Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, sat down for an in-depth interview with Kai Ryssdal, the long time host of American Public Media’s Market Report, a half hour show that focuses on financial matters. Normally, the show features a series of snippets about how various companies are negotiating the crosscurrents of the financial world, but in this case, virtually the entire show was devoted to Barra and her stewardship of GM during the turbulence created by the changeover to building electric vehicles — like the Chevy Bolt.
As most readers know, GM has announced it will stop manufacturing the Bolt this summer. Typically in the car business, factories shut down for a few weeks in late July or early August for annual maintenance and to be reconfigured for changes to the models they produce that will be coming in the next model year.
The time leading up to the annual factory shutdown is referred to as “build-out” in the industry. Usually, a company will not accept orders for new vehicles if their manufacture cannot be completed before the end of the current year’s production run. In fact, there are reports floating around the internet about customers who had ordered a Chevy Bolt being informed (and none to politely) that their orders have been cancelled.
Presumably, the computers that schedule the sequence of manufacturing at the factory decided the orders could not be completed by the time build-out occurs this year. Since there will be no Chevy Bolt production the following model year, there was no alternative but to say, “Thanks for your business but we aren’t making that car anymore. Sorry.” Well, without the “Sorry” part, in this case.
Several years ago, before the Tesla Model 3 was introduced, my wife and I took part in what was called the Global EV Road Trip, organized by supporters of the EV revolution who wanted to introduce the idea of driving an electric car to the United Arab Emirates. We flew to Dubai, where we spent several days driving a selection of EVs, including a few Model S sedans, a Model X, a BMW i3, and a Chevy Bolt.
At the end of the tour, my wife and I agreed that, if it were our money, we would buy a Bolt. The Model S was simply too pricey for our budget (nobody ever got rich writing for an internet blog) and too big. We are lifelong Honda Civic, Saturn SL2 kind of people. While the Teslas were quite spectacular, they were too large for our tastes. The i3 simply did not have enough range for our needs. We both agreed that while the Bolt, while seriously lacking in interior appointments, would be a fine car for us if we decided to go electric.
Chevy Bolt & The Ultium Platform
Barra told Ryssdal during the interview that the Chevy Bolt was built on the GM’s second generation electric car platform. Since then, GM has developed its third generation platform, which it has dubbed Ultium. “The difference between our second generation and third generation technology, which is Ultium, is a 40% reduction in battery cost, and we’re leveraging the names of our vehicles that are better known in the industry,” Barra explained. “People who drive an Equinox today will understand what an Equinox EV delivers to them.”
Then Barra expanded on that to say the Chevy Bolt “is something that has built up a lot of loyalty and equity. So, I can’t say because I don’t discuss product programs, but…that’s an important vehicle in our portfolio.” Does that mean we may see a next generation Chevy Bolt built on the highly flexible Ultium platform? That’s up to you to decide as you parse her words for yourself.
A New Chevy Bolt?
Okay, Mary Barra was being coy, but her remarks certainly suggest a next generation Chevy Bolt may be in the pipeline. And why not? Ultium, like the MEB EV platform that underpins every Volkswagen ID.-branded electric car so far, is infinitely flexible. The wheelbase can be stretched or shortened as needed. It can be made wider or narrower. It can have different wheelbases for different vehicles. And most importantly for electric vehicles, it can have as large or as small a battery pack as is needed to meet the needs of various cars.
The Ultium platform today is the basis for the Hummer EV, the Silverado EV, and the Cadillac Lyriq. It will soon be the platform for the upcoming Equinox EV and Blazer EV. Does that mean it could also work for an updated Chevy Bolt? That’s a definite maybe.
A GM History Lesson
GM has spent a considerable amount of time smoothing and polishing the Chevy Bolt. It has added a slightly larger, more SUV-like version called the Bolt EUV. I have a neighbor who owns a Bolt EUV and drives it back and forth from Ohio to Florida on a regular basis. My colleague Jennifer Sensiba has one as well. Both report being quite pleased with their cars.
A Chevy Bolt is not an Audi, a BMW, or a Tesla. It is what it is, as Bill Belichick likes to say. I drove a Saturn SL2 sedan for a number of years. It was no autocross hero, nor did it have the swagger of a Mercedes. But it served my needs very well at a price I could afford without making me a slave to a huge monthly car payment.
America needs an electric car like that. GM has already invested in the tooling for the Chevy Bolt. If the company was to bring it back on the Ultium platform, it could amortize that tooling over a much longer lifespan and offer something that no one else is offering at the moment — an entry level electric car that is big enough, with enough range, and affordable enough to meet the needs of those who want to drive on electrons instead of molecules while not breaking the bank.
GM has a history of getting cars just right and then pulling the plug (no pun intended). Think of the Corvair that started life as a rather dowdy car that got a midlife makeover into a svelte and stylish vehicle. It got the ax. As Autoblog mentioned in a story about Mary Barra and her Chevy Bolt non-announcement, GM even rolled out a battery-powered Corvair in 1966 dubbed the Electrovair.
GM has a litany of similar stories. The Pontiac Fiero also started life as an ugly duckling that later blossomed into a swan. It got axed. The Cadillac Allante had a gorgeous body designed by PininFarina, but a lump of an engine. When it finally got the engine it deserved — the Northstar V8 — it was discontinued.
We have no way of knowing if a revamped Chevy Bolt is definitely in the cards, but we hope GM doesn’t repeat its past mistakes. America needs affordable EVs. If GM doesn’t build them, someone else will. Right now, GM could have a first mover advantage before Tesla figures it out and before the Chinese learn how to crack the US market. This is a golden opportunity for GM — if they don’t blow it.
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