2017 Chevrolet Bolt EVEnlarge Photo
The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV may be the most eagerly awaited electric car since the original Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt (plus everything Tesla).
Its claimed 200-mile range and pre-incentive price of $37,500 will make it unique if it launches this December as expected.
And there's been much press coverage of whether or not the Bolt EV will compete with the Tesla Model 3--and what that will mean if so.
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A mass-market, apple-pie brand like Chevy doesn't appear to be a natural competitor for a tech-forward luxury brand like Tesla.
On the other hand, Chevy Volt buyers aren't like any other Chevy owners in income, location, attitudes, and other characteristics.
They're the kind of buyers the bowtie brand has had great difficulty attracting after 30 years of Japanese-brand incursion into mass-market cars. They're coastal, forward-looking, and often more highly aware of environmental issues.
2014 Chevrolet Spark EV - First Drive, Portland, July 2013Enlarge Photo
By announcing the Bolt EV with a specific range and price, GM immediately seized the lead and raised the bar in affordable long-range battery-electric cars.
And it put the designers of the Nissan Leaf, BMW i3, Volkswagen e-Golf, and other affordable models with lower ranges on notice that they'd better up their game, quickly.
As for the Tesla Model 3, to be revealed this March, production was originally announced for the "end of 2016" when it was called the Model E.
The latest date is late 2017, and analysts remain skeptical that Tesla can hit that target, given its history of lateness with every previous model.
Tesla factory, Fremont, CaliforniaEnlarge Photo
So the Bolt EV will pioneer a category--affordable long-range electric cars--just as the Model S pioneered the first desirable long-range electric cars in 2012.
But beyond competing with a Tesla model whose production date remains fairly uncertain, we think the Bolt EV has a more overarching purpose.
That would be to neutralize Tesla Motors, the first serious startup auto company in the U.S. since just after World War II, which we conclude GM has come to view as a serious threat
ALSO SEE: It's Official: General Motors Now Sees Tesla As A Threat (Jul 2013)
In the auto industry, Tesla was largely dismissed as a sideshow even after its all-electric Roadster struggled into production in 2009.
But that changed when the company showed a Model S body-in-white at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show.
It was swamped with engineers and executives from all over the world, who basically concluded that this was the structure for a real all-electric, high-performance luxury car.
Toyota Motor Corporation president Akio Toyoda, at Tesla stand, 2011 Detroit Auto ShowEnlarge Photo
Eighteen months later, in the summer of 2012, Tesla delivered its first few Model S production cars.
And within nine months, every global carmaker had gotten a chance to drive, test, tear apart, or otherwise spend time with a Model S.
That was when things changed.
CHECK OUT: GM's 200-Mile Bolt EV Mantra: 'For Regular People, Not Elites' (Jun 2015)
The German luxury makers, for example, started to take battery-electric cars far more seriously once Tesla had shown what could be achieved.
In its Warren Technology Center and its Detroit headquarters towers, General Motors convened a panel under then-CEO Dan Akerson to study how much of a threat Tesla posed.
As it worked to strengthen its recovery from the 2009 bankruptcy and government-backed restructuring, the GM of 2013 was working on a second-generation Volt plug-in hybrid--its plug-in halo car.
2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015Enlarge Photo
Sales of the first-generation Volt had not met highly-publicized targets. They also exposed the huge challenges of selling a new kind of Chevy to a very different type of buyer through existing, old-school franchised dealers.
Yet here was Tesla, already starting to eat into sales of the largest luxury sedans from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz in California, one of their richest markets. Without a single dealer, no less.
“In the old days, they would’ve said, ‘It’s a bunch of laptop batteries and don’t worry about it and blah, blah, blah,’” GM's then-vice chairman Steve Girsky told Bloomberg at the time.
GM never officially commented on the results of its study of Tesla, but events, statements, and products in the 30 months that followed paint an interesting picture.
Here's the timeline.
June 2013: GM's then-CEO Dan Akerson assigns "a small team to study [Tesla] and how it might threaten the 104-year-old automaker’s business," according to Girsky.
September 2013: The market capitalization of Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] hits 43 percent of the value of General Motors [NYSE:GM].