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GM ramps up 2017 Chevy Bolt EV electric-car production; how many can it build?

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With anticipation of the 2017    Bolt EV launch growing, General Motors has started to ramp up production of its groundbreaking 200-mile electric car.

(It’s actually rated by the EPA at 238 miles combined, but it joins a segment of the electric-car market with 200 miles or more of range that has only been occupied to date by cars with a Tesla badge.)

With the first Bolt EVs expected to be sold before the end of this year, Chevy needs to get the cars into the pipeline and headed to the first dealers.

DON’T MISS: 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV: video review of 238-mile electric car

It’s all but certain that the first Bolt EVs will be sold in California, which now has close to half of the nation’s electric and plug-in hybrid cars on its roads.

The news of the Bolt EV production ramp-up was reported two days ago by Reuters.

And it’s hardly surprising, given the timeline, the testing that the earliest production vehicles go through, and the time involved to truck cars from the plant to distribution centers and then to individual dealers.

The more interesting part of the article was a statistic on total production capacity at the Orion Assembly Plant in Michigan where the Bolt EV is built on the same lines as the Sonic subcompact.

That capacity is 90,000 cars a year for the plant’s current single shift of operations, Reuters says.

And that offers some hints as to the potential production numbers for the Bolt EV.

WATCH THIS: 2017 Chevy Bolt EV pre-production cars now being built (video)

Last year, the Sonic sedan and hatchback combined sold 64,775 units, down notably from the 2014 total of 93,518.

Through last month, Sonic sales were 45,798, against sales through October 2015 of 53,829, which would bring likely this year’s total Sonic sales down to something like 55,000. 

Next year, it seems safe to assume that Sonic sales will continue to decline, as small cars continue to lose sales to crossover utility vehicles and the Sonic enters its seventh model year without a major update.

That indicates a production capacity of at least 35,000 Bolt EVs, once the line is up to full capacity—against 30,000 Nissan Leafs sold in 2014, the highest recorded total for any electric car in the U.S. to date.

The comparison is slightly deceptive, as Bolt electric cars built in Michigan will be exported as well as sold in the U.S.

They are to be sold in Europe as the Opel Ampera-e, and apparently in China as well under the name of Buick Velite.

CHECK OUT: 2017 Chevy Bolt EV sales could go as high as 80,000, says analyst

Sales projections for the Bolt EV have been a topic of much debate, although GM has never issued numbers for the car, saying only that it can build as many as the market demands.

One supplier told a journalist more than a year ago that GM’s projected first-year total was 30,000 Bolt EVs, though some analysts have suggested demand could be considerably higher.

Tesla Motors recently reaffirmed its guidance for global deliveries of 80,000 Model S and Model X electric cars this year (though it will have taken the company five years to achieve that number).

GM dealers are said to be more enthusiastic about the Bolt EV than they have been about the Volt plug-in hybrid, whose advantages require careful and repeated explanations to uninformed buyehe rs.

If that proves true—and we won’t know conclusively for six to 12 months—then if GM is confident it can get the lithium-ion cells it will need from LG Chem, it has the ability to boost Bolt EV production fairly easily.

It could add a sixth day of production at the Orion plant. If global demand proves much higher than expected, it can even add a second shift.