Bolt breakthrough? A tale of two electric cars

Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Los Angeles — Chevy Volt, Fiat 500e, Ford C-Max Energi, Nissan Leaf, Volkswagen E-Golf, BMW i3 ... the Los Angeles Auto Show is Ground Zero for showing off electrified vehicles. California’s green culture and the state-mandated EV quotas make it a natural for all things battery-powered.

2014 B-Class Electric Drive

But unless your name is Tesla — America’s best-selling large sedan — electric vehicles have failed to interest U.S. consumers. EVs make up less than 1 percent of vehicle sales despite a $7,500 federal subsidy plus additional perks in several states including California. One of the most notable disappointments has come from one of the world’s most recognized brands, Mercedes. Its $42,000 battery-powered subcompact B-Class came to market in 2014 — yet is selling just 50 per month on average this year.

This week at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the Chevy Bolt EV took home the Green Car of the Year award. The Bolt is the same size as the Mercedes, boasts similar sub-7-second acceleration, and starts at the same price when comparably equipped.

Yet, Chevrolet is bullish that the Bolt is the answer.

Much of that confidence lies in the Bolt’s breakthrough 238-mile range on a single charge — the first car to achieve that figure under $40,000. The Chevy’s base LT trim will start at $37,495. But the better apples-to-apples comparison to the leather-appointed $42,000 Mercedes is the Bolt’s Premiere trim — also with leather appointments — which will start at just above $41,000.

Though the Mercedes interior design is a class above the Bolt hatchback in materials and presentation, the five-door B-Class manages just 85 miles on a full charge.

“The Bolt lies in a quadrant where nobody else plays,” Chevy Marketing guru Steve Majoros said in an interview next to the Bolt, the centerpiece of Chevrolet’s show stand in LA. “There’s low cost and low range, and there’s high cost and high range — and in the sweet spot there’s low cost and high range, and that’s where we are.”

“We feel confident in the value equation being solved here,” he continued. “This is a solution that consumers have been telling us they are craving. People are very clear — it’s better have a ‘two’ in front of it.” As in 200 miles.

Mercedes concedes that the B-Class has been a learning experience. Notably, it was not present on the Mercedes show stand in Los Angeles.

“Into the future, we have learned that we need to build up the range,” said Matthias Lührs, vice president of Mercedes sales functions. “Over 200 miles is a number customers expect.”

Luhrs says Mercedes is now committed to a new strategy that will produce a separate line of EV vehicles under the “EQ” badge. The plan is similar to BMW’s i-brand that sells the i3 and i8 cars.

“EQ is more than just putting an electric vehicle in the market,” says Luhrs. “That’s one of our key learnings after two or three years of the B-Class. We are going to expand EQ to seven to 10 vehicles beginning with the EQC (a compact crossover) in 2019.”

No coincidence, Luhrs says the EQC is targeted to get a Bolt-like 267 miles of range.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

Chevrolet’s Majoros says GM’s commitment to an EV strategy years ago is bearing fruit. “The commitment we made to Bolt EV wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t commit to Volt Gen 1 in 2010,” he says. “And Volt Gen 2. And Malibu hybrid. This has been a progression. It has been a slow, steady march to where we are today.”

But even with its Tesla-like range, the Bolt EV faces an uphill battle in consumer acceptance, say industry analysts.

“The reality is, we’re still looking at less than one percent of the market for EVs and that number has been there for years,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book. “And it doesn’t matter as we bring out more and more. Consumers are still saying, ‘I’m not familiar with it, I don’t trust it, my neighbor doesn’t have one. What happens ‘if’?’”

She says the challenges of range anxiety and charging time are formidable — challenges only upscale Tesla buyers have accepted.

“People are buying into the Tesla dream. They are not necessarily buying an EV,” says Lindland. “They are excited it’s an EV because it plays into the whole Tesla vision of saving the world. But it’s going to be difficult for any brand to replicate the Cult of Tesla.”

She says the Bolt’s range and price are attractive — but that price has not been a barrier to battery-powered cars.

“You’ve been able to get a Chevy Volt for $199-a-month lease for years,” says Lindland, referring to the Volt’s flat, 20,000-a-year sales since 2012. “It’s not a pricing issue.”

Whatever the future holds for electric cars, automakers will continue to run up the EV hill because it’s not just about customer acceptance. Government rules demand them.

“There are two issues,” says Mercedes’ Luhrs. “One is customer demand, the second one is regulatory circumstances like federal fuel standards in the U.S.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.