For years now, the Chevrolet Bolt has held a unique slot in America’s auto fleet: an affordable little electric vehicle that proved Detroit could actually make such a thing.
But this week, the Bolt’s maker, General Motors Co., said that the last copies of the electric compact will roll off the production lines by the end of the year (Greenwire, April 25). America’s biggest automaker will pull its top-selling EV to free up factory space to make bigger — and much more popular and lucrative — electric trucks.
The Bolt’s death notice drew yelps of sadness from EV advocates — especially since Chevy’s hatchback, with a sticker price as low as $26,500, was the least expensive vehicle to qualify for new Biden administration tax breaks. (The next cheapest model now on the market is a Volkswagen starting at just under $39,000.) But tellingly, the news drew only a muted response from drivers, who never really fell in love with a vehicle that suffered some embarrassing battery problems.
The end of the road for the Bolt comes at the beginning of a new era for EVs.
Over the next two or three years, the availability of EVs is poised to transition from just one or two models per automaker to a full slate of vehicles, of many styles and at many price points. Vehicles like the tiny, wedge-shaped Bolt are less popular than SUVs and trucks.
That’s true both for customers, who can’t get enough of larger vehicles, and automakers, who need the higher profit margins from larger vehicles to fund the expensive EV transition.
Observers were conflicted over the Bolt’s demise and what it signifies.
In the eyes of some, it was fitting for the compact to go away as GM and other automakers prepare for an onslaught of models. Others were confounded that GM had chosen to discontinue America’s most inexpensive EV while demand is high.
Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America, a nonprofit group that aims to broaden EV acceptance, said in an email that the move felt “premature.”
“The Bolt is at its peak right now. Sales are high. With great effort and expense, they’ve resolved the battery issues. It’s a great option for consumers that are looking for a long range vehicle at a reasonable price,” he said.
“It will definitely leave a hole in the market,” he added.
The Bolt and its larger cousin, the Bolt EUV, sold 38,000 units last year in the United States. It is the cheapest nationally with a starting price of $26,500. But it ranks as the No. 5 EV seller behind Tesla Inc.’s slate of EVs and the Ford Mach-E SUV.
GM now makes two other EVs, the Cadillac LYRIQ and the GMC Hummer, but both are much larger and more expensive and are so far available only in small volumes.
The Bolt’s decline is coming as GM gears up to bring new mass-market models to showrooms. They include the Chevy Equinox, which will start around $30,000, and the Chevy Blazer, at around $45,000. Both are expected to start production this year.
“The Chevrolet Bolt represents GM’s first serious electric vehicle effort,” said Karl Brauer, an analyst for iSeeCars.com, an automotive search engine. “But the Bolt represents GM’s electric vehicle past, not its future.”
For its part, GM said it was ending production of the Bolt because the factory in which it’s made needs to close for retooling.
The Orion plant, just north of Detroit, is preparing for the making of two electric pickup trucks, the GMC Sierra and the Chevrolet Silverado. “We’ve progressed so far that it’s now time to plan the end of Chevrolet Bolt EV and EUV production,” GM CEO Mary Barra said on a call with investors Tuesday to announce the company’s most recent financial results.
Third time’s not the charm
GM is infamous for killing electric cars.
Way back in 2002, after a short run, it ended production of the EV1, America’s very first mass-produced EV. The opaque reasons behind its termination led to the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which turned the EV into a political cause and an early actor in the emerging debate over climate change.
Between the EV1 and the Bolt — and another, smaller experiment called the Spark — came another high-profile EV. Like that Bolt, it would come to market with innovative technology and high expectations but meet with disappointing sales.
Even its name was similar: It was called the Volt.
Today, the Volt’s vehicle class is called a plug-in hybrid. When it was introduced in 2010, however, no one knew what to call it. China was the first to introduce the basic idea: a vehicle that runs primarily on a battery, with a backup gasoline engine. When GM introduced its version to American drivers, it called it an “extended range electric car.”
Sales never reached GM’s hopes; the car ended production in 2018 having sold a total of about 177,000 units. By comparison, Tesla sold more than 462,000 EVs in the United States in the last year alone.
What would become the Volt’s successor — the Bolt — was introduced at the Detroit Auto Show in 2015.
It ditched the backup gasoline engine and was pure electric. It was similar in size to another mass-market EV, the Nissan LEAF, which had been introduced in 2010.
However, the Bolt was the first attempt by a U.S.-based automaker to make a pure-electric vehicle intended to be sold in every state, not just to meet regulatory requirements in California.
Its proposition was very similar to what ended up becoming the reality: a range of 200 miles or better with a price around $30,000. At the time, Barra called it “a game-changing electric vehicle designed for attainability, not exclusivity.”
“In some ways, everything about the Bolt seemed like a good idea,” said Mike Ramsey, an auto analyst for the consultancy Gartner, of the Bolt. “It provided a very nice range at a relatively low price.”
While the Bolt had its fans, the compact never generated a ton of excitement.
“Seeing one of these on the road doesn’t evoke any strong emotions in the looks department,” wrote Zander Sutton, an automotive blogger, in a review of the Bolt EUV, which was introduced in 2016. “They were never the prettiest cars on the road … but there’s little to be offended by.”
Any buzz that the Bolt may have generated was sucked up by another entry-level EV that became a global sensation: the Tesla Model 3. It was “a stylish car with better performance and range — albeit at a higher price.” Ramsey said.
Then, in 2021, a safety problem engulfed the Bolt brand. A series of battery fires destroyed 16 Bolts, resulting in a series of recalls that came to encompass every Bolt that GM had sold. Drivers were warned “to park their vehicles outside and away from structures, and to not charge the vehicles overnight.”
“That took most of the wind out of the sails for the Bolt and unfortunately consigned it to a sort of second-tier product,” Ramsey said.
Finally, technology is passing the Bolt by.
In 2020, GM said that all its future models would share a new battery technology, called Ultium. The platform, co-developed with Korean battery maker LG Chem Ltd., is the basis for all of GM’s upcoming slate of EVs, including models now on the market like the Cadillac LYRIQ and the GMC Hummer.
“GM likely was faced with a decision about updating and/or refreshing the Bolt with new electrical systems to support its other services-based ambitions,” Ramsey said, “and decided it would discontinue it rather than not have the capabilities the other EVs in the lineup would have.”
A version of this report first ran in E&E News’ Climatewire. Get access to more comprehensive and in-depth reporting on the energy transition, natural resources, climate change and more in E&E News.