When Chevrolet let journalists drive its Bolt electric vehicle at CES earlier this year, this well-established carmaker seemed to undercut upstart Tesla, which had been promising an affordable electric car as part of its product roadmap for years. Now that Tesla has shown off the Model 3 and let journalists and its faithful fans ride in it, the stage looks set for a real battle of the electric vehicle titans.
Absent of either car being available for real road-testing, let me give a preview of this upcoming rivalry, and how we're going to get to the road tests likely to dominate automotive websites in 2017.
With electric cars, range is king. While many current electric vehicles (EV) come to market with about 100 miles of range, more than enough for the average daily commute, drivers are still prone to range anxiety.
200 miles may be the sweet spot, where the average driver can get to work, run errands, and feel she has enough miles left on the battery to deal with any emergencies.
And that's where the Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3 leap ahead of the current crop of cars, with Chevy boasting over 200 miles for the Bolt and Tesla coming up with a figure of 215 miles for the Model 3. Those numbers are preliminary, and will be subject to EPA testing. When Tesla was launching the Model S, it first claimed 300 miles range, but EPA testing forced an official rating of 265 miles.
These preliminary figures put the Model S in the lead, although a difference of 15 miles may not really matter in the real world, to the average buyer.
However, Tesla focuses a large portion of its engineering resources to electric driveline development, and within three years of Model S production increased the battery capacity of its Model S by 5 kilowatt-hours without adding battery cells.
Likewise, Tesla CEO Elon Musk promises a dual motor version of the Model S. Now, that might seem like a recipe for using more electricity, decreasing range. However, the Model S proved that adding a motor actually improves range, likely due to the two motors sharing the work, spreading out the load to use energy more efficiently.
Roadshow editor Tim Stevens has ridden in both a Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3, both pre-production, so at this point I can't say much about final ride quality.
However, I do know that both cars package their battery packs, the weightiest single component, in the chassis, between the front and rear wheels. That placement is very beneficial for handling, helping balance the car and greatly mitigating body roll. In fact, that battery pack alone may eliminate a need for sway bars.
The Bolt will most likely come with a fixed suspension. In recent years, Chevy has shown expertise with its other models in tuning suspensions for comfortable yet responsive ride quality. The current Volt shows these attributes well, although Chevy engineers will need to contend with the Bolt's different weight characteristics. The front-wheel-drive nature of the Bolt should serve its mission as a suburban runabout.
Tesla offers an air suspension for its Model S, which may be an option on the Model 3. However, the base model will certainly come with a fixed suspension. Tesla engineers can look to quite a bit of experience developing the ride quality of both the Model S and Model X, with the aim of developing premium ride quality for well-heeled buyers.
Given that experience, and a supply chain that already brings in high quality suspension components, I wouldn't expect them to cut corners with the Model 3. I wouldn't expect significant cost savings from changing the suspension architecture. It would likely cost more to change up production practices already in place for Tesla's larger cars.
All that taken into account, I would expect the Model 3 to have more of a premium ride than the Bolt.
What do you expect from a Chevy? What do you expect from a Tesla? Both companies have established significantly different brand reputations. Tesla may not have set out to be a traditional luxury car manufacturer, but both the Model S and Model X have given it that reputation. Chevy can boast many more years of experience, but that doesn't always work in its favor.
Most people expect Chevy cars, the Bolt included, to be affordable but not fancy. Buyers will trade amenities for price reduction. Power-adjustable seats in the Bolt, if available, would be seen as a luxury.
Given Chevy's broad-based appeal, its mainstream buyers may still find it too early to try an electric car, relegating the Bolt to early-adopter status. The Volt has likely helped Chevy bridge that gap a bit, but the brand still has a huge legacy as a traditional automaker.
Tesla, on the other hand, hit the market with high-tech appeal, the Model S quickly becoming the de rigeur car for Silicon Valley executives and well-heeled environmentalists. Not only does the Model 3 benefit from that reputation, Musk bolsters it, announcing at the car's launch that it would come standard with the self-driving Autopilot hardware -- though not necessarily full Autopilot functionality.
In today's environment, premium and high-tech is hard to beat. Just look at iPhone sales.
Given Chevy's insistence that the Bolt will go for about $30,000 after incentives, it should go for about $37,500 as MSRP. Tesla, on the other hand, announced a pre-incentive price of $35,000 for the Model 3. A Tesla for less than a Chevy? Most people would sign up right then and there.
Consider, though, that Chevy will likely only sell the Bolt in one, well-equipped trim, as the model only represents a very small portion of its sales. Therefore, that $37,000 will likely be the top price, and set specifically so that incentives can bring it down to around $30,000, a much more palatable cost for buyers given Chevy's reputation.
Tesla offers a full option sheet for its Model S, including things such as premium sound system, air suspension and panoramic sunroof. Expect the Model 3 to follow suit, with that $35,000 being the base figure. Musk has tweeted an expected average price of $42,000, taking options into account. That option sheet will include dual motors, and possibly a longer range battery.
And you might not get a $7,500 federal tax credit for the Model 3. That federal incentive program starts to phase out at 200,000 units for each company, a sales figure that Tesla is expected to hit next year.
It's tough to make a call on pricing for the two cars. With incentives for both, you will be able to get a Model 3 for less than a Bolt. And even a base Model 3 should be comfortable and equipped at least equivalently to the Bolt. Take away the Model 3's incentives, though, and the pricing resembles a more traditional premium versus average car model.
With either car, buyers will find the cost of electricity substantially less than gasoline per mile. And eliminate much of the maintenance associated with internal combustion engines along with smog checks.
From what I know now, the Bolt has a jump on the Model 3 for production. Chevy has said the Bolt will go into production late this year, so real availability may not come until 2017. If you count each model, Chevy can boast hundreds of years of experience with parts suppliers and line production. That lets its schedule for the Bolt go largely unquestioned.
Production for the Model 3 will be much harder to call. Tesla promises production beginning in late 2017. Based on earlier launches, deliveries will follow closely. However, Tesla was a year late with the Model X, although that was also due to development issues. And given that preorders hit 276,000 the weekend after the launch event, Musk has tweeted that he is "going to need to rethink production planning".
Tesla also recently confessed to problems with supplies delaying its current production. This transparency suggests the company is learning what it needs to do to get its cars into buyers' hands, and should have a beneficial effect on getting the Model 3 line running next year.
Any way you cut it, the Bolt will be on the road long before the Model 3.
It's obviously too soon to declare a winner, and likely a pointless exercise. The Bolt and Model 3 show similarities in price and range, but are they really competing with each other? That's like asking if Chevy competes with Audi.
I've seen many commenters on the Internet rave about the Model S, but acknowledging its high cost, write that they are waiting for the Model 3, well before we saw a glimpse of it. I'm assuming that's a very tech-forward audience who've fallen in love with the very idea of Tesla and wouldn't settle for a Chevy.
A more practical buyer, wooed by the idea of an electric car but remaining cost-conscious, is likely to be the natural target of the Bolt.
Most importantly, I don't believe Musk really looks at the Bolt as a competitor. He has previously talked of a desire for electric cars to succeed, no matter who makes them. That philosophy lead to Musk offering up Tesla's patents for other companies to use in good faith.
In essence, the more electric cars on the road means more infrastructure for charging on the go and means the mainstream public becoming more comfortable with them. If the Bolt gains mass market acceptance, that actually helps the Model 3.
Update, 4/7/2016: This story originally stated that the 200,000 EV credit was a hard cap. Instead, the credit begins to phase out for the next nine months after hitting that number. Additionally, while Autopilot hardware will be standard, full Autopilot functionality will likely be optional.