If we heard it once, we heard it a dozen times this week.

The upcoming Chevrolet Bolt EV 200-mile electric car is "for regular people, not for the elites."

You'd almost think that General Motors had adopted the "1 Percent" meme that appears to be the lasting legacy of Occupy Wall Street.

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We heard it from GM CEO Mary Barra at Wednesday's unveiling of the 2016 Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan.

"Making technology attainable also extends to electric vehicles," she said.

"To make the biggest impact, it takes an engineering organization with the scale and the expertise to build electric vehicles for everyone, not just the elite."

She noted this year's launch of the 2016 Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, and January's Bolt EV Concept car "with an estimated range of 200 miles."

"Like the Volt," she said, "it will be affordable."

But Barra was hardly alone.

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Earlier that day, GM's executive chief engineer for electric vehicles, Pam Fletcher, said pretty much the same thing in a breakout session on plug-in cars.

GM will make "electric cars approachable to the all, not just the elite," she said.

She echoed herself not 10 minutes later: "We will make electrification approachable, meaningful, and relevant to all."

Chevrolet Bolt EV concept, 2015 Detroit Auto Show

Chevrolet Bolt EV concept, 2015 Detroit Auto Show

And again: The Bolt EV will be "available to the masses," and it will help to correct the impression that a 200-mile electric car is "a $100,000 car."

While the base price of a 2015 Tesla Model S 70D starts at $75,000, certainly many high-spec Model S versions can run to $130,000 or more.

And Tesla sells the only electric cars with ranges of 200 miles or more; Model S versions range from 240 to 275 miles this year.

So, OK, we get it: Chevy will have electric cars for regular people, not those snobby "elites" who buy those really, really expensive Teslas.

2015 Tesla Model S P85D - 'Chiseled by man and nature' [photo: George Parrott]

2015 Tesla Model S P85D - 'Chiseled by man and nature' [photo: George Parrott]

The word "elites" came up so often, frankly, that we wonder if GM focus-grouped it to find out which facets of electric cars Chevy's buyers didn't like--and set out to counter them.

It's similar to the cultural meme around the Toyota Prius hybrid, famous lampooned in the "Smug" episode of South Park as a four-wheeled avatar of cultural arrogance.

But there's a broader lesson to be drawn here.

Thus far, General Motors is very specifically not targeting the company that has sold more electric cars by far than any other.

2015 Nissan Leaf

2015 Nissan Leaf

That would be Nissan, which--with its alliance partner Renault--has now delivered more than 250,000 electric cars.

Tesla, in contrast, hasn't quite reached 100,000, while GM trails at perhaps 80,000.

But Tesla's far easier to engage in the coded language of class warfare.

MORE: It's Official: General Motors Now Sees Tesla As A Threat (Jul 2013)

After all, it's from Silicon Valley (not Detroit), has an unassailable reputation for advanced technology (which GM covets), and makes no pickup trucks (Chevy's best-selling U.S. model).

You might almost think that GM's study two years ago of whether Tesla Motors poses a threat to its future prospects had concluded that, in fact, it does.

And the drumbeat continued. One person close to the messaging process later commented, "In electrification, building electric cars for everyone isn't Chevy's third priority, it's the first."

GM CEO Mary Barra and Chevy Bolt EV electric car image at 2016 Chevrolet Cruze launch, Jun 2015

GM CEO Mary Barra and Chevy Bolt EV electric car image at 2016 Chevrolet Cruze launch, Jun 2015

That would refer to the fact that Tesla has built two generations of electric cars--the 2008 Roadster and the 2012 Model S--and its promised $35,000 Model 3 will be its third generation of electric cars.

More bluntly, that person summarized, "It's Chevy vs. Tesla and it's on!"

While Tesla says its Model 3 will go into production late in 2017 (within a year of the Bolt EV), that company's frequent delays in past and present product schedules lead many observers to view the claim with skepticism.

On the same day Barra spoke, meanwhile, and halfway around the world, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn pointed to an engineering prototype for a Nissan Leaf with a range likely to come in at 200 miles or more.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn presenting at company annual meeting, Yokohama, Jun 2015

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn presenting at company annual meeting, Yokohama, Jun 2015

Nissan hasn't been as public about its plans for the next generation of Leafs, or for current models with higher ranges--in part because it doesn't want to hurt steady sales of today's Leaf.

But the next Leaf could come to market within a few months of the Chevy Bolt EV.

We'll be curious to see what Chevy's messaging will be to compete with that car.

Fasten your seat belts. This promises to be a fun ride.

[General Motors provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable High Gear Media to bring you this first-person report.]


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