Commercially viable electric vehicles (EVs) have been on America's roads for more than a decade now. But for the average car buyer, they're still a hard sell. The driving range is limited, the recharging situation is confusing and the price is rarely right. Consider that the least expensive Tesla option at this point starts at around $70,000.
That may all change in a hurry, though, with the long-anticipated release of the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, expected to hit dealerships later this year. The first early assessments are popping up in major industry publications, and they're the kind of reviews the word "rave" was invented for.
"With the arrival of the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, the electric car reaches a major milestone," reads the enthusiastic review over at Car and Driver, which provides some historical industry perspective: "Electric cars appear to have laid down permanent roots in the automotive landscape with the first long-range, affordable EV from an established, mainstream automaker."
The price tag is the first thing buyers are likely to linger on. The Bolt starts at $37,495, but with federal tax credits and other incentive programs, the overall cost can drop well below $30,000.
The Bolt also goes a ways toward smoothing the big speed bump with all-electric, plug-in vehicles - range. The EPA estimated range rating for the Bolt EV is 238 miles, which is more than analysts expected and plenty high enough to satisfy the average city and suburb driver. With a number like that, drivers don't have to worry about being stranded on their commute.
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The expanded range rockets Chevy past the competition. Most small electrics hover at or below the 100-mile range. Tesla's Model S delivers a range between 208 miles and 315 miles, but it costs more than twice as much as a Bolt. The less expensive Tesla Model 3 is expected to have competitive numbers in cost and range, but it's not due until late next year.
"Having a range of over 200 miles is a game changer, and it broadens the appeal of the Bolt," Jake Fisher, director of auto testing with Consumer Reports, told Seeker. "Up until now, you either had a very short-range electric car or you had a Tesla. Now Tesla has the range, but not at an affordable price."
All of this gives Chevy an advantage in attracting first-time buyers looking for a more manageable entry price - for the next year or so, at least. The Bolt is seen within the automotive industry as a key test of whether EV technology can go mainstream. "So, yes, old-school Detroit beat Silicon Valley to the punch with an affordable long-range EV," reads the verdict at Consumer Reports.
Early indications suggest General Motors in ramping up for healthy business. The manufacturer that makes the Bolt's batteries, South Korean company LG Chem, recently announced it expects the automaker to sell more than 30,000 Bolts next year. By comparison, Tesla sold about 50,000 vehicles in 2015. Dealerships are taking pre-orders and full-scale production is reportedly underway at the Orion assembly plant in Michigan.
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The principle downside to the Chevy Bolt, according to the emerging critical consensus, concerns longer trips. Chevrolet can't currently match Tesla's national network of supercharger stations - the EV equivalent of the good old gas station. Bolt buyers can opt for direct-current fast-charging capability via a Combined Charging System (CCS) port, but Car and Driver reports that as of September 2016, there are about 1,061 CCS fast-charging connectors in the United States, versus 2,010 Tesla Supercharger hookups.
Still, the expanded range, low price and remarkably warm welcome for the Bolt suggests we may be finally turning the corner on electric cars.
"This could really change things in terms of how people look at electric cars," Fisher said. "Instead of looking at them as either these expensive science projects, or these [short-range] city cars, this is a car that can really be very functional and practical."
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