Chevy’s Bolt Creeps Along While Tesla Readies For a Sprint

Even the pricey Corvette outsells GM’s historic electric car.

Going Under the Hood of the Electric Chevy Bolt

Elon Musk’s perpetual joker grin is probably a little wider today. The Chevrolet Bolt, the proletariat machine that beat his nascent Model 3 to market by the better part of a year, is, well, not bolting at all.

Creeping would be a better word.

After six months on the market, only 6,529 Bolts have found their way out of dealerships and into the wild. That’s far less than sales of the all-electric Nissan Leaf and either of the existing Tesla models over the same period.

Meanwhile, the most esoteric beasts in the GM family are running circles around the runty Bolt. In the past six months, U.S. customers bought about three times as many Cadillac Escalades and double the number of Corvettes—both paragons of a niche vehicle. 

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a slow rollout; it was a phased rollout,” said Chevrolet spokesman Jim Cain. “In terms of sales, I think we’re right on plan.”

When we visited Chevrolet’s electric-vehicle factory just outside Detroit in December, it was spitting out about 100 Bolts a day. The sales of the past few months, however, wouldn’t support that level of production. And thanks to GM, Chevrolet dealers will still be waiting on their first Bolts in July when Tesla promises to pull the cover off its similarly priced Model 3. 

Make no mistake, the Bolt isn’t a bad car. In fact, it’s quite good. In addition to its historic metrics on range and price, the Bolt handles well, accelerates easily, and offers plenty of space and amenities in its bubbly cockpit. It’s being held back though by cheap gas and SUV fever.

Holm Automotive Center in Abilene, Kansas, (pretty much the geographic center of the country) has had only one inquiry on the Bolt and doesn’t have any plans to stock the car. “We are a truck and SUV market,” said sales consultant Michelle Holt.

Chevrolet Bolt
Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

However, the little electron whip is also being hamstrung by General Motors Co. The company is rolling the vehicle out at a snail’s pace. At the end of April, the Bolt was still only available in eight states—all on the coast. GM added another eight states in May and says the cars won’t be available nationwide until late summer.

“The term I would use is slow and steady,” said Marc Cannon, a spokesman for AutoNation, the country’s largest dealership group. “They’re making sure they meet the needs of early adopters and they’re taking their time doing it.”

To be sure, would-be customers venting on message boards about not being able to buy a Bolt isn’t a terrible PR problem; it’s far less damaging than passers by seeing legions of Bolts stacking up at dealerships like sad sedans in a Hertz lot. At this point, the Bolt is still an exercise in R&D and marketing. It has first-mover advantage and bragging rights over Musk despite the fact that there are far more Ferraris on U.S. roads at the moment. 

“If you look at our competitive set, it will be quite some time before any of them have a vehicle that comes close to this in terms of capabilities,” Chevy’s Cain contends. 

Capabilities aside, the Bolt is still a financial drain on GM. UBS AG analysts estimate that the automaker is losing about $7,500 on every one it sells, thanks to the machine’s $12,000 battery pack and another $580 worth of semiconductors—roughly 10 times the amount found in a traditional car car.

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“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen a single commercial for the Bolt,” said UBS analyst Colin Langan. “They have a great starting point, but I don’t think they’re pushing volume today.”

Over time, the economics will improve, as battery costs come down and GM realizes some scale efficiencies. In the meantime, the folks in Detroit who answer to investors—rather than regulators or hyper-milers—would rather sell you an Escalade. That profit dynamic isn’t drastically different at the dealership, either. 

It’s a classic innovator’s dilemma. GM has disrupted its legacy business, but only slightly. It’s still towing its business model around with a pick-up. 

Eventually, Langan said, the Bolt will be used as the platform for GM’s autonomous-driving program. What’s clear in the interim, however—and what should be a bit worrisome to GM—is that the Bolt launch has been pretty humdrum, and not just in terms of sales. The little car hasn’t captured any of Tesla’s Silicon Valley street-cred and it hasn’t whipped up any of the cultish following that still benefits the Toyota Prius. It isn’t a Hollywood accessory on the red-carpet circuit. 

The Bolt is a historic vehicle—a time-machine in a way—but it’s just the latest in a long line of them. In five years, streets will be full of cars like the Bolt; whether they are made by Chevrolet remains to be seen.

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