Acting more like a startup these days, Chevrolet is making technological leaps into new territory — exemplified by its development of electric and hybrid cars.
Later this year, an American auto company will launch a 200-mile electric car that costs $30,000. It’s not some Silicon Valley startup, but Chevrolet.
Started in 1911 to honor racing legend Louis Chevrolet, the company has reinvented itself since bankruptcy as a technologically savvy brand striving ahead on the power of its past.
Chevrolet was the second best-selling auto brand in the U.S. last year, behind Ford, according to Automotive News. Sales of 2.3 million vehicles represents a 4.5 percent increase over 2014.
“We’re an interesting brand,” said Steve Majoros, marketing director of Chevrolet cars and crossovers. “To a sports-car enthusiast, we’re high passion. To a truck owner, we represent dependability. We’re a company doing pretty exciting things like electric propulsion.”
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Like any startup, Chevrolet is making technological leaps into new territory.
At the 2007 Detroit auto show, General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz drove the Chevrolet Volt concept on stage. Nobody had a car like that — not a mere hybrid, but a plug-in electric that could drive cross-country on gasoline. Volt was so important to greening GM’s image and adding technological advantages that it remained a priority during bankruptcy.
Development of Volt made GM a leader in battery, hybrid and electric motors. While it didn’t work in the short-lived Cadillac ELR, GM is leveraging that learning experience for the 2017 Cadillac CT6 plug-in hybrid.
GM is a quick study. The second-generation 2016 Volt gets 53 miles per charge, up from 38 miles in the outgoing model introduced in late 2010.
That’s not even in the same socket as the all-electric 2017 Bolt.
“Consumers tell us we’re at a fundamental tipping point,” Majoros said. “The Bolt EV cracked the code of ‘providing the range I need’ — 200 miles seems to be it — and ‘cost/value that works for me.’ Buyers are extremely smart, practical, (they) do their homework. EVs are getting much more in the public consciousness.”
Electric vehicles account for less than 1 percent of auto sales overall, but GM is thinking long term. Majoros says 65 percent of Volt owners are new to Chevrolet and are educated and affluent.
“Bolt and Volt represent strong entries in their respective classes,” said Ed Hellwig, editor at Edmunds.com. “Bolt has potential to be a breakout car for Chevrolet. The price point and range could make EVs a mainstream choice.”
Bolt doesn’t offer Tesla’s 270-mile range, but at around $30,000 it is three times as affordable as a Tesla. And Chevy beat everyone, even Tesla’s forthcoming Model 3, in getting to market an affordable electric vehicle with a 200-mile range.
Chevy Silverado, the second best-selling vehicle in the country, had a quick refresh for 2016 after its evolutionary design was panned upon launch for model year 2014. It worked.
Combined with the GMC Sierra, the workhorse pickups posted a 7 percent increase in sales in 2015. Silverado had its biggest market share gain in a decade, according to Automotive News, gaining 1.9 percent at the expense of the best-selling Ford F-150, which faltered 0.8 percent.
Malibu was criticized for its granny style and cramped rear seats. A new model for 2016 flaunts sexy sheet metal, upscale interior, and an available hybrid that gets 48 mpg city, 45 mpg highway. Cruze sells well, but is no beauty queen. A new model, available with a sporty hatch and sleek body, joins a redesigned Spark subcompact this year.
Virtually nobody complains about the muscular Camaro or 650-horsepower Corvette Z06 that toasts 0-60 mph in 2.95 seconds. Tahoe and Suburban SUVs dominate their segment while the Korean-built Trax is defining the nascent subcompact crossover class.
Targeting the young
To be a successful startup, Chevrolet is moving fast to attract and keep young drivers.
Chevy has added infotainment systems that offer Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto compatibility. It boasts a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hot spot connecting up to seven devices across nearly its entire 2016 lineup.
“Interfaces are not the easiest, but certainly not the hardest,” Hellwig said. “Their displays now seem to be a nice step forward. I’m still on the fence with Wi-Fi. There’s so much you can do with a cellphone. They’re doing really well in offering Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on a broad range of cars.”
Chevrolet must close gaps to become the best-selling automaker.
“One weak spot is the Equinox crossover,” Hellwig said. “It’s an odd size, bigger than the CR-V and RAV4.”
Expect the next Equinox to be smaller, with a midsize crossover slotted between it and the next Traverse.
Another lift may come from GM’s investments in ride services and car-sharing, like the $500 million it threw toward Lyft. The partnership enables Chevrolet to expose urban buyers to its products.