Time short for Chevy’s Bolt to take charge

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

The Chevrolet Bolt has the advantage of being the first affordable, long-range electric car to reach the mass market. But being first may not be enough for Chevrolet as the competition for mass-market all-electric cars intensifies, including the long-promised Tesla Model 3.

Despite continued production delays for the Model 3, the Silicon Valley carmaker has something that General Motors Co. is still striving to establish: an image as an innovator. And GM largely has been slow to capitalize on its competitor’s missteps.

Some analysts find GM’s “highly targeted, very calculated” marketing of the electric Bolt lacks needed flair.

“For a brand like Chevrolet, even though they did a fantastic job with the Volt and the Bolt, the reality is they are hamstrung by their heritage,” said Rebecca Lindland, automotive analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “People don’t think of them as a really innovative company — as a tech leader.”

And Lindland says Chevrolet isn’t doing everything it can to challenge Tesla.

“The Bolt doesn’t reflect all of the values of an early adopter like the Tesla-philes,” she said. “The range is great, technology is fantastic, but I was a little disappointed with the interior. It didn’t have that feeling of luxury that makes a consumer feel rewarded for their forward-thinking.”

The Bolt may not have all of the sexy attributes the average Tesla totes, but GM is far ahead of the Silicon Valley automaker on one key element: “The big difference is we’re up and running,” said Paul Edwards, Chevrolet’s president of U.S. marketing.

Tesla still hasn’t proven its mettle as a reliable manufacturer of quality mid-priced cars. And while many diehard Tesla fans and technology geeks will wait as long as it takes to get their Model 3, the average car buyer won’t be so patient.

“People don’t buy 400,000 Honda Accords a year because they’re sexy,” said Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid. “Tesla did well in popularizing the modern electric car, but in terms of being a mass manufacturer of affordable products, it doesn’t look very promising (for Tesla) right now.”

That’s leaving GM feeling fairly confident. CEO Mary Barra told investors in New York last week that the all-electric cousin of the Volt plug-in hybrid has “cracked the code” for putting electric vehicles into the mainstream.

Rolling off showroom floors at around $30,000 after a $7,500 federal tax rebate and claiming a 238-mile range, the Bolt is averaging just under 3,000 units in monthly sales only three months into the national rollout.

GM is also delivering on a future that many of its legacy automaker competitors are still merely promising — gaining favor with the investment community and even putting the Bolt in the same sentence as Tesla’s Model 3, Edwards said.

It’s a fair comparison, given the true test of the Bolt — which is enjoying some league-of-its-own success at the moment — will likely come after the long-awaited $35,000 Model 3 emerges from what CEO Elon Musk called “production hell.”

2017 Chevy Bolt EV.

That’s why it’s puzzling to some industry observers that Chevrolet isn’t making more noise about its product. With all that’s riding on the Bolt for GM — the Detroit automaker is using the compact crossover as a platform for at least two more electric vehicles in the next 18 months — better brand awareness will be key.

“I would have loved to see a lot more fanfare with the national rollout of the Bolt,” Lindland said. “This is really exciting. People love their Volt — there was a lot of evangelism around the Volt. I have to believe there’s some of the same enthusiasm around Bolt, but it’s not readily apparent.”

Edwards says Chevrolet is implementing a “highly targeted, very calculated” marketing strategy for the Bolt. This relies more on a see-for-yourself approach that encourages Chevrolet shoppers to get behind the wheel of the Bolt and put it through its paces. That started with a test drive program at all of the California auto shows last year.

It’s not entirely clear what Chevrolet is doing to lure would-be Model 3 buyers, but Edwards mentioned a social media strategy that is most prevalent in online forums for electric vehicle owners or shoppers.

The online forum is the preferred social platform of Tesla fanboys. Chevrolet hosts forums of its own for the Volt and the Bolt, looking to foster the same zealous loyalty for its flagship EVs.

“We’re welcoming to all buyers,” said Chevrolet’s Bolt spokesman Fred Ligouri, choosing not to comment on targeting Model 3 deposit-holders. “We are cognizant of the fact that competitors will follow us into this space.”

In the meantime, the brand has achieved a level of conversion with the Bolt: Ligouri says early customer surveys show that about three-quarters of Bolt owners are first-time Chevrolet buyers and one-third are first-time electric or hybrid owners.

Chevrolet is classifying the Bolt as a crossover, and while it certainly features more cabin and trunk space than the Volt, the car is really a small hatchback at best. Breaking into the crossover market with an all-electric car will be important as GM attempts to earn the electric mass-market crown.

Delays of its Model 3, above, fuel skepticism about Tesla’s ability to reliably produce quality mid-priced cars. Meantime, Chevrolet is “up and running” with its Bolt, left.

Barra has promised two all-electric crossover entries by 2020.

“If they can provide consumers with quality in a true crossover body style and then really raise consumer awareness, then they have a chance to be really competitive,” Navigant’s Abuelsamid said.

GM is rolling out what it says will be a profitable electric vehicle platform in 2021 that will support multiple brands and segments, and the company is projecting a million EV annual sales worldwide by 2026.

Eventually, the Bolt will have to compete in the mainstream. Ford plans to bring 13 new electric vehicles to the market in the next five years, investing $4.5 billion in electrification. Nissan, Hyundai and Volkswagen all have affordable EVs in the market now, but none with a range that comes close to the Bolt.

But innovator or not, it will still be important for the Bolt and its descendents to compete as the product pool grows.

“Once more product is added to the market, then you’re in the shark tank,” Lindland said. “And everyone is fighting for the same fish.”