Commentary

Electric Vehicles Get Cheaper And Extend Their Range

Even as gas prices hit their lowest points since the recession in 2009 and with experts predicting oil could go below $40 a barrel in coming months, the North American Auto Show opened in Detroit yesterday with lots of buzz about electric cars that will be hitting the road soon with more than twice the roving capacity of the current affordable offerings.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra “officially took the wraps off of what’s become the least well-guarded secret in the auto biz: a $30,000 plug-in electric car aimed at middle America, with a range, she said, that would hit 200 miles,” reportsForbes’ Dan Bigman.

It will be called the Chevy Bolt EV — that’s with a B — and is “no stripped-down science experiment,” according to Barra, although GM isn’t saying when it will hit showrooms. Observers were guessing that it could be within a year or a year and a half.

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GM also introduced a new model of the Volt, the gas/electric hybrid that first hit the pavement in 2010. The 2016 model will have an EPA-rated 50-mile range for the battery pack compared to 36 miles for the current model, reports Jalopnik’s Matt Hardigree, which “isn’t half bad” since the average commute is 40 miles. 

“Overall driving range increases to 420 miles on a full charge with a full tank of fuel, and economy increases to 41 MPG combined with 102 MPG-E,” he reports.

As for looks, the new Volt is “impressively unremarkable,” remarks Seth Fletcher in Scientific American, and that should boost sales in the heartland. “Aside from the sharp silver grille, it looks more like a Ford Focus or a Honda Civic than a car from the future,” he explains. “Gone are the geekier flourishes of the first-gen Volt: the ugly black stripe under the side windows, the instantly dated, iPod-inspired center controls.”

What that all adds up to is “a nice little car that any normal American would be seen driving.” 

The Bolt is clearing targeting the Tesla Model 3, which is scheduled to roll out with a 2017 model in the $35,000 range, John D. Stoll reports in the Wall Street Journal. But it represents a big risk for Barra, who green-lighted its development when she was product chief. “The old GM would have milked the cash cow until it was dry,” AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson tells Stoll, pointing out that the big bucks are in trucks and SUVs, particularly as gas prices plummet. 

“The new GM, he said, is showing signs that it is willing to take the long view,” writes Stoll. “[Jackson] estimates electric cars will compose 2% of the U.S. market, at most, in five years. 

But John Krafcik, president of TrueCar Inc. and former CEO of Hyundai Motor America, tells the Los Angeles Times’ Jerry Hirsch and Brian Thevenot that the Bolt could be “the first mass-market EV success.”

“A 200-mile EV range at about $30,000 in a crossover body shape is a killer combination,” says Krafcik. “You are looking at annual sales of 100,000 vehicles.”

Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk — “perhaps the most polarizing person in Detroit this week,” as the Detroit Free Press’ Nathan Bomey puts it — will have his say when he conducts a Q&A session at the Automotive News World Congress this afternoon. 

“Not adverse to blasting the traditional auto industry or firing his own deputies, Musk’s appearance in Detroit will inevitably serve to highlight the differences between the Musk way and the Detroit way,” writes Bomey.

Musk’s $71,000-plus Model S electric vehicle, with a range of 208 to 253 miles, saw sales rise 50% last year and stock in his company finished the year up 45% after a volatile ride. In July, Tesla announced that it would have the Model 3 ready for 2017.

Meanwhile, sales of the Nissan Leaf — which “can get you 84 miles on a single charge,” — were up 34% last year reports Bomey in another story. And Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn told reporters yesterday that it would soon be competing with the Bolt and the Tesla Model 3.

“We are the leaders and we frankly intend to continue to be the leaders,” Ghosn said at the show yesterday. “Generations of EVs coming are going to get better, less costly, lighter, more autonomous.”

For more coverage of the Detroit Auto Show, see Karl Greenberg’s Marketing: Automotive column today about icons, coupes and super cars.

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