The little Chevy that could: GM said the new Chevy Bolt EV will have an EPA-estimated range of 238 miles. Image source: General Motors. 

General Motors (NYSE:GM) said on Tuesday that its upcoming battery-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV will have an EPA-estimated range of 238 miles when it goes on sale later this year.

It also said that the Bolt's European sibling, the Opel Ampera-e, will have a range of "over 400 kilometers" (249 miles) under European standards.

The two cars will be built together on a new assembly line at a GM plant in Michigan. Production is expected to start in a few weeks. 

What GM said in its announcements on Tuesday

GM said that the Bolt's 238-mile range will give owners enough to "go beyond their average daily driving needs -- with plenty of range to spare," as long as they recharge their Bolts regularly. 

GM also reemphasized the Bolt's practicality, talking up the new electric Chevy's cargo space and high-tech safety features. Said the Bolt's chief engineer, Josh Tavel:

Our team took special pride in optimizing every aspect of [the Bolt], especially its impressive range and ride dynamics.

The Bolt will begin to arrive at "select Chevrolet dealerships in late 2016," GM said.

The Opel Ampera-e, the Bolt's European-market twin, gets a somewhat higher range rating because of differences between the U.S. and European standards, not because it's significantly different under the skin (it isn't). But Karl-Thomas Neumann, CEO of GM's German subsidiary Opel, is excited about the Ampera-e's upcoming debut:

In the Ampera-e we will bring an electric car suitable for everyday use to the market. It delivers an extensive range and will be offered as of spring next year already. The Opel Ampera-e is not eco-luxury, not a gadget and not a pure second car. Opel is showing that electro-mobility is also achievable for a much broader audience thanks to the most innovative technology -- Opel is democratizing the electric car with the Ampera-e.

What this range number means for GM (and Tesla)

GM CEO Mary Barra promised that the Bolt would have "over 200 miles of range" when she first unveiled the little electric crossover in Detroit last year. But in a move that's becoming typical of GM under Barra, the company beat its CEO's initial promise by a significant margin. 

Simply put, 238 miles is unprecedented for an electric vehicle in the Bolt's expected price range (GM hasn't announced the Bolt's starting price, but said on Tuesday that it will be "under $37,500"). It's also an impressive range for an electric vehicle with the Bolt's 60 kilowatt-hour battery pack, no matter the price.

While it may or may not turn out to be the "tipping point" for widespread consumer adoption of electric cars, the Bolt's range certainly raises the bar for expectations around Tesla Motors'(NASDAQ:TSLA) much-hyped upcoming Model 3 sedan. 

Tesla is currently promising that the Model 3 will have 215 miles of range and a starting price of $35,000 when it begins shipping in late 2017. Unless Tesla boosts the Model 3's range before production (a definite possibility), GM will have beaten Tesla in both range and delivery date. And GM has started hinting that it might match or beat the baby Tesla's starting price. 

The big takeaway for investors in both companies: GM's electric-car capabilities now roughly match Tesla's. That's huge. 

So will the Chevy Bolt EV sell?

I expect the Bolt to do fine in the marketplace, but I doubt it'll generate the excitement or sales numbers of Tesla's Model 3. The Bolt isn't really a direct competitor to Tesla's sexy compact sedan. It's designed as more of an urban runabout, with a lot of built-in features that make it ideal for ride-hailing and car-sharing duty. That makes it a lot less exciting -- but for some buyers, it will be a much more practical choice. 

The Bolt will also see fleet duty. I expect that GM will offer the Bolt to Lyft drivers at affordable rates, and that it will be a featured option at GM's urban car-sharing service, Maven. Lyft and Maven will help expose GM's latest electric car to a younger, urban audience. If they like what they see, more sales could follow in time. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.