DETROIT—Volt or Bolt, the choice will soon be yours. General Motors is plugging in with a vengeance, going after Tesla’s upcoming Model 3 with an all-new 200-mile, $30,000 electric car, and trying to hold on to its existing market with a much improved Volt for 2016.
“The Volt we’re phasing out is America’s best-selling plug-in car,” said Andrew Farah, the new Chevrolet Volt’s chief engineer. “We’ve had a great ride with the current vehicle—650 million pure EV miles driven. Owners are driving them electric 80 percent of the time.”
But the 2016 model Chevrolet is phasing in is better, with 50 electric miles, instead of 38, and full seating for five (instead of four). Range jumps to 420 miles from 300. The old Volt in electric mode achieved 98 MPGe; the new one is 102. Zero to 60 is now 8.4 seconds, and zero to 30 is 2.6 (a 19 percent improvement). The gas engine was 37 mpg; now it’s 41.
The 2016 Volt offers an all-new 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with direct injection and 101 horsepower at 5,600 rpm. A big plus, it operates on regular gas.
James Bell, GM’s director of consumer affairs, says that the company listened to its loyal base of Volt owners on such matters as range, seating and dashboard design. “People would love to have 500 miles of EV range, but we think they’ll love what they can do with 50,” he said. “We’ve really raised the bar. Volt owners will be going to gas stations only every 1,000 miles.”
The Volt battery pack is 20 pounds lighter, has a 20 percent increase in cell storage capacity, and is now 18.4 kilowatt hours (from 16). It fits in essentially the same t-shaped space in the 2016 model.
The 2016 Volt is also objectively better looking than the original car, sleeker and more aerodynamic, but with a clearly visible Volt family resemblance. The interior, which suffered from annoying "modern" controls with little haptic feedback, is now much more conventional--a good move.
We know less about the compact Bolt, which was revealed to the world by the Wall Street Journal January 9. But I reported back in October that GM was talking about a 200-mile, $30,000 Tesla challenger, and now it could hit the market in 2017 (also the target date for the Model 3). In Detroit, the Bolt concept was rolled out right after the new Volt. U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) got to sit in the driver's seat, and proclaimed, "It's a nice design. I like it. Give me two." GM keeps insisting that the Bolt "is a concept car," but at the same time they also say there's a real production commitment. Getting this car into production in 2017 would be quite a feat, though.
The Bolt, which could be sold internationally, has some family resemblance to the Chevy Spark; it's a relatively restrained design that could indeed see production with little modification,. And it's a big gamble for GM CEO Mary Barra, who is much in evidence here at the Detroit Auto Show (and called the Bolt "an EV for everyone"). She showed the flag at Buick’s press reveal on Sunday night, when the big-in-China division rolled out not only a new production convertible (the Cascada) but a very good-looking concept car, the Avenir, that GM President Dan Ammann called “a pretty good indication of where we see Buick as a brand going.”
Could there be a Buick-branded Bolt (or Volt) clone? A Cadillac Bolt? So far Buick hasn’t seen much green tech, though the mild hybrid eAssist version of the LaCrosse is selling well, Buick spokesman Robert Peterson said.
The Volt has been selling steadily, but at fairly low volumes. A $30k all-electric car with four times the range could really take off. We hear that Tesla may have trouble bringing in the Model 3 at such a low price, so the Bolt could be the value leader. Competition like this is only healthy for the future of EVs.