Is the electric Chevy Bolt gaining on Tesla?

Energy-efficient, inexpensive, and on sale next year, Chevy's Bolt is giving other electric vehiclemakers a run for their money.

Paul Sancya/AP/File
The Chevrolet Bolt EV debuts at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan. 11, 2016.

Chevrolet is pulling ahead in its race with Tesla to sell a long-range electric vehicle (EV) for under $30,000.

The General Motors subsidiary announced Tuesday its 2017 Bolt, scheduled to reach dealerships by the end of the year, has been federally certified to travel 238 miles per charge. The Model 3, which Tesla began to accept preorders for in the spring, will only be to travel about 200 miles per charge.

Electric vehicles have not become mainstream in the United States, as they account for less than 1 percent of all vehicles sales in the country. But, experts have said a mid-range vehicle that can travel at least 200 miles on a single charge could change that. If the Bolt delivers on its promise, it could be just that car.  

"The Bolt makes other automakers' new electric vehicles obsolete before they even hit the road," Eric Noble, president of the CarLab consultancy in Orange, Calif., told Detroit Free Press auto critic Mark Phelan. "GM is about to change customers' expectations of the range and cost of electric cars. This raises the bar for all other automakers."

"The roomy Bolt is Chevrolet's bid to shake up the auto industry and convince regular drivers their next car should be electric," writes Mr. Phelan. "The Bolt’s range and price make it affordable and practical enough to compete not just with electric cars, but with family favorites like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry."

However, other analysts aren't sure the reception the Bolt is receiving will translate to an EV revolution, pointing out consumers' concerns about EVs' range, price, location of charging stations, and uncertainty about qualifying for tax credits. (The price tag on the Bolt is $37,500. Only the first 200,000 vehicles sold will be eligible for $7,500 in tax credits.)

"Coming out of the gate with a higher number than [Tesla] is quite positive," Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds senior analyst, told the Los Angeles Times. "But given the market situation, with green cars not getting much traction, it's still an uphill battle."

The EPA-certified 238-mile travel distance of the Bolt is the most of any car in that price range. Only Tesla's Model S sedan and Model X crossover can travel that far per charge. But their average cost is $110,000.

Tesla founder and chief executive Elon Musk has promised the Model 3 will deliver the same distance at a cost of just $30,000. While the automaker started to accept preorders for the vehicle in spring, production won't start until at least 2017. And Mr. Musk has previously failed to deliver on timelines for vehicle releases.

In addition to other automakers and analysts, GM has said 200 miles per charge is the distance electric vehicles need to travel for American consumers to be interested in buying them. Americans drive an average distance of less than 40 miles a day. With no mid-range EV available now that hits the 200-mile mark those vehicle sales have stalled, after climbing the past four years, as Stephen Edelstein of Green Car Reports wrote for The Christian Science Monitor in April.

But global EV sales increased significantly in 2015, bolstered by sales in China, western Europe, Japan, and even Canada, according to the US Department of Energy. 

"While the US did not follow last year's global trend, it's possible that things will begin to turn around soon," wrote Mr. Edelstein. "Carmakers and other entities continue to work on expanding charging infrastructure, which remains a major obstacle to widespread adoption."

The release of the Bolt, and the competition it has fueled with Tesla and other automakers, is also encouraging.

In the race with Tesla, however, Chevy lacks the "cool factor" inherent in Tesla, Caldwell told the Los Angeles Times. 

"GM is going to make a great car that will be as good or better than the Model 3, from an engineering standpoint," she said. "But they don't have that kind of cachet."

That didn't seem to bother auto critic Phelan of the Detroit Free Press, however.  

"A short drive in one of the few Bolts that have been built makes the case for converting to an EV. The five-passenger car is roomy, comfortable, quiet and most of all normal. Driving it feels like driving any other good small hatchback or sedan, despite the fact that it's battery-powered," he wrote 

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