Photo courtesy: Bill Pugliano—Getty Images
By Doron Levin
January 12, 2015

Mary Barra, General Motors Co. (GM) chief executive officer, did the honors by taking the stage to introduce a concept vehicle representing a new, longer range battery-powered Chevrolet sedan called Bolt.

The vehicle, which may look significantly different than the model shown Monday morning at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, will feature a 200-mile range and sell for about $30,000, she said. It’s also smaller than the compact Chevy Volt.

GM used the occasion to introduce a new generation Volt as well, which is a gas-electric hybrid, though the automaker calls it “an extended range electric.” The new Volt will be able to travel 50 miles on battery only and 400 miles when the range-extending gasoline engine kicks in to recharge the battery during longer trips.

She called the game a “real game changer” for the automaker. Bolt could be a serious competitor for Tesla Motors’ (TSLA) planned mass-market electric vehicle, as well as Nissan’s Leaf.

Of the Bolt, Barra said “it can be someone’s everyday car,” since it doesn’t require a gasoline engine or a recharge for a routine trip, answering so-called “range anxiety” on the part of motorists. For Barra, the chance to introduce new vehicle models represented more pleasant duty than last year, when she spent much time appearing frequently in public to explain massive recalls of defective GM vehicles, to apologize to families of those killed or maimed in accidents and to testify before Congress.

The Bolt doesn’t represent a technical breakthrough for GM, which will use the same lithium-ion battery chemistry in the new model as it does in the Volt. But it may signify a triumph of lighter materials and skillful packaging and design when it finally appears in 2017.

In 2014, consumers bought 57,379 electric vehicles of all kinds, a slim portion of the nearly 16.5 million new vehicles sold in the U.S. The electric-vehicle total was 22.8% higher than the previous year, mainly due to sales of the Leaf. Nissan sold 30,200 Leafs, a one-third increase from a year earlier.

GM’s Volt sales were 18,805 for the year, down 18.6%.

Two years from now the automotive landscape could look much different. If gasoline prices stay flat or continue to trend downward, consumers presumably might even be less interested than today in battery-powered and other alternative-fuel vehicles. Automakers, however, are facing regulatory hurdles such as in California, where electric cars count toward fulfillment of zero-emission requirements.

For now, companies like GM, Nissan and Tesla can only hope that consumers develop the same enthusiasm for electric vehicles as regulatory authorities.

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