Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read MoreRead More
Why Automakers Love Supersized EVs
American electric vehicles are big because American cars are big.
The auto industry’s shiny electric future is beginning to look a lot like its bloated present.
This spring — around the same time the Tesla Model Y was becoming the world’s best-selling vehicle — General Motors announced the demise of the Chevy Bolt. The small EV with starting prices in the high $20,000s (even lower with tax breaks included) was the closest thing Americans car buyers had to an affordable electric vehicle. After 2023, however, GM will end Bolt production to make way for bigger, more expensive EVs. The automaker plans to retool its Michigan factory to crank out electric versions of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks, and promised its new Ultium electric vehicle platform would soon lead to the launches of the Blazer EV and Equinox EV crossovers.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Back in 2018, before the big car companies went seriously electric, Ford killed its trio of normal, everyday, affordable cars — the long-running Fiesta, Focus, and Fusion. The move was ostensibly made to cut costs, and came with token corporate quotes about simplifying the brand’s lineup. But the bigger reason for the move was that Ford could replace its cars with the crossovers, SUVs, and trucks that Americans wanted and were increasingly willing to overpay for.
Ford’s shift was one of the biggest in the auto industry’s decades-long march away from affordable car-shaped cars. Five years later, does the death of the Bolt signal that the electric car market is headed in the exact same direction?
To be fair, the Bolt was far from perfect. Most notably, a widespread battery problem forced a recall in 2021 of more than 100,000 Bolts in the U.S. and caused a long, revenue-draining production hiatus while GM fixed the problem. Nevertheless, Chevy sold lots of Bolts: more than 38,000 in 2022, trailing only Teslas and the Ford Mustang Mach-E on the list of top-selling electrics. The plucky EV and EUV proved Chevy’s electric business and carried GM to take second place in the American EV market behind Tesla.
Now that its electric effort is on surer footing, though, the automaker sees its future in bigger vehicles with bigger price tags. The EV versions of the Chevy Blazer and Silverado will start in the $40,000 range, at least ten grand more than the plucky Bolt. Don’t forget the company’s battery-powered GMC Hummer, an ostentatious assault vehicle whose price easily slips into six figures. That vehicle is perhaps the fullest realization of where the EV revolution had led: Heavy, powerful EVs sold on testosterone and sex appeal that have supplanted the little electric car built for the sensible shopper or environmentalist driver.
Without the Bolt, the options for those who want an affordable EV that isn’t a bloated crossover are a little slim. The Mini Cooper EV carries a sad 114-mile range, rendering it useless as anything but a cute city car, just like the electric Fiat 500 that came before it and then disappeared from American roads. (Better versions are coming. Mini promises a 200-mile EV for 2025; so does Fiat for a relaunched electric 500.)
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The second-generation Nissan Leaf is a prettier car than its potato predecessor, but one that has gotten stale since its launch in 2017. The BMW i3 rounded-cube-on-wheels has bitten the dust, replaced by big, pricier sedan EVs like the i4. Rumors continue to swirl over a possible Tesla “Model 2,” a compact EV that would presumably be smaller and cheaper than the Model 3. But with Elon Musk’s penchant for enjoying the whooshing sound that deadlines make as they fly by, that EV won’t happen soon, if at all.
Affordable electrics still can be found. However, they depend upon customers being savvy enough to navigate the shifting landscape of tax breaks. Tesla, like GM, at one point saw its federal incentives phased out. But now that all of its models qualify for President Biden’s $7,500 tax credit, the price of a new Model 3 can reach down into the low $30,000s — and even under $30k in states like Colorado that offer their own credits and rebates. Meanwhile, many bargain EV shoppers have turned to leasing, because a loophole in the Biden infrastructure law allows EVs that don’t qualify for a tax credit when purchased outright — like Hyundai’s excellent Ioniq series — to qualify for the $7,500 benefit when they’re leased.
The supersizing of the American EV was unavoidable, since it stems from the confluence of a few factors. New electric startups like Rivian or Lucid need to make lots of revenue right away, so they start their business with expensive, large luxury models. Americans in general have shown they want bigger vehicles of every kind, and are willing to pay for them, a fact that has incentivized bloated vehicle sizes and motivated car companies to sacrifice economy models to make way for SUVs and trucks. With electric vehicles, there are physical limitations at work, too. It’s easier to put a giant battery with more range in a big vehicle; and only so much battery you can cram into a Mini Cooper.
Even so, the trend lines are troubling. If the only goal of electrification is to move all Americans from gasoline to EV, then selling electrified copies of what people already buy is no problem. It’s probably smart, in fact, since plenty of people who wouldn't buy a Nissan Leaf would buy an electric truck.
But it’s not that simple. A 3,000-pound EV is better for the world than a 6,000-pound one: It uses less energy, it’s easier on our roads and highways, and it’s a lot less likely to kill a pedestrian or another driver in an accident. EVs already tend to be heavy because of the giant battery they carry around; selling Americans nothing but a new generation of EV tanks exacerbates our growing problem of growing vehicles.
The small EV is not necessarily doomed. Battery advances should make it possible to store more energy in smaller spaces, improving the driving ranges of smaller electric cars. When the time comes that most Americans are buying electric, there could be space in the market for smaller EVs that don’t generate as much profit per vehicle as, say, a $100,000 Hummer.
In the meantime, the future looks a little grim. Having killed its budget EV, GM will offer as its entry-level EV the electrified Chevy Equinox — a crossover that’s heavier, longer, and several thousand dollars more expensive than the Bolt. While EVs may have started as pure green machines for the eco-minded, then morphed into Silicon Valley’s idea of a spaceship, they are about to complete their final evolution.
For better and worse, the new crop of electric vehicles may be just as dull, unremarkable, and needlessly overpriced as the rest of the silver SUVs currently clogging American roads.