Why Chevrolet Bolt EV Is the Biggest Auto Debut of 2016

With the Chevrolet Bolt EV debut, Detroit took the lead in affordable electric cars
The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt is a game-changer for the industry | General Motors

What was the most hyped auto reveal of 2016? That award goes to the internet-busting Tesla Model 3 at its March showcase. Granted, it was a great show, and hundreds of thousands of consumers saw enough to throw $1,000 toward a chance to buy one sometime in the future, but “the future” is uncertain. General Motors is beating Tesla to the punch with the Chevrolet Bolt EV debut set for 2016. Simply put, it’s the most important car entering the U.S. market this year.

Detroit’s first serious EV

If electric vehicles are the future, Detroit has been stuck in the past. We have seen an excellent plug-in hybrid by Ford (Fusion Energi) and a Green Car of the Year by Chevy (2016’s Volt), but the motor city’s stabs at pure EVs were weak. Ford’s effort was a short-range Focus Electric (76 miles) without fast-charging. GM served up the miniature Spark EV (82 miles), a car without an identifiable consumer base. Fiat-Chrysler plopped a battery inside a 500, creating 500e (87 miles), and made a few thousand a year for California.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV at a Michigan factory
The Chevrolet Bolt EV is rolling off assembly lines in 2016 | General Motors

People in the know have a name for these models: compliance cars. What they did was help legacy automakers comply with clean-air regulations in California; what they didn’t do was create any interest in electric vehicles or generate many sales. In other words, consumers looked at Detroit and saw three manufacturers committed to squeezing every dollar out of trucks and SUVs — and every drop of oil out of the ground to power them.

Chevrolet Bolt EV changes the game, at least for General Motors. It offers 238 miles on a full charge and starts at $37,495. No longer can consumers point to America’s automotive capital as a fossil-to-be. Detroit is on the map in new car tech.

Beating Tesla at its own game

2017 Chevrolet Bolt
Pricing for the Chevrolet Bolt begins at $37,495 | General Motors

Say “electric vehicles” and most people’s first association is “Tesla.” The Fremont-based EV maker deserves every bit of the market it cornered. After all, its three performance cars run without gas and the latest Model S iteration is the quickest production car on the market as of fall 2016. Yet its own stated goal was enabling the transition to sustainable transportation, and that required an electric car for the masses. Unfortunately for Tesla, its solution won’t arrive until 2017.

Chevy Bolt EV will make its debut — if only for Lyft drivers — as much as a year ahead of Model 3. In that respect, GM beat Tesla at its own game. The coup became even more pronounced when news broke that Bolt would feature 238 miles of range (instead of approximately 200). Beating expectations is something Elon Musk is known for, but Chevy got the jump on him this time by beating Model 3’s projected range (215 miles) handily.

We’ll take it a step further. By hitting 238 miles on a single charge, Bolt beat Tesla Model S 60 (210 miles) and 60D (218 miles) at a starting price more than $25,000 less than either sedan. Sure, Bolt is no Model S, but for consumers who want to replace a gasoline car with an EV, Chevy’s new entry is the antidote to range anxiety (even if this anxiety is based largely on a myth). Tesla brought hype to segment; GM hijacked it.

A self-driving, ride-sharing test car

Chevrolet Bolt EV in profile
The Bolt EV’s 238-mile range exceeds that of several Teslas and the projected range of Model 3 | General Motors

Every major automaker is investing in autonomous driving technology as well as electric vehicles. Many also have ride-sharing programs in the works. With the debut of the Bolt EV, GM will make headway on both counts by deploying its new electric car to Lyft programs around the country. Through short-term leases to ride-share drivers, Chevy will collect hundreds of thousands of miles worth of data.

Meanwhile, GM is already testing autonomous Bolt EVs in San Francisco and Scottsdale, Arizona. Performance enthusiasts may laugh at such developments, but the aging Baby Boomer population and perpetually connected (i.e., distracted) younger generations have a clear need for self-driving technology. Again, GM will be the first with significant trial data on EVs running in autonomous mode as ride-sharing vehicles. As car ownership itself changes, this is an important edge.

Likewise, the Bolt’s appearance in Lyft fleets will expose the technology to more (mostly young) people while serving as the test case for autonomous driving’s future. When you think of self-driving cars, a Mustang or Jeep is not the model — Bolt is. Many extraordinary cars hit the market in 2016, but none will be as important to the auto industry as the Chevy Bolt EV. It’s the future, made by a brand so often associated with the past.

Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY