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2 Dudes in a Car: The Chevy Bolt grows on you, fast

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

It’s a mistake to call the Chevrolet Bolt a Tesla-killer, as many people do. General Motors’ first mass-market all-electric car won’t kill Tesla, and GM (GM) doesn’t need to kill Tesla (TSLA), anyway. There’s plenty of room for both companies, especially since Tesla is tiny, even with its gigantified market value.

The Chevy Bolt might actually be something more important than a Tesla-killer: A full-throated vote of confidence in the future of electric vehicles, voiced by one of the hidebound giants waiting to be disrupted by an upstart. If GM is rolling out compelling electric cars, then they must really be here to stay.

That might be a bit unfair to GM, which unveiled the partially electric Chevy Volt back in 2011, shortly after emerging from bankruptcy. The Volt could go about 35 miles on battery power alone before a gasoline-powered generator kicked in, giving the car unlimited range. That eliminated “range anxiety,” or the worry about running out of battery power while miles away from a charging station.

The all-electric Bolt goes more than 200 miles on battery power, with no gas-powered backup. So it’s not suitable for people who have only one car they need to take on long trips from time to time. But that’s okay, because all electrics face the same range limits—and among those, the Bolt may be the best of the bunch so far, given its price.

Here’s what the Bolt has going for it: Practical hatchback packaging. A relatively reasonable price, starting around $38,000, not including a $7,500 federal tax credit. Crisp acceleration and go-kart handling, as my colleague Pras Subramanian discovers in the video above. Mainstream (if pedestrian) looks that might draw traditionalists to the electric side. And all those comparisons with Tesla, which are overstated but probably do the Chevy brand a lot more harm than good.

Tesla, of course, is the innovative disruptor led by Elon Musk that’s supposed to drive GM, Ford (F), Toyota (TM) and Honda, out of business, if, that is, it can ever build more than 100,000 cars per year and turn a profit. Tesla’s three models up till now—a two-seat roadster, a luxury sedan and a related SUV—have all sold for prices in the high-five- or low-six figures and served as playthings for 1 percenters. The Model 3 sedan, coming late this year or early next, is supposed to be the company’s first mass-market vehicle and, as such, its ticket to profitability.

The Bolt, on sale now in some states and going nationwide by the fall, has earned kudos for beating the Model 3 to market. But so what, really. The Bolt and Model 3 are two different kinds of cars appealing to different types of consumers. The Bolt makes no pretense of luxury, one reason it’s a Chevy and not a Cadillac. The interior might be playful and futuristic, but plush, it is not. And the hatch design, reminiscent of a European economy car, is about the last thing luxury buyers want these days.

The Model 3, by contrast, must carry the fancy DNA of Tesla’s Model S, which amounts to a blend of physical and digital opulence. Chevy Bolt buyers won’t really care about the quality of the stitching on their vehicle interiors, and Model 3 owners probably won’t complain if they have to spend an extra $5,000 or even $10,000 to get the features they want. If the market for EVs is ever to expand beyond its current 0.3% share of the market, there will need to be room for both these cars, and many others.

We can’t yet evaluate the Model 3 because it’s not out yet, but the Bolt has earned a rightful place in America’s driveways, with impressive innovation, friendly performance and an overall value proposition that ought to improve as more people adopt the technology. Instead of competing with the Tesla Model 3, the Chevy Bolt may be paving the way for it.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman