Chevrolet acting like 105-year old startup

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Chevrolet made its leap into the high-technology realm with the Chevy Bolt.

Chevrolet made its leap into the high-technology realm with the Chevy Bolt.

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 bow tie has reinvented itself since bankruptcy as a technologically savvy brand striving ahead on the power of its past.

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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.”

Like any startup, Chevrolet is making technological leaps into new territory.

I was at the 2007 Detroit auto show when GM 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 that was 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. Redesign of the Volt makes it a better car as well. People can pretty much drive to work and back on all-electric range.”

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. We’ll see if two similarly named plug-ins confuse buyers or expand the segment. Chevrolet bets the latter.

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. Ford still does not have an answer for the globally developed Colorado midsize pickup.

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.

“One year ago, we had no compact SUV or midsize truck, but were able to leverage global resources to deliver them,” said Majoros. “We’re the most complete in the industry from Spark to Suburban with 95 percent of models new in the last three years.”

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. They don’t have a direct competitor for the Ford Edge and midsize crossovers — goes from Equinox to the full-size Traverse.”

Expect the next Equinox to be smaller, with a midsize crossover slotted between it and the next Traverse. The 2017 Trax that debuted with an airy twin-port grille and refined interior is better-suited to compete in its fast-exploding segment. Add throttle to current models and Chevrolet has a better chance against Ford.

But it can’t forget hard lessons.

“They did really well last year with full-size trucks and SUVs,” Hellwig said. “It could lead them down the road to leave them in the lurch like several years ago. But, with competitive cars, they’re better prepared to weather it this time around.”

Another lift may come from GM’s investments in ride-sharing and car-sharing, like the $500 million it threw toward Lyft. The partnership enables Chevrolet to expose urban buyers to its products.

“They have an opportunity in getting consumers into cars people don’t expect from Chevrolet,” Hellwig said. “People think of Chevy for full-size trucks and SUVs, but mileage and technology on cars open up markets and change perception.”

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