There’s no point in sugar-coating it: this was not a great year for General Motors’ all-electric future. It was a year filled with new car announcements but limited new car rollouts, not to mention dialed-back plans for battery plants, questions over demand and problems with highly-anticipated new EV models. But there was one shining ray of hope for GM’s electric game in 2023. It was delivered by a pair of humble heroes who were outclassed and outgunned by many modern EVs and soon face cancellation of their own, and yet still turned out to be a major sales success.
I am, of course, talking about the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Bolt EUV. Accolades for 2023 may go to the Tesla Model Y, Kia EV6 GT or even the Chevrolet Blazer EV, but more than ever, the two Bolt models—and I’ll refer to them as one entity in this story for expediency’s sake—deserve their flowers too.
The data bears this out. Based on numbers from Q3, the most recent GM sales information we have, the automaker delivered more than 56,000 all-electric vehicles in the U.S. before the start of October. Despite concerns over EV demand in general, that represents a record high for GM, and we expect Q4’s results will further bolster that outcome. But of those 56,000 EVs sold at the time, only 6,920 units were the new Ultium-platform EVs: the Cadillac Lyriq, Blazer EV, Hummer EV and so on.
In other words, the nearly 50,000 other EVs sold—88% of GM’s total electric sales—were Bolts.
That’s a hugely impressive outcome for an EV that’s now seven years old, won’t ever tear your face off with some literbike-grade zero-to-60 mph time, and lacks the rapid-fire charging speeds of most newer rivals.
To go deeper, just this year alone, the Bolt:
In a year when almost every automaker decided their approach to electrification would be huge, expensive SUVs and trucks, the Chad energy we got from the Bolt was just unbelievable.
The cancellation and resurrection story is especially notable. GM had been planning that move for a while, since at least last year, when the Bolt was posting far lower sales. It’s based on an older platform and set of batteries, and due to the way it was manufactured, the Bolt was said to be deeply unprofitable; GM decided instead to focus on its newer Ultium cars. But in 2023, very few of those actually appeared on dealer lots. (The car once billed as the Bolt’s “replacement,” the Equinox EV, has also since been delayed.) But the decision proved so unpopular that GM quickly announced a new Bolt was coming soon, an EUV-only “heavy update” on Ultium batteries, modern hardware and new safety equipment.
I’ll note here that this was something even the Chevrolet Camaro—a nearly 60-year-old American performance and motorsports icon—could manage to pull off.
“It’s a remarkable turnaround for the Bolt, which just two years ago was plagued by battery fires and a massive recall,” said Corey Cantor, an electric vehicle analyst with BloombergNEF, the news wire’s energy research division. “GM handled that troubled situation well, and in the end, consumers loved the Bolt so much that they were able to get it ‘uncancelled.'”
But it’s crucial to note why that success happened, because it disproves a lot of assumptions the car companies have made about the electric market.
First, the obvious reason: the price tag. In a year when the average new EV cost around $50,000, a new Bolt or Bolt EUV could easily be had for $25,000 to $35,000, if not less. That meant tens of thousands of buyers got a solid, capable, affordable primary car (or second or third one) that didn’t run on gas at all. It may not have had the massive range or fast charging times of some rivals, but it was a hell of a deal.
Second, the Bolt’s success proves that Americans do want the option of smaller, more affordable cars. Right now, the auto industry is utterly addicted to profit margins from huge trucks and three-row SUVs, and the smaller, cheaper end of the market feels almost purposely neglected by many companies. The Bolt (and also the Tesla Model 3) show us why that tactic may be the wrong play, and why many analysts believe that the original calculation around EVs—that American customers would just want electric versions of the stuff they were already buying—may be wrong after all.
Essentially, there is success to be had in the small, affordable EV market, if the car companies are willing to go there. If the goal is to build up EV adoption and reduce emissions, we need more cars like the Bolt, and not necessarily more $60,000 “performance crossovers.” We need a Toyota Corolla of EVs, a Honda Civic of EVs, and this car’s success is proof. And with a relatively small 65-kilowatt-hour battery pack, the Bolt also proved that gigantic, resource-intensive packs aren’t necessarily what’s needed to win the day.
“As GM struggles with the scale-up of Ultium, and in the U.S. EV market at this moment, the Bolt offers a few useful lessons which may be useful for not only GM but other automakers aiming to capture its market share,” Cantor told me.
“Consumer preferences for electric vehicles may very well differ from the main auto market – and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as 1:1. Smaller BEVs at the right price point, with the necessary range, could be a winner if—unlike the Bolt—it can eventually return a profit. This doesn’t have to be in 2024, but as we look ahead to 2025 and 2026, this represents a vehicle type that consumers may clamor for,” he said.
Key to that will be things like cheaper lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) battery packs, which the next Bolt is due to utilize as well. “Building out that battery supply chain in the next year or so becomes critical,” Cantor added.
But in the immediate term, the Bolt is on the way out. Production ended recently, and though the cars currently on dealer lots will qualify for tax breaks, they won’t all be around forever. Cantor said that puts heightened pressure on GM—it won’t have the Bolt to “fall back on” as 2024 goes on, so given the ongoing challenges with the Ultium cars, we can expect headlines about declining year-over-year EV sales from the General.
“For the U.S. EV market writ-large, it is also a reason why we recently published our year-ahead market outlook that has EV growth slowing to an increase of 32% year-on-year,” Cantor said. “At this point, when you take a high volume model like the Bolt out of the marketplace, without an immediate replacement, there is potential for slower growth ahead. Especially at the $25,000 to $35,000 price range, which, with the exception of some Model 3s, remains out of reach.”
Cantor said a few cheap entries may step up to replace the Bolt, like the Hyundai Kona EV or new Fiat 500e. And if GM can deliver on a proper comeback for the Bolt—keeping its affordable price tag intact, as well as its compact size, without delays or problems—it will likely have another big hit on its hands. “But as always the key is execution, across battery tech, software, pricing and charging. And there’s a long way to go for GM on that front,” Cantor said.
In the meantime, other automakers should take note of the Bolt’s success. There are wins to be had here, and not everything needs to be a gigantic SUV. If the auto industry is serious about transitioning to a truly sustainable future and not just repeating the excessive mistakes of the past, it should pay attention to how this underdog performed in 2023.
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