I don’t care if the Bolt is GM’s Tesla killer

The Chevrolet Bolt EV hit the scene hard at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, both for its great looks and its huge promises. The car is designed to give GM some much-needed eco cred and steal Tesla’s thunder in a hugely embarrassing way. If the production model delivers on GM’s narrative, then we’re going to see an electric car with a bona fide range of 320-kilometres (that’s 200 miles in American English), reasonable pep and good style for 30 thousand US dollars — So it hits right where Tesla’s still-nebulous Model 3 will be. Some day.

The Bolt is a great-looking car that tosses a saucy wink at the Volt, but with a taller, more exuberant form factor. This car just looks fun.

And I still wouldn’t go near it.

Let’s get one thing out of the way upfront: that’s thirty thousand bucks after the US government’s $7,500 green-car tax credit. The MSRP is actually $37,500, or just under a grand shy of what a 2016 Volt Premier edition costs. In Canada, the Volt Premier is $44,500 before whatever credits your province might offer, so extrapolate away about the price for a Bolt. This is neither good nor bad, it’s just a fine thing to bear in mind if you’re thinking about springing for one.

No. The problem is that, no matter how cool the Bolt is, GM doesn’t deserve to hit one out of the park with it. There’s just too much evil genius crap in the company’s past. Minus the ‘genius’ part.

Alex Davies hit on part of the problem in his Wired essay, How GM Beat Tesla to the First True Mass-Market Electric Car (Wired, February 2016). In the article, Davies referenced the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, which traced the line between GM’s ill-fated EV1 and the company’s efforts to kill California’s 1990 Zero-emissions Vehicle Mandate. That film also incidentally brought Elon Musk to my attention. Funny how pie-in-the-sky Musk’s Tesla concept seemed at the time.

The film made the possibly contentious suggestion that, when government pressure for no-emissions cars came on-line, Japanese companies got to work on alternatives while the US makers called their lawyers. Whether that’s strictly true or not, it’s not hard to draw the line between those events and the subsequent market reality, where Toyota sold enough Priuses to expand the line, while GM doubled down on Hummers and such (side note: the official plural is ‘Prii,’ but come on. Nobody says that). Fast-forward to 2008, and GM claimed the lions’ share of a 3.3 billion-dollar bailout of Canada’s auto sector. In the ’States, when the heads of the big three went to Washington to get a bailout, they did it in private jets.

I know, I know: GM’s got a bright, new face. The company cares about the future and all that. I don’t buy it for a minute. It takes a three-second search at gm.com to see that the company’s entire 2015 portfolio included only three hybrid or electric cars, and the Spark EV wasn’t available to individual buyers — Look for a limited release in 2016. Sigh. And the company is aiming for an insignificant 30,000 units when the Bolt hits the street. Toyota offers eight green cars, with the one potential weakness being that the company has gone the hydrogen route for its next big thing. Honda’s got a whole swack of options that run from plug-in hybrids and fuel cells to a natural-gas Civic. Even Ford looks better.

That’s how the traditional car makers face the future. Tesla? Tesla dared us to dream with a witheringly spendy re-tooled Lotus Elise that went like stink, then built on it to bring out a viable luxury sedan and get us excited about an electric SUV. Oh, and open-sourced the tech, built a network of fast-charging stations and now even offers an easy, stylish battery pack for the home.

Look, it takes more than a Volt, a Bolt and a swish Cadillac hybrid to swing a company like GM out of the petroleum muck and make it an agile, forward-looking auto maker. It takes a sense that the company is moving with the times, rather than trying not to lose its shirt or show up an upstart car company with a great image. Tellingly, when Green Car Reports asked GM CEO Mary Barra and her EV team about funding the expansion of an associated charging port network, the answer was an unequivocal ‘no.’

In the unlikely event that I had near-on $50,000 for a car and Tesla actually met a deadline, Elon Musk would get my money, provided the car wasn’t an all-in stinker. Because GM’s power elite want to peg their company’s green cred on a car that will reflect a soupçon of its fleet at best, while Elon wants to change the world.

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