By Eric Brandt
New product announcements trickling out of General Motors /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM +8.91% show that its much-hyped Ultium EV architecture is starting to come into its own. We hear a lot of hype about supposedly revolutionary new electric vehicles from all over the industry. However, what General Motors has created with Ultium is starting to look like the real deal in mainstream EVs for the masses.
What is Ultium?
Ultium is an EV battery and motor architecture by General Motors. GM has been making EVs as far back as the 1990s with the EV1, followed by the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt and all-electric Chevy Bolt. All three of those cars were revolutionary in their own ways, but none of them really went mainstream.
Ultium is the newest chapter in the story of electric vehicles from GM. The batteries use nickel-cobalt-manganese-aluminum chemistry, which keeps costs down compared with lithium-ion batteries. Ultium uses a modular layout with battery cells that can be stacked vertically or horizontally.
This highly-flexible architecture can be applied to a range of vehicles. This flexibility is the key to Ultium’s potential.
The current state of Ultium
The only vehicles on the road today using the Ultium platform are the BrightDrop Zevo 600 commercial van and the GMC Hummer EV Pickup. The Hummer has wowed the automotive press and its owners with its thrilling performance, high-tech interior, and robust capabilities. However, it’s not what we’d call an EV for the masses because it’s an expensive luxury truck. An SUV version of the electric Hummer is available for preorder.
A few other Ultium vehicles are available for preorder right now. The one that’s closest to hitting dealers is the Cadillac Lyriq. The Lyriq strikes a high-tech EV that’s also a relatively affordable luxury SUV. Pricing starts at $62,990, which is actually lower than the average transaction price for a new EV, which sits at about $66,000 as of this writing. It’s also a price point not far off from gas-powered midsize, 2-row SUVs from luxury brands. Deliveries of the Lyriq are expected to begin this fall, but if you order one now, you’ll be waiting until the spring of 2023.
Two Chevrolet models using the Ultium architecture are available for preorder; the EV variants of the Silverado and Blazer. These are both quite different from their gas-powered counterparts. The Silverado EV is obviously a direct competitor to the Ford F-150 Lightning /zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite F +7.76% . The two variants available for preorder are the WT model, starting at $39,900, and the high-performance RST model, which is comparable to the Hummer EV Pickup with a 6-digit price tag.
If you like the idea of the Cadillac Lyriq but don’t have the budget for it, that’s where the Chevy Blazer EV comes in. It’s an electric midsize SUV with an estimated starting price of around $44,995 and an estimated maximum range of up to 320 miles. This SUV has a lot of potential as a mainstream EV that would fit the lifestyle of a range of drivers. It’ll also be available with the Super Cruise hands-free driving system at a more affordable price point than a Cadillac or a Hummer. You can preorder one now and get it as soon as the summer of 2023.
The future of Ultium
The Ultium platform is getting its start as the Tesla brand did. It’s starting with low-volume, high-price offerings like the electric Hummer and gradually working its way down to higher-volume, lower-priced offerings. One example is the upcoming Chevy Equinox EV. You can’t order an electric Equinox yet, but it’s on a similar timeline as the Blazer EV. GM estimates a starting price of around $30,000; if it can stick to that, it could be a big hit.
Another upcoming Ultium vehicle is the promising Cadillac Celestiq. The brand is positioning its forthcoming electric flagship sedan to compete with the likes of the Tesla /zigman2/quotes/203558040/lastsale TSLA +2.90% Model S, Porsche /zigman2/quotes/208338327/delayed POAHY +6.34% Taycan, and Audi e-Tron GT. It’s a sign that Cadillac is finally getting serious about reclaiming the luxury car throne as the “Standard of the World.”
Unsurprisingly, an electric version of the GMC Sierra is also in the works. Judging by the history of the Sierra nameplate, it will be a GMC version of the Chevy Silverado EV, likely with a greater emphasis on luxury.
An interesting curveball in the story of Ultium is that Honda /zigman2/quotes/207173990/composite HMC +2.50% is borrowing the platform. The upcoming Honda Prologue is an electric SUV that will probably be mechanically similar to the Chevy Equinox EV. Honda says the Prologue is the first in an “upcoming series of EVs,” so we’ll likely see more Ultium-based Honda models in the future. There are also rumors of an Acura version of the Prologue.
Finally, there’s BrightDrop, the newest brand in the GM family, which you may not have heard of until today. BrightDrop is an EV brand for commercial vehicles. FedEx /zigman2/quotes/203047719/composite FDX +5.06% has ordered 500 BrightDrop Zevo vans, and Walmart /zigman2/quotes/207374728/composite WMT +1.30% has signed an agreement to reserve 5,000 of them. If you live in an area with a rich EV charging infrastructure, you might start seeing these vans deliver parcels for you soon. This new brand will likely continue as a competitor to Rivian’s electric vans.
Time to speculate
So, this is what we know so far about the present and future of the GM Ultium platform. Since it can underpin a range of vehicles, from a luxury sports sedan to a pickup truck to a humble compact SUV, the possibilities are nearly endless.
It’s likely the Chevy Camaro will go all-electric. The Camaro has been struggling for years to compete with the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger. The poor Camaro is plagued with constant rumors it’s about to be discontinued again, like in 2002. That could be true for the gas-powered Camaro, but an electric Camaro that’s still affordable on the low end and a strong performer on the high end would be an exciting addition to the EV world.
Some version of the Chevy Bolt will probably continue and eventually switch to the Ultium platform. However, what about sedans like the Malibu? Will Chevy go the route of Ford and discontinue sedans and hatchbacks altogether? There could be a real market for a Malibu or Impala based on the Ultium platform with a long range and low price tag. We’ll see.
Then there’s Buick. GM has announced that Buick will become an all-electric brand in the U.S. with a new logo and everything. However, the automaker has made no specific product announcements. Buick says its first EV will be available in 2024 and that every electric Buick will bear the name “Electra.”
It also recently unveiled a new Wildcat EV concept in China. It’s a sporty coupe that probably won’t see the light of day but gives us a glimpse at a new design language for the brand. It’s good to see Buick drawing on its long history with old names like Electra and Wildcat to inject some new life into what has become a budget brand of premium SUVs. An electric Buick Riviera or Grand National would be sweet, but let’s not get our hopes up too much.
Time will tell
The Ultium platform only has one commercially available vehicle on the market right now, and it’s a very expensive Hummer. However, there are good reasons to be bullish on the future of electric GM products. GM is taking its time in transitioning to electric and has already impressed with the variety of vehicles with the Ultium architecture. The General is making big promises on affordable EVs for the masses, which we’ve heard before. Time will tell if it’s for real this time.