It’s 2017 and a car company ‘Murican enough to get its name shouted in a country music song finally sells an all-electric car. Well... again. This time they promise not to snatch it back and crush it. Which is nice, because the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV is pretty decent to drive, and it could take electric vehicles mainstream in a way we haven’t seen before.
(Full Disclosure: GM wanted me to drive the new Bolt EV so badly they flew me to San Francisco, put me up in a hotel and paid for my food while I cruised around Silicon Valley and the west edge of the Bay Area. I drove the $41,000 top-trim Premier spec car.)
More than two years ago now, Chevrolet announced it was going to build the electric vehicle of the people. It was to have $30,000-ish, 200-miles-per-charge, viable seating for four adults. At last year’s CES they trotted out running prototypes, and last month the first few hundred Korean-designed, American-assembled Chevy Bolts were sold to civilians. By the end of this summer, GM says the car will be for sale to the public in all 50 U.S. states.
That puts the Bolt on the market ahead of the similarly sized and priced Tesla Model 3 by about a year and a half, if Tesla sticks to the timeline it’s advertising now. Both these cars are hyped as having the potential to wrangle a new wave of drivers into the electric car clique because they’ll come with greater range capabilities and more near-luxury pretenses than we’ve seen at the “cheaper” end of EV offerings, but should be priced where many new car buyers can access them.
A thorough evaluation of any car built around a power source less ubiquitous than gasoline demands more questions than can be answered with a few laps around a city. What will service be like? How will sourcing “fuel” affect your life as a user?
Regardless of what’s concluded by pundits like myself after our Bolt test-drives, the car will have a lot to prove in regards to what it’s like to live with. But for now, I’ll focus on what it’s like to drive.
The production-spec Bolt’s official numbers: 238 miles of range, 60 kWh of battery power, 0 to 60 in 6.5 seconds, 200 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque.
Starting price for the base LT is $37,495, or $41,780 for the Premier that comes with four heated seats and neat spectral ambient interior lighting and a few other toys. The $485 “Infotainment pacakge” and $495 “Driver Confidence II package” unlock 360º cameras, wide-angle digital rear-view mirror, and a few other toys. Both trims come with GM’s 36,000 mile or three-year warranty, which stretches to 100,000-mile or eight years on the battery, and $7,500 in federal tax credits, plus any incentives your state might heap on EVs. For instance, in the EV-friendly state of Colorado you should be able to get a Bolt for about $25,000.
Chevy’s compact EV isn’t quite as sleek and sexy as a Tesla, but the Bolt’s face is refreshingly friendly. The whole design is a fairly minimalistic take on futuristic, which I predict will pay off as the car ages. Its unassuming vibe seeps into the driving experience– the car is, above all, easy to operate.
The Bolt is a small but airy hatchback that can fit four full-sized humans and about a backpack’s worth of luggage per passenger in reasonable comfort, or five at a squeeze. The mission designation for this car is basic general transportation: commuting, errands, occasional trips out of your normal orbit.
A 200-mile range is a major threshold of capability for electric cars. The current crop of affordable EVs are hanging out at about half that: The Ford Focus EV, Nissan Leaf, Kia Soul EV, Fiat 500e and Volkswagen eGolf are all rated to a maximum distance-per-charge of about 100 miles. More specifically, between about 80 and about 110.
Some Tesla cars have been capable of 200-plus and even 300 miles on a single charge for some time, but they also cost more than twice what the Bolt EV and the other cars listed above do.
Those other mainstream automakers have pitched their range capabilities sufficient for most people’s driving habits, and that’s probably accurate. How often do you really drive more than 80 miles a day?
But I hypothesize EVs need more than “sufficient” to convert anybody but the technologically curious and green-bleeding gas-haters. Those 238 miles though, “more even, if you’re gentle” a GM rep told me, unlock the Bolt for short road trips and more importantly provides headroom against range anxiety for regular commuter car usage.
It seems like that should be enough to silence a lot of scoffing at the idea of EVs as practically viable. And since the price is in the neighborhood of an average car, the Bolt is in a better position to make electric cars mainstream than anything else we’ve seen so far.
Zooming in on the car’s practical details, I’ll just walk you through the Bolt features that grabbed my attention in the order I discovered them.
False-floor cargo bay
Hundreds of professionals spent years optimizing this complex machine’s electric drive and packaging, and here I am talking about a carpeted piece of thin cardboard.
But. I always feel like cargo-bay tidiness is such a problem for hatchbacks and SUVs. Those window shade covers are never quite as clean as I want them to look, and my stuff ends up peeking out. The false floor solves this problem by giving you a secret stash spot, and it also creates a large flat storage area when the rear seats are folded down. All hatchbacks should have this!
Infotainment feels like a full-on personal computer
Chevy included climate, some audio and of course the critical Sport Mode button (we’ll get to that later) in hard form. There’s a suite of controls on the steering wheel too, but the fine-tuning happens through the 10.2-inch screen in the center console.
Besides of course the electric drivetrain, that screen is the Bolt’s most tangible manifestation as the future of cars. It feels much more like the computer you’re reading this on than the screen you’re used to seeing in the dashboard of a car.. The resolution is extremely high, menu animations are downright elegant and the layout is fairly customizable.
In this respect, the Bolt does feel like a mini-Tesla, which famously runs massive computer-style touchscreens in the center of their dashboards. It does a lot to elevate the Bolt’s interior experience above that of a conventional compact car, even a high-end one.
360º camera rig and wide-angle rearview mirror
By now you’ve seen surround-view cameras in cars before, but the Bolt’s rear-view mirror screen is still significantly less ubiquitous.
I thought that replacing a perfectly functional device as simple as a mirror with a screen dependent on a camera was the biggest waste of energy imaginable. Until I used it in San Francisco traffic.
The Bolt has a regular rear-view mirror in the top-center of the windshield like every other car. But flick a switch and it displays a wide-angle rear-facing camera view. This unlocks a huge range of visibility far greater than you’d ever get with regular glass and virtually obliterates your rear blind spots. (The Cadillac CT6 does this too.) This aspect of the Bolt’s futurism actually makes the drive appreciably safer and easier.
Three gauge clusters to pick from
The Bolt’s gauge cluster is 100 percent digital and can be cycled through three main layouts that basically provide minimal, moderate or maximal information about power usage while underway. That little section below speed (where it’s showing the name of the display mode in the animation above) can be cycled between a range of units like follow distance, navigation, what radio station’s on, or shut off completely.
This feels markedly more modern than the standard analog and even digitally augmented dials we’ve seen in inexpensive EVs like the Kia Soul EV and Fiat 500e. Mostly because, like the center screen, it looks more like a desk computer than a car.
I have to admit, my favorite might have been the bare-bones “Classic” view with the lower display blank. Just speed, compass, gear, power level and a big block that tells you if the car is regenerating or using energy.
Home charging equipment that can be financed with the car
Chevy’s partner AeroVironment makes a 32 amp Level 2 EV charger that can power up the Bolt “up to five times faster than a traditional cord.” That works out to about 25 miles of range per hour if the car is hooked up. The charger costs about $700 (Note: not $7,000 as I previously stated), which Chevy can roll into your financing situation when you buy a Bolt.
And that, my friends, is part of the most critical question surrounding the Bolt’s no-kidding viability as a car you can count on: how easy will it be to power? GM has said they’re putting chargers at dealerships where Bolts are sold, and announced the third-party EV charger outfit ChargePoint as a partner that can provide places for Bolts to bump up in the field.
But of course, the Bolt will not be compatible with Tesla’s Supercharger network or the CHAdeMO stations used by Leafs at Nissan Dealers. And if you read my experience with the Kia Soul EV, which also relied on the ChargePoint network, you’ll see I had a hell of a hard time finding a place to put power in the car. And I’m in Los Angeles, California– possibly the most car and tech-crazed towns in America.
Build quality inside the car was fine, but it wasn’t perfect–a complaint I’ve had about some of the modern Teslas I’ve been in as well. In fact I found the Bolt’s interior design to be more cohesive and its construction more robust than what I’ve seen in today’s Teslas.
The Bolt’s cabin is prettier but not better built than the Kia Soul EV, though which was as tight (and basic) as a 90’s Star Trek uniform. If I nudged the Bolt’s door card, I could see it wiggle. There was also a significant gap between the dashboard and the left and right interior door panels on the $41,000 top-trim Premium car I drove. That gap was much bigger on the passenger’s side than the driver’s. Disappointing, and apparent enough for me to notice without looking for it.
Resolution in the 360º around-view cameras seemed weak, especially in low light. Not Range Rover bad (that thing runs off a 1998 Game Boy, I think) but inferior to the 360º cameras on the Hyundai Santa Fe I drove recently.
I also had some issues with the gauges, which switched automatically to night mode in a tunnel, then took a full 30 seconds to return to full brightness after we got back into the sun. Not dangerously catastrophic, but annoying.
And no sunroof! Maybe you don’t care, but the Bolt concept had such a sweet glass lid I couldn’t help but lament its omission from the production car.
Electric vehicles, even smaller ones, are often described as powder kegs of acceleration. At least at the initial moment of takeoff from a stop. For that reason, and the heavy drag from regenerative braking, tend to put something of a learning curve on driving an EV. But with the Bolt in “drive”, it feels like a regular gasoline car–it will coast when you let off the pedal, torque isn’t so overwhelming that you’ll accidentally leave rubber at every traffic light.
But click the transmission down into “L” (low), and you will because this is the mode that maximizes the car’s range, and the driving experience gets more distinct. Basically, the Bolt’s regenerative braking is set very aggressively, sucking up all the energy out of the car’s momentum. This translates to a little extra electricity to use later, and a lot of drag when you release the pedal. The accelerator becomes more like a volume knob, with the car’s speed almost linearly proportionate to the pedal’s position.
I still won’t say the Bolt is really built for driving enthusiasts, but I did find deep satisfaction in the mastery of the “one-pedal” technique. In almost 50 miles of San Francisco driving, I hit the brake exactly twice. Once to test it, and once to keep from rolling backward down a hill road that was steep enough to use as an Olympic ski jump.
As I got comfortable one-pedaling it the drive started feeling like a yoga flow. Up, down, up again. It made city traffic feel like taking deep breaths. That gridlock lap around San Francisco in the Bolt was honestly one of the most relaxing driving experiences I can remember.
Stripping the screen down to the minimal amount of gauges, piping music through the Premier trim’s solid stereo and gliding around the Bay Area wasn’t exciting in the slightest. Honestly, I think that’s going to be one of the Bolt’s strongest selling points.
Forward visibility is excellent, the car’s fairly low but the seat is high and the windshield is absolutely massive.
The only struggle I really had driving was with the Bolt’s shifter. I could not keep the two buttons on the column stalk straight. On top, there’s a button with a “P” on it, which you push to put the car in (you guessed it!) park. On the left side, there’s a long vertical trigger-button you push to release the parking pawl and shift into drive like pretty much every other console-shifted automatic has.
For some reason I kept forgetting the left button was there, trying to get out of park while actually putting the car in park.
The Bolt has a “Sport” mode. That is to say, it has a button that says “Sport” on it and makes the projected range drop a little. I mean, it did perceptibly boost the car’s willingness to surge from a stop. But to what end?
That initial rip out of an intersection is really the only place you’re going to feel the Bolt’s fury. Bury the go-pedal in the thin carpet, point the car and the low-resistance front tires will wail like an ostrich that’s just stepped on a Lego. Then you’re at the speed limit, and that’s pretty much the extent of the action.
The Bolt levels off quickly though, and doesn’t really rally from a cruising speed to “very fast” all that excitingly. Plenty of juice to merge, though.
I have to confess I didn’t really have the opportunity to try slaloming or autocross-style antics, but I don’t think the low-resistance tires would have held up too well on San Francisco’s rain-soaked streets even if the car’s balance is decent.
It’s probably not fair to ponder this given how different they are, but everyone’s going to ask how it compares to a Tesla, I’ll start there. The Bolt’s 0 to 60 time is impressive for an efficiency-focused car, but launching it doesn’t come close to the shock-and-awe acceleration of even the lower-powered Teslas. It’s also not supposed to.
Of course, the sprint to 60 mph isn’t everything. In fact, it’s barely relevant to practical driving at this point. A Tesla Model S might get to the highway speed limit in less than half the time it takes a Bolt, but the Chevy’s not in any danger of getting run over trying to merge.
The Bolt was more reserved than a Tesla in every respect. It blends in with traffic while giving its occupants enough novelties to keep the EV crowd amused, while I feel like a Tesla is a lot more aggressive about its own personality dominating the drive. But I guess that’s typical in $30,000 car versus something that costs $70,000 to $100,000.
At the other end of the spectrum, I found the Bolt to be much more interesting and engaging inside than the Kia Soul EV, which seems more like “just a fine little economy car with an electric powertrain” inside. The Bolt’s ambient lighting and desktop computer-style gauges and screen, plus that cool spaceship armor interior decoration, make it stand out more than the Kia.
Don’t buy a Bolt because of how much you think you’ll save on gas. If you’re obsessed with economic efficiency, you should be riding in an old Toyota Echo and taking the bus when you can.
The Bolt seems like a good and practical car regardless of its drive system. And it has enough features and capabilities to put it on par with other vehicles costing around the same if you factor in federal rebates. Which of course, EV purveyors have been leaning on since they were introduced.
The $41,000 Premier comes down to around $34,000 after discounts, even less in some states. And that gets you a car with all the driver aids currently available short of self-driving, decent seating for four, a reasonably quiet cabin, ample acceleration and the opportunity to smugly smell your own farts when other people talk about wishing they could do something about the environment.
Of course reducing your carbon footprint is a lot more complicated than not burning gasoline, but your Bolt has graphs and charts and a button with a leaf on it, damn it. It’s your time to shine!
The person I imagine appreciating the Bolt most is somebody who doesn’t necessarily give a damn about cars, but they sure do love their phone and they want to be in charge of their own destiny—I mean destination—enough to get their own wheels.
And to answer one of the most-repeated questions I’ve been getting about the Bolt: yes, I absolutely think it could be your only car. Yeah, you. As long as you have some provision for charging at home, 200 miles is more than enough to get you beyond errands and into interesting adventures. ‘
Beyond that, OEMs like Chevrolet and smaller third-party companies have populated the nation with a network of electric car chargers that is growing (whether or not you’ll be able to use them all is another story, and an investigation for another time.) But if you don’t feel like worrying about where you can plug in, you can always rent a car for your epic road trips.
The Bolt seems worth investigating if you’re looking for a progressive elaboration on the idea of “basic transportation” for around $35,000, and the warranty should be long enough to allay most fears about its survivability.
I appreciate that it’s subtle, and think there’s enough EV novelty going on inside to keep you interested if you want to get nerdy with it without being in your face.
Whether the Bolt becomes the William Wallace of the everyman electric vehicle revolution remains to be seen, but if nothing else, it feels like a great start.
Engine: 60 kWh lithium ion battery-powered permanent magnetic drive motor
Power: 200 HP constant / 266 lb-ft constant
Transmission: Single drive motor
0-60 Time: 6.5 seconds (claimed)
Top Speed: 91 MPH (claimed)
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive
Curb Weight: 3,580 lbs
Seating: 5 people
MPGe: 128 City / 110 Highway (from EPA)
MSRP: $37,495; $42,760 for Premium + Infotainment Package + Driver Confidence II Package (not including $7,500 federal tax credit)