The Chevy Bolt Is the Ugly Car of the (Very Near) Future
With brilliant financial engineering, GM beats Tesla to the punch.
If you’re in the market for a car, there are some good reasons not to buy Chevrolet’s new Bolt. Maybe you insist on leather seats, take long road-trips to the middle of nowhere, or have a boat to tow around. If not, GM’s new long range electric vehicle will be at the very least entirely sufficient for your needs. At best, it will be a giddy surprise.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The first affordable electric car to top 200 miles on a single charge was expected to be a vehicle of compromise, a bundle of “buts.” Indeed, the most impressive things about the Bolt are the attributes it lacks. The car is not tiny, boring or slow. And it handily topped its goal, coming in with an EPA-estimated 238-mile range, almost exactly the distance between New York and Boston or Washington D.C.
It is not, however, a looker. “Pragmatic” is probably the best adjective to describe the car. It looks like a stubby pod, cluttered by a smattering of busy design cues—swooping creases, bits of black plastic, and too many lights. The odd design works like clown-car magic on the interior, however. Chevy managed to peg the driver’s seat high for a commanding view of the road, while leaving plenty of headroom for tall people in the front seats and in back.
The Bolt’s design is neither futuristic nor timeless, but that’s likely the point. GM has boldly designed electric cars in the past and it didn’t go so well. The Bolt simply looks like a lot of other contemporary cars—a little Buick Encore, a little Honda HR-V and a dash of BMW i3. The shape grows on you. It’s athletic; small without being wimpy, sturdy without being bloated.
Darin Gesse, senior manager of GM product strategy, admitted that design took a second seat to function. “We talked to customers about what they wanted and it all came down to range and price and range,” he said. “Everything else wasn’t even second on the list; it was like 9th.”
On the Road
Forget about curb appeal. On the road, the Bolt is charming. It’s quick, even for an electric car, thanks to a relative dearth of weight and clever gearing of the electric motor. It accelerates eagerly all the way up to its 95 mile-per-hour limit.
Steering is tight and precise with plenty of weight and feedback. The ride is simultaneously forgiving and firm, thanks to GM’s chasis tuning expertise and the big slab of a battery. The 60 kwh lithium-ion monolith keeps the vehicle grounded through turns, stiffens the frame and absorbs the typical vibration that comes with pushing a box of metal through the air at highway speed.
That massive battery, however, comes at a hefty price. GM spends about $9,000 on each one compared with a couple hundred bucks it costs to build a small gasoline engine. The yawning chasm of cost is clearly recouped somewhat inside the car. The cockpit is a cheap collage of plastic and hard rubber that feels down-market even on a $30,000 vehicle. It is “nice” in the way Ikea furniture is “nice,” which is to say it is thoughtful, pragmatic, and not terrible looking. You just don’t want to touch it too much.
The important bits are better. The 10.2-inch touchscreen in the dash is both responsive and intuitive to use. There’s WiFi—which actually works. Behind the steering wheel, the 8-inch digital gauge cluster is sharp and useful. In addition to the current speed, it prominently displays a real-time array of ranges: the maximum, minimum, and average amount of miles left on the battery, which are constantly calculated based on how the car is being driven and how hard the climate control system is working. Chevrolet appears to be almost bragging about the car’s range and, like most electric carmakers, it subtly encourages efficient driving by gamifying the experience.
One of the Bolt’s best features is a regenerative braking paddle behind the wheel, which simultaneously slows the car and recharges the battery when pulled. After 20 minutes of driving, I found myself hardly using the floor pedal. It’s addictive, engaging and a constant prompt of the car’s raison d’être.
So how did GM pull off a $30,000 car with 200 miles of range? Tesla’s promise to deliver on the same equation is still about a year away (longer if you ask Morgan Stanley). Many have expressed surprise about how soundly GM beat the most innovative car company in the world to the punch. But, this race wasn’t won by engineering brilliance. It was a financial battle between David and Goliath. This time, Goliath won, which shouldn’t shock anyone who understands economies of scale.
At Tesla, unit economics are a brutal reality. With only two cars right now, the company’s fortunes rocket or swoon every time it misses or beats production estimates by 1,000 vehicles. Musk has plenty of magic tricks to throw in the mix—from solar panels to giant garage batteries—but at the end of the day, the per-car calculation is hard to escape.
GM can spread costs and revenue over a fleet of about 40 vehicles and four separate brands. It buys parts by the trainload and sourced parts and engineering solutions from across the company. The Bolt’s gear-selector comes from Buick. The nifty rear-view mirror, which is essentially a camera most of the time, is courtesy of Cadillac.
GM didn’t need to go on a building spree either. It’s had an assembly plant outside Detroit since 1983, and it’s been building Chevrolet Sonics there for five years. Batteries, meanwhile, are just another part that can be ordered. GM was able to source its power-packs from LG Chem in Korea.
The company is expected to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of $9,000 per Bolt, but it likely doesn’t crunch the numbers that way. The vehicle is part R&D exercise and part marketing expense. Battery costs are sure to come down. As they do, expect Chevy to keep the price static and dial up the details a bit. And with electric vehicle mandates escalating in 10 states, the Bolt will let GM sell more swanky Silverado pickups at much fatter margins without paying penalties or buying credits from competitors. In that sense, the Bolt is a 3,600 pound chunk of Musk-level game theory.
“Tesla loses money on every car too,” said Bill Visnic, editorial director of the Society of Automobile Engineers; GM is just better equipped to mitigate that loss and leverage it into gains elsewhere.
Regardless of what President-elect Donald Trump has planned, California and nine other states will require 15 percent of new vehicles to be zero-emissions (read: electric) by 2025. European countries, meanwhile, are passing resolutions to ban gasoline engines entirely by 2030.
In a few years, a long-range, affordable electric car will no longer be a novelty. Chevrolet has simply made a very good version of that machine before anyone else. It’s a winner-take-all market, but only for the next few months when competitors will begin rolling off the line. Almost every automaker has now committed to making electric vehicles, most recently Fiat-Chrysler and Mercedes.
It's unlikely the Bolt will crush Tesla’s nascent Model 3. It has made essentially the anti-Tesla, a vehicle long on utility and short on sexy. What the Bolt will do is lure thousands of buyers who would otherwise buy a conventional car and immediately make obsolete almost every other electric car on the road. At this very moment, thousands of Nissan Leaf owners are quietly kicking themselves.
“You go after the big piece of the pie and hopefully get a lot of it,” Gesse said of the car’s broad approach to the market.
So how will the Bolt sell? Chevrolet says early demand is outstripping supply, but when we strolled through GM’s Orion Assembly Plant, it was only making about 100 Bolts a day. Chevy churns out Camaros twice as fast. But GM didn’t make the Bolt because it thought it would outsell its most popular models. It made it because it could.