TAKING ON TESLA: Chevrolet's new Bolt, launched at the 2015 Detroit auto show, will take on Tesla's electric vehicles. Image: AFP
DETROIT, Michigan - General Motors is setting up a “sell-to-the-masses” showdown with Tesla Motors with the introduction at the 2015 Detroit auto show of an affordable electric car that can go 320km on a single charge.
It might also upstage - perhaps even eradicate - one of its own cars...
GM on Monday (Jan 12) at the 2015 Detroit auto show unveiled the Chevrolet Bolt, a concept EV that will probably reach showrooms in about two years, its one-charge range making it attractive to many who wouldn't have otherwise considered a pure battery car for fear of running out of juice.
ECLIPSING THE VOLT
The Bolt could retail for the equivalent of R347 000.
The roll-out of the orange compact hatchback eclipsed GM's unveiling at the show of a revamped Chevy Volt – a more expensive hybrid petrol/battery car – that has not sold well.
When the plug-in Volt was introduced as a concept car in 2007 it was touted as an electric vehicle for everyone. It could go about 60km on battery power but a petrol generator could take over to end worries of being stranded.
However its R460 000 price tag hamstrung sales, even with a R86 000 federal tax credit thrown in.
Enter the Bolt, a hatchback with a hefty range and SUV-like cargo area and a price that's about the same as the average 2015 selling price of a new vehicle in America.
Technically,it’s still just a concept, but GM plans to start selling a production version sometime in 2017. That sets up a showdown with Silicon Valley's Tesla Motors which plans to deliver a mass-market, 320km battery car for around R400 000 in the same time frame.
However the Bolt could leave the updated and restyled Volt behind, even though GM put a significant effort into increasing the Volt's electric range by 80km while adding features that customers wanted, such as five seats instead of four.
When the Bolt, which looks like a cross between a Volkswagen Golf and BMW's electric i3, rolled on to a stage at the Chevy exhibit at Detroit’s city-centre Cobo Hall, CEO Mary Barra said: "For most people, this car can be their daily drive."
Although hatchbacks typically haven't sold well in the US, GM says the Bolt's cargo space and high seating will give it extra appeal. Both features are fuelling a boom in crossover SUV sales.
Stuart Norris, director of advanced design for GM in Korea, where much of the Bolt was designed, explained: "What we’ve really tried to do is incorporate a lot of things that people love about owning a crossover.”
But that functionality is another reason why people may pick the Bolt over the Volt.
POOR EV SALES
In 2011 GM’s then CEO Dan Akerson predicted that GM would sell 60 000 Volts a year. Instead, it has sold about 73 000 in total since the car went on the market. Its best sales year was 2012: 23 400 units; sales in 2014 fell by 19% to less than 19 000.
Jeff Schuster of LMC Automotive, an industry consulting firm, warned however that neither electric car was likely to get on car buyers' radar in the short term with petrol in the US at present $2.15 a US gallon (the equivalent of R8 per litre).
Schuster said: "Even the 200-mile (320km) thing, a remarkable achievement and something that certainly everybody has been chasing, risks getting lost in the shuffle where petrol prices are right now.”
Oil - and therefore fuel – prices are volatile so things could change by the time the Bolt hits the market. Schuster says if fuel prices stay low neither the Bolt nor the Volt will sell well. And that will buy other automakers time to catch up with their own 320km EV. Plus, cheap fuel means it will take longer for owners to recoup the premium paid for an electric car with savings from not buying petrol.
NEW VOLT FOR DETROIT
GM has dialled back sales expectations for Volt 2.0 and executives are confident there's a market for the car when it arrives in showrooms in the second half of 2016. They're punting the Volt not so much to those who want to save on fuel but more toward those who bought the first generation - tech-saavy individuals who want to drive on electricity without worrying about running out of battery-power.
Fuel prices inevitably will swing to the Volt's favour, says Steve Majoros, marketing director for Chevrolet. Majoros said: "I don't know where we're going to be six months from now. I don't think the petrol price is the primary determining factor for a car like this."
The new Volt is sleeker and faster than the previous one. It's 90kg lighter and has a fuel consumption of 5.7 litres/100km.
Engineers have also made it more aerodynamic, with grille shutters that close when air isn't needed and a spoiler built into the tail lights and rear hatch. Its 0-50km time is 2.6sec, 20% faster than its predecessor. Heatable rear seats and the latest in “following distance” cruise are options.
The middle seat in the back isn't exactly optimal. The occupying backside must straddle a cup holder and will have little headroom beneath the sloping roof.
Akerson at one point implored engineers to take R115 000 in cost out of the next generation. Barra won't say whether that was accomplished, although she said progress was made.
GM also won't say how much it spent to develop the car – or what the new one might cost.