If a more affordable electric car with substantial range is on your radar, the choice is between a Tesla Model 3 and Chevrolet Bolt EV. While many cars have been hinted at or suggested by automakers, these two are the only ones we have seen in relatively concrete form with projected release dates. Both will offer more than 215 miles of range and cost less than $37,500 before incentives. By the end of 2017, Americans will be able to buy one or the other.
Obviously, much could change by then. For example, Tesla may have setbacks during the Model 3’s development. Or Chevy may get negative feedback from early Bolt buyers. Nissan, a third party, might even unveil a new Leaf. Maybe it will be another false start for the plug-in segment as a whole. Yet the opposite is just as likely: Consumers will have the opportunity to decide between two excellent EVs representing the first viable options in mainstream electric transportation.
We have discussed advantages Tesla Model 3 has in exterior style, acceleration, and access to the Supercharger network. This time around, we focus on Chevy Bolt EV advantages over its primary competitor. There are three that come to mind.
1. $7,500 tax credit for early buyers
How important is the federal tax credit for electric cars to most buyers? Considering the Bolt and Model 3 are supposed to be the first “affordable” EVs, we’d say somewhere between “everything” and “huge.” In the case of the Bolt EV, the $7,500 credit (to those paying at least $7,500 in income tax) would knock the sticker price ($37,495) below $30,000, and the number includes destination charges. Without worrying about paying for gas, that makes this Chevy a legitimately affordable car.
Most early Bolt EV buyers will have access to that incentive because GM’s allowance (every manufacturer gets 200,000 tax credits) is only about half used up and the car is shipping to dealerships in 2016. Meanwhile, Tesla’s credits are also nearly half used. But by the time Model 3 becomes available in late 2017 (if all goes according to plan), there may only be 30,000 or 40,000 left. Those would be shared with Model S and Model X.
This bad news gets worse for lower-income buyers when recalling Tesla will fill heavily optioned Model 3 orders first. In other words, buyers paying top dollar essentially get free Autopilot and other options. Those looking to buy one closer to the base sticker price could find themselves paying the full amount or settling for the halved ($3,750) credit.
We estimate 80,000 Bolt buyers could have access to the tax credit. Depending on how the Model 3 release plays out, there may be only half that number for Tesla buyers, and most could go to upper-income consumers. This issue matters little to Tesla’s current clientele, but the mainstream market is quite different. Bolt has the upper hand here.
2. 238 miles of range
When the concept of an EV with legitimate range (at least 200 miles) at a reasonable price (below $40,000) emerged, plug-in advocates and enthusiasts were happy to see those benchmarks met. Then Tesla blew past the range mark by promising 215 miles at the first Model 3 reveal. With more range and a lower base price than Bolt, Model 3 looked great to consumers.
But GM responded with even more range. The EPA-estimated 238 miles sets a new standard in this rapidly evolving segment. Journalists who tested the Bolt confirmed the range was legit in real-world driving conditions. Therefore, we have a new bar, and to our surprise, Chevy set it.
Tesla may very well respond in kind by exceeding its own initial range estimate or Chevy’s new mark. Then again, the electric car maker may take the same approach it has with Model S and Model X by offering more range as an up-sell. If a base Model 3 has considerably less range than Bolt, Tesla will lose some of its status as segment leader and primary innovator.
3. Fact vs. speculation
There are few mysteries about Chevy Bolt at this point. We have seen the production model; we know its range and sticker price. Furthermore, we know California dealers are taking reservations for deliveries by the end of this year. Chevrolet Bolt EV is a real car that Americans will drive before the New Year.
We know much less about Tesla Model 3. The details are still sketchy about infotainment, range, final price, front fascia styling, and the cost of Supercharger access. Most importantly, we have no idea when we will see the finished prototype and when Model 3 deliveries begin. Anything can happen between now and “late 2017.”
For its part, Chevy Bolt will spend 2017 as the daily driver or many Americans and a key part of Lyft fleets on the West Coast. While there are drawbacks to being first on the market, consumers have heard the tales of future electric vehicles so many times we imagine they’ll be happy to see one available.
Most people in the industry framed this battle as “a race” between automakers. GM won that race. It’s now up to Tesla to respond.
Follow Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY