running exclusively on battery and drove the rest of the way on gasoline. Electricity was a side dish rather than the main course. And the cost—$41,000 before a $7,000 federal tax credit—was prohibitively high.
The years since have brought us significant gains in vehicle electrification and batteries that are much bigger and more powerful. Tesla paved the way with very expensive all-electric sports cars boasting ranges of up to 280 miles. The 2017 Volt claims 53 miles in all-electric mode. Nissan’s Leaf EV can go up to 107 miles between charges.
That’s not bad. But the all-electric Bolt—cue Aaron Burr wailing that “Hamilton wrote the other 51!” – can go 238 miles on a single charge. And it costs less than the 2010 Volt.
All of which makes the Bolt plausible. On environmental grounds, it fulfills the promise of emissions-free driving. (Especially if the electricity that charges the battery comes from solar panels.) Functionally, the Bolt is fun to drive, as I learned test-driving one in Manhattan this week. Instead of feeling like a golf cart in electric mode—as the Toyota Prius plug-in does—the Bolt zipped with sufficient pace to let me cut off several drivers and run yellow lights in the congested streets of midtown. (It also has a regenerative mode, in which simply easing off the accelerator causes the car to brake and recharge the batteries.)
But it’s the car’s range that contributes most to its plausibility. GM believes that 200 miles is an important psychological barrier for potential purchasers of all-electric cars. The Bolt easily surpasses that. Which means you could drive from New York to Boston without stopping for juice. If you’re simply driving around town, you could go a week between charges. And there are plenty of gas-powered cars that need to be refueled every 238 miles. Even if it won’t wholly eliminate range anxiety, the Bolt should alleviate a lot of it.
Finally, the Bolt is plausible financially. Iterative engineering gets us better and more effective stuff for the same price or lower. This is glaringly obvious when it comes to products like computers and phones, whose prices fall even as their functionality increases exponentially. But it’s also true for anything that runs on a combination of motors, electronics, and software—washers, dryers, refrigerators, freezers, and, yes, cars. The Bolt has about nine times the electric range of the 2010 Volt, is packed with many more functions, and costs $37,000. (When you account for inflation, the price drop from the first Volt is even more impressive.) GM points out that, after the $7,000 federal tax credit, the Bolt will cost about $30,000—less than the average price paid for a new car sold in the U.S.
For all its virtues, the Bolt still has some drawbacks. It’s small, and this is an era when people tend to like big cars. Even with a range of 238 miles, owners won’t have the same level of freedom to roam the countryside as they would with a gas-powered car.
Which means it’s not likely the Bolt will be the vehicle that permanently dislodges gasoline as a transportation fuel. But that misses the point. Cars are consumer products and come in a seemingly infinite variety. People have all sorts of motivations for choosing the products. Which is why GM segments the market: mini-vans for big families, pick-up trucks for farmers and tradespeople, sports cars for the young (and the not-so-young facing midlife crises). For each type of car that a company makes, there’s a bubble of consumers that are potential targets. Until now, the bubble in which the all-electric–vehicle purchasers was filled with a few tech-savvy rich and self-abnegating greens who wanted to make a statement. Given the Bolt’s plausibility, that bubble is about to house a lot more people.