The great thing about the Detroit Auto Show is that it brings so many global auto industry executives together under one roof.
So there's been a lot of discussion about the Chevrolet Bolt electric-car concept here: what it is (for buyers, for GM, and for other carmakers), what it isn't, and--perhaps most up in the air--what it means for Tesla Motors.
We've spent much of three days talking to sources, most of whom would only discuss the Bolt concept off the record.
What follows is a sort of Q+A of what we've heard, what we've been told, and what we think we've learned.
What is the Chevrolet Bolt?
It's an auto-show concept for a subcompact battery-electric car in a tall five-door hatchback body, remarkably similar in proportion to a slightly longer BMW i3.
Its range goal is 200 miles, the price is targeted for $37,500, and if it appears, it will likely do so in 2017 as a new model in the 2018 Chevrolet lineup.
Chevrolet Bolt EV concept, 2015 Detroit Auto Show
How much of a real vehicle is the concept?
Given that GM launched and then killed its EV1 electric car--which former CEO Rick Wagoner called the biggest mistake of his tenure--it would be highly unlikely for the CEO of General Motors to unveil such a disruptive and high-profile concept car at North America's largest auto show unless the company intended to build it in some form.
We believe that GM fully intends to produce and sell a car based on the Bolt, using underpinnings from the next-generation Chevy Sonic subcompact--known internally as the Gamma architecture.
The Bolt does not have a dedicated "skateboard" layout, with a flat, long, wide battery pack under its floorboards, as the Tesla Model S does.
Instead, it reuses the heavily engineered and very expensive crash structures and some suspension elements from the next Sonic and all its derivatives.
You might call it a "dedicated derivative" of the GM Gamma family of vehicles.
Chevrolet Bolt Concept - 2015 Detroit Auto Show live photos
Would a production Bolt look like the concept?
Yes, mostly. The basic shape and proportions of the Bolt unveiled yesterday are likely fairly close to a production model, though regulatory requirements and consumer usability will modify many of the details you see in the photos.
The interior of the concept, however, probably doesn't have much to do with what will go into production.
We're betting that the dashboard, seats, and so forth will be modified versions of what's in the next-generation Sonic.
And we'd expect many of the powertrain components to draw heavily on the components used in the 2016 Chevy Volt launched by Barra just before she introduced the Bolt.
Chevrolet Bolt EV Concept, 2015 Detroit Auto Show
There will also be some Spark EV contributions, including that vehicle's Combined Charging System DC fast-charging connector.
Can it really get 200 miles?
Probably. An LG Chem executive said last year that the company would start to provide lithium-ion cells for a 200-mile electric car during 2016, rather to the shock of the company's several automaker clients.
And given some publicity stumbles before the launch of the first-generation Volt--remember 238 mpg?--we suspect GM would be very cautious in quoting any range figure at all.
In other words, given several years of experience with production batteries and the EPA's electric range test cycles, we wouldn't expect the company's CEO to announce a range figure unless any production Bolt would deliver that rating.
Real-world range, of course, may vary--as every electric-car driver learns, sooner or later.
What vehicles would the Bolt compete with?
There's been a lot of media coverage saying that the Bolt targets the planned Tesla Model 3, a compact to mid-size all-electric sedan that is expected to have a range of 200 miles and a price of $35,000 if or when it launches in 2017 or thereafter.
We suspect that the electric-car buying public won't necessarily see it that way, though.
Tesla has managed, during three years of Model S production, to insert itself into the ranks of automotive luxury brands, in the same category as Audi, BMW, Jaguar, and Mercedes-Benz.
Chevrolet Bolt EV concept, 2015 Detroit Auto Show
Putting a Chevy bowtie on the Bolt virtually ensures that the small, boxy electric car will be perceived more as a competitor to lower-range electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and perhaps BMW i3 than longer-range Tesla models.
Certainly the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid has brought new buyers into Chevrolet that would never otherwise have considered buying a Chevy, and the Bolt could do the same.
But Tesla's ability to meet mass-market demands remains unknown. While the Model 3 today exists only in theory--no concept has been shown, and we likely won't see one for a while--a hypothetical faceoff between the two cars seems rather odd.
It would be like setting a BMW 5-Series diesel sport sedan against a Ram 1500 EcoDiesel pickup truck: Both vehicles have similar powertrain technologies, but they're designed for very different buyers and purposes.
If we were the product planners for the second-generation 2017 Nissan Leaf, however--expected to offer multiple battery-pack options, with ranges from the current 84 miles to as high as 150 miles--we might be startled and worried by the idea that GM will put the Bolt into production.
And secondarily, given the dimensional and form similarities of the BMW i3 to the Chevy Bolt, we might expect that a longer-range i3 in the 2018 model year could also be viewed as a natural competitor.
Is it a compliance car, or will it sell in volume?
This is the big question. We don't yet know the answer.
On the one hand, designing, engineering, and manufacturing a dedicated body indicates aspirations for volume. It costs millions of dollars just to engineer doors, for instance.
And the highly publicized and heavily covered nature of the Bolt's launch--with GM CEO Mary Barra having hoped for a Steve Jobs moment until the story was leaked Friday night by The Wall Street Journal--ensures a high profile for the car.
2014 Chevrolet Spark EV - First Drive, Portland, July 2013
By way of contrast, no major GM executive unveiled the Chevrolet Spark EV in the first automaker press event of a major international auto show.
The car is meant for "long-range performance in all 50 states and many global markets," according to the company--so in theory, it won't be confined to California and a handful of other states.
On the other hand, sources outside General Motors indicate that the Chevy Bolt is only slated to be built in volumes totaling in the thousands--not the tens or hundreds of thousands that the Nissan Leaf will rack up over its lifetime.
And one company source suggested that any production Bolt might not approach the volumes that Nissan has already achieved with the Leaf (presently around 150,000 over four years, and now perhaps 5,000 or 6,000 a month globally).
It may be that GM itself has to figure out exactly how much money it's willing to lose on the car.
If the company is able to get its battery cost in 2017 down to, say, $300 per kilowatt-hour--and a 200-mile electric car requires a pack of at least 50 kWh--that means the battery alone would cost $15,000 or more.
We don't expect GM to use the aluminum and carbon-fiber reinforced plastic construction that makes the BMW i3 so light, giving it the top efficiency rating for any electric car sold in North America.
That would make a production Bolt cheaper to build than the 82-mile i3, which starts at more than $40,000. We still strongly question whether such a program would ever break even for the carmaker.
2012 Tesla Model S beta vehicle, Fremont, CA, October 2011
So why did GM unveil the Chevy Bolt Concept?
Whether it's a compliance car or not, GM clearly wants to continue defining itself as a leader in plug-in electric vehicle technology.
If it can launch a 200-mile electric car for under $40,000, using the latest LG Chem lithium-ion cells to do so, it will immediately mark the company as a pioneer in bringing affordable battery-electric vehicles to the buying public.
Whether it breaks even in doing so is quite a different question.
But the primary purpose of the Bolt is disruption.
"This is all about disruption," said one industry source. "Tesla is considered a disrupter, and GM wants to do the same."
With the Bolt, "GM is buying disruption."
Will it carry the Bolt name?
It only took a few hours yesterday before we received the following message from a professional colleague: "Well, I’ve had my first Bolt/Volt conversation confusion. That didn’t take long."
We very much hope GM comes to its senses and changes the name of any production car based on the Bolt Concept.
(We explained why Bolt is a terrible name for the car in an article linked further up in this piece.)
For all the latest information from tomorrow's events, see our Detroit Auto Show News page.