Nearly no U.S. car buyers are willing to buy a city car.
The only exceptions are those in a handful of crowded cities like New York and San Francisco, for whom a very short car that is easy to park may take priority.
But as sales of the tiny two-seat Smart ForTwo have shown over several years, that’s a minimal market at best.
The rest of the U.S. tends to buy larger cars, increasingly crossover utility vehicles that offer lots of cargo volume behind tailgates, and optional all-wheel drive.
And yet General Motors discusses its 200-mile electric car, the upcoming 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, as a way to increase its urban sales.
So what, exactly, does that mean?
Instead, according to CEO Mary Barra, it’s the kind of car that will appeal to future generations of car buyers. A majority of those, globally, will live in cities, not U.S.-style dispersed suburbs.
While the cabin has 94 cubic feet of passenger volume—equal to that of a Tesla Model S—the Bolt EV has a compact footprint, a practical hatchback, and top-flight connectivity abilities.
And it’s well-suited to ride-sharing and car-sharing services, with drivers for the Lyft ride-haling service (in which GM has invested half a billion dollars) likely to be some of the earliest buyers.
Today, as Ward’s notes, GM’s strongest sales and the bulk of its profits come from large trucks and utility vehicles of all sizes, which are the least well-adapted to crowded cities.
But with future global population growth likely to occur in cities, GM needs products that will appeal to urban audiences. Hence the focus on the Bolt EV.
This goes some way to explain why GM created a small five-door hatchback rather than a direct competitor for the sleek, four-door near-luxury sedan that the Tesla Model 3 is likely to be.
Many Tesla fans and owners (a number of whom seem to carry surprising animus for GM, it should be noted) have publicly sneered at the form factor of the Bolt EV, suggesting that an upright five-door hatchback is less compelling than a swoopy Tesla.
That may well be true, for current and aspirational Tesla buyers.
GM seems to be betting that the Bolt’s smaller size plus top-flight connectivity and electronic safety systems will prove more broadly compelling to buyers of the future—especially those outside North America.