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The Bolt EV, Chevy’s affordable and long-range electric car, arrives at dealerships

The EPA rated the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV at 238 miles per charge. Charles Fleming test drives one to see if that’s accurate.

The Bolt EV, the new electric car from General Motors’ Chevrolet division, was being unloaded from trucks Tuesday at dealerships in California and Oregon.

Customers who pre-ordered the cars can pick them up, and tire-kickers can get a close look at the vehicle, which was named Motor Trend magazine’s Car of the Year for 2017.

The Bolt EV marks a turning point in the development of the electric car – the first mid-market all-electric capable of traveling more than 200 miles on a single charge.

The base price is $37,495 but state and federal incentives bring the final price tag down to the $29,000 zone. Chevy pegs the range at 238 miles.

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At Fremont Chevrolet on Tuesday morning, Bobby Edmonds was one of three customers picking up a Bolt EV, his in an orange metallic color.

The 39-year-old recently sold his BMW i3. Two years ago, that car “was the best EV for what I wanted.” But now, the Bolt EV seems like a better car, he said.

“I like technology. I always have to have the latest and greatest,” Edmonds, of Castro Valley, said. The Bolt EV has enough range for “no anxiety.”

“I never drive more than 240 miles in a day,” he said.

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The hatchback also presents a challenge and an assist for Tesla. A challenge, because it will directly compete with the upcoming Model 3, Tesla’s first mid-market car, set to go on sale late in 2017. An assist, because if successful at all, the Bolt EV will help seed the market for the Model 3 and similar electric cars.

General Motors’ new electric car, the Chevrolet Bolt EV, is beginning to arrive at dealerships in California and Oregon. (Dec. 13, 2016)

“What has been missing from the electric vehicle conversation is a car that is priced around the average of all cars,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Autotrader. “The Bolt EV is intended to slot into that spot, as is the Tesla Model 3, though that remains some time away.”

The biggest problem for all-electric cars in the U.S.: Customers have failed to flock to them. Of nearly 18 million cars and light trucks to be sold in 2016, fewer than 1% are EVs.

The low price of gasoline is also working against electrics; fuel economy has fallen down the list of consumer concerns as they move in large numbers toward sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and crossovers. Sales of electric cars and plug-in hybrids have declined.

Still, electric car champions believe longer ranges and lower prices will win consumers over.

With the success of its Model S luxury sedan, Tesla proved that auto enthusiasts will buy electric cars if they’re long-range with a good ride and attractive styling.

The Model 3 will use different battery technology and will come with automated driving features that the Bolt EV does not have.

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Edmonds, the Bolt EV customer, said he didn’t buy a Tesla because it’s too expensive. But he said he would compare his new car to the Model 3 when it is becomes available.

“I don’t do anything on impulse. But I don’t have any brand loyalty either,” he said. 

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk has criticized automakers for not being aggressive enough with electric vehicles. During an October earnings call with stock analysts, Musk implied that car companies are failing to recognize a major shift in consumer preference and will make only enough EVs to meet California’s Zero Emission Vehicle rules, which require that about 15% of vehicles sold in the state annually by 2025 emit no tailpipe pollutants.

“What you will see our competitors do is they will limit their production, and they will only sell in ZEV states or almost entirely in ZEV states,” he said. “That doesn’t scale. That will take them to maybe 40,000 units or 50,000 units a year, best case, but we’re talking about doing 500,000 units a year.”

Chevrolet’s chief executive, Alan Batey, rejects that notion, at least for his company.

“When it comes to electric, this is our investment in the future,” he said at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. “The Bolt EV and the Volt are not being sold as compliance vehicles.”

The Volt is the Chevy plug-in hybrid introduced in 2010 that vaulted General Motors to the forefront of electric vehicle technology. When the battery runs low, a small gasoline engine powers an electric generator to extend the range. Analysts estimate Chevy will sell 23,000 of them this year.

Chevy won’t reveal production and sales targets for the Bolt EV. By mid-2017, it will be available at dealers across the U.S., said Kathy Beslic, advertising and marketing manager for Chevy electric vehicles. She declined to say how many Bolt EV pre-orders the company received.

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Bolt EVs
Bolt EVs at Fremont Chevrolet.
(Russ Mitchell)

California is a natural place to begin, she said. “There’s an established customer base here already.”

Of a cumulative 400,000 electric vehicles sold in the U.S., California accounts for 54% of those, according to the International Energy Agency. Most were purchased in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, although Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach are popular spots for electric car sales, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.

A relatively extensive charging network and plentiful HOV lanes on freeways make the state more electric friendly, Beslic said.

It remains to be seen how heavily Chevy will market the Bolt EV. Potential Bolt EV customers are “very tech-focused and digitally savvy,” so digital campaigns will be front and center. “Not so much on television,” she said.

Motor Trend recently named the Bolt EV its Car of the Year for 2017 — calling it as fun to drive as a Volkswagen Golf or a Mazda 3, with 200 horsepower and a zero-to-60 time of 6.3 seconds. It’s not just a great electric car, the magazine said, but “a great commuter vehicle in every respect.”

With the Bolt EV’s 238-mile range and its mid-market price, General Motors “has made the electric-powered transport of the masses a reality,” about a year ahead of the Tesla Model 3’s projected launch date, the magazine said.

Bani Paulus, general manager of Fremont Chevrolet, said EVs might be a hard sell elsewhere, but at the Fremont dealership — the top Volt dealer in the country — they’re popular. 

“There are well over 60 customers on the waiting list” for the Bolt EV, he said. “They sell themselves.”

Bolt EVs are scheduled to arrive in L.A. dealerships in the next few days.

russ.mitchell@latimes.com

Twitter: @russ1mitchell

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UPDATES:

10:25 a.m. This article was updated with details from Fremont Chevrolet.

This article was originally published at 9:20 a.m.


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