For electric cars, it’s Model T time. Almost.
In 1908, automobiles were only for the rich. Then came Henry Ford‘s cheap, tough, versatile Model T. He sold 15 million of them, and changed the world.
Today’s electric vehicles are either skimpy econocars like the Nissan Leaf or lush fantasy rides from Tesla Motors Inc., with prices in the high five digits. Americans bought 17.5 million cars in 2016, but fewer than 160,000 were electric or hybrids. To bring them into the mainstream, what’s needed is another Model T, an electric car that is comfortable and powerful, with a long enough range and low enough price to appeal to the average commuter.
I’ve just driven one — General Motors Corp.’s impressive new Chevrolet Bolt EV. More are on the way, including a midmarket offering from Tesla and an upgraded Leaf. With federal and state rebates, a consumer can get one for under $30,000.
So have electric cars reached their Model T moment? Not quite.
First, those rebates are scheduled to dry up in a year or so. In 2016, after the state of Georgia ended a $5,000-per-vehicle subsidy program, sales of electric cars there fell 90 percent. Rebates alone won’t do; the base price for the cars must go lower.
Most electric cars also take too long to recharge — as long as two days using standard household current for the Bolt, for example. According to the US Department of Energy, there are about 42,000 public recharging outlets, but even the quickest among them needs at least half an hour to deliver a decent charge to just one car, compared to the five minutes it takes to fill a gas tank. Tesla has special superchargers that give the battery about 170 miles of charge in 30 minutes; Bolt, by comparison, has a high-speed charger that gets you about 90 miles in a half-hour.
Despite all this, climbing behind the wheel of a Chevy Bolt EV made me want to believe. It’s sleek, snappy, and stuffed with the latest automotive tech, all powered by a battery that can take you from Boston to Manhattan on a single charge.
The Bolt can’t match the styling and performance of the Tesla Model S, or its $68,000 base price tag. The Bolt EV starts at $37,495, a little higher than the average US new car price of $34,000. Throw in the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric cars, and another $2,500 subsidy from Massachusetts, and you’re under $28,000.
That’s an attractive price for a five-passenger, four-door ride with a 200-horsepower electric motor. The Bolt, like other pure electrics, brings a delicious surge of pure torque when you hit the pedal — zero to 60 in about six seconds.
It’s also thrilling to raise your right foot, thanks to the Bolt’s “one-pedal driving” mode. Lifting your foot off the accelerator pedal triggers what’s known as “regenerative braking,” where an electric motor automatically slows down while also recharging the battery. You extend the car’s driving range and reduce wear on the brakes, which you can still apply if you wish. It’s a challenge learning when to lift your foot to stop at that upcoming red light. But that just adds to the fun.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the Bolt EV will go up to 238 miles on a full charge of its lithium-ion batteries. So if you drive the annual US average of about 13,500 miles per year, you could go nearly a week before running out of power.
And you don’t want to do that. A total recharge from a standard 110-volt household outlet would take two days. The Bolt only makes sense for users who remember to regularly plug it in for topping off. With standard current, you’ll get 4 miles of driving for every one hour of recharge.
But spend an extra $500 or so for a fast 240-volt charger and a zero-to-100 percent recharge happens overnight. Or save the money and use a public charging station. Too bad there are fewer than 1,300 in Massachusetts. Now that more practical electric cars are arriving, we need more places to plug them in.
The Bolt is just one of several midpriced electric vehicles headed to showrooms. Tesla has already received 400,000 advance orders for its Model 3, due to go on sale this summer, with a 215-mile battery range and a starting price of $35,000. Nissan has sold more than a quarter-million Leaf electrics, partly thanks to its $30,000 price. But the Leaf offers only 107 horsepower and about 100 miles on a single charge, not enough for commuters with range anxiety. So Nissan is developing a Leaf with a range of more than 200 miles, though the company hasn’t announced a release date.
Electric cars won’t be bestsellers this year or next. But the Model T wasn’t an overnight sensation either. It took Ford seven years to sell his first 1 million cars. But just 18 months later, he sold his second million. After my drive in the Bolt EV, I’m betting history will repeat itself.