Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Hard to find the Chevy Bolt in heavy traffic

Here we are at the confluence of three stories involving cars and trucks — gasoline prices headed toward $3 a gallon again, the Trump administration sounding retreat from the higher fuel-economy standards established by the Obama administration, and I just took my first ride in a Chevy Bolt.

Ever heard of the Bolt?

Don't feel bad if you missed it. The eco-friendly, all-electric hatchback has a range of up to 240 miles per charge — it does best in mild or warm weather, according to Washington Post test drives — and it has been getting rave reviews. It was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 2017. A car like this should have popular appeal, well beyond the crunchy-and-green crowd that goes for compacts and hybrids.

But the Bolt has not been widely advertised.

I see television commercials for pickup trucks, luxury sedans and SUVs ad nauseam. I don’t see commercials for electric cars, and, until a friend showed up in one, I had never heard of the Bolt.

Which got me wondering why GM has not made more of a fuss about it.

Not even the great John Davis, creator and longtime host of MotorWeek, produced at Maryland Public Television, has an answer, and he usually has an answer to any question about cars.

“No one seems to put many ad dollars behind their electrics,” Davis says. “Not Nissan with the Leaf, not BMW with their i-series, not GM with the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.

“I imagine in states where they might sell better, like California, they are doing local events. But on mass media, advertising seems to be all about sedans, which are slowing in sales, and, of course, SUVs and pickup trucks.”

Pickup trucks and SUVs now make up about two-thirds of the U.S. market for new vehicles.

And, considering the amount of gasoline that trucks and SUVs burn, that is not a good trend — especially when combined with the regressive policies of the present administration in Washington.

The Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and promised to re-impose sanctions on Tehran; that decision has been connected to the rising price of crude. More violence between Israelis and Palestinians could threaten the flow of oil from the Middle East and prove costly to American motorists. Given that, you’d think electric cars and hybrid plug-ins would have wide appeal.

A friend who saw the Bolt at a car show in Baltimore, got excited about it and purchased the “premier” version for $40,000. With federal and state tax rebates, his cost dropped to around $29,500.

He no longer buys gasoline. He charges the vehicle off a 220-volt outlet in his garage and uses an app to find charging stations when needed.

The Bolt is surprisingly roomy, and I was impressed by its power; it did a smooth zero-to-60 in about six seconds.

All good, right? But consumers have to know about electric vehicles like the Bolt in order to buy them.

“What is worrisome is that there are dozens more electrics and plug-in hybrids on the way,” says Davis. “Without either a push from the government or more marketing, they are likely to meet a frigid reception, killing any potential buyer enthusiasm except for early adopters.”

That push from the government probably won’t come anytime soon. The Trump administration walked away from another international treaty — on stemming climate change — and it has proposed a freeze on the effort to get fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks up to an average of 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

More marketing will be up to carmakers.

I asked representatives at GM why we don’t hear more about the Bolt. Joe LaMuraglia, who handles media on the East Coast, wrote: “Chevrolet is focusing advertising efforts in key markets and across platforms, with an emphasis on digital advertising, where the conversation is most prominent.”

Added Jim Cain, a media representative for Chevrolet: “Our U.S. inventories are very low — about one [Bolt] for every two dealers on average nationwide — because of strong demand.” He said first-quarter sales were up 41 percent over the same period last year, and GM plans to increase production of the car.

All that sounds good, and media buyers know more about their business than I do.

Still, if you continually advertise pickup trucks and SUVs, that’s what people will know and that’s what people will buy. If we’re ever going to get to a place where EVs are considered mainstream, then their manufacturers need to put them there, where we can see them.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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