Chevrlet may build a cheap electric car even before Tesla does

Tesla Model S sedan offers a range of 265 miles and costs about $100,000. Everyone else is making EVs like the Nissan Leaf and Fiat 500e, which deliver something on the order of 70 miles and cost about $30,000. None of these cars have broken into the mainstream, in no small part because most consumers do not believe the cars offer a compelling combination of affordability and capability. We’re all waiting for the reasonably priced EV with exceptional range.

The long-awaited savior has been the Tesla Model 3, which company boss Elon Musk promises will deliver 200 miles for a price tag under $40k. He plans to have it here within a few years. Chevrolet—yes, Chevrolet—may beat him to it.

This week, General Motors announced the Chevrolet Bolt, a car specifically meant to undercut the Model 3—perhaps before Musk’s car even arrives.

The Bolt, unveiled at the Detroit auto show, is a concept, yes, but a preview of a battery electric production car that GM CEO Mary Barra says will deliver more than 200 miles of range for a base price around $30,000 (after the obligatory $7,500 federal tax credit). While GM is keeping quiet about when this car would hit the market, The Wall Street Journal and Detroit Free Press say the company’s shooting for 2017.

“My sense is that [Chevy] probably looked at the numbers, cost, and range Elon was claiming for the Model 3, and said, ‘You know what? We can do that,’” says Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “I think they’re gonna be able to. I don’t think they make those claims lightly.”

So how does Chevy graduate to the 200-mile club without piling on cost? Some of the answer can be seen in the design of the Bolt concept, which is loaded with lightweight materials like aluminum, magnesium, carbon fiber, and, apparently, “woven mesh.” (Hammock seats, anyone?) A lighter car requires less energy to propel, thereby increasing range. Vented rear fenders and an integrated rear spoiler help with aerodynamics, which also will boost range. Added bonus: The result is a good-looking little car.