"Highly anticipated" is an overused term for new vehicles, but the descriptor certainly applies to General Motors' new all-electric car, the Chevrolet Bolt EV. Except we haven't really been waiting for it all that long. The anticipation has lasted 20 months so far, measuring from when Chevrolet first showed a concept version of the car at the 2015 Detroit auto show. Since then, GM debuted the production Bolt EV at the beginning of 2016, divulged most of the car's technical details, and, last month, let us drive a prototype Bolt just outside the borders of the company's Michigan proving grounds. Now, a few months before the Bolt is scheduled to go on sale, we've had the chance to drive a Bolt EV in real-world conditions in California to test its driving range.
The anticipation surrounding the Bolt EV has a lot to do with two claims that GM made when it first showed the concept in January 2015: a starting price of around $30,000 and a driving range of 200-plus miles on a single charge. Confirming that first number will have to wait a bit longer, until Chevy finalizes the price, but it's worth noting the caveat that the $30,000 estimate is the price after tax credits, including the federal $7500 incentive. But the second-and perhaps more important-number, the range, now has been officially certified by the EPA at 238 miles.
Oh, the Places You'll Go
Eager to prove that the Bolt really will go that far on a single charge, Chevrolet planned out a route from Monterey to Santa Barbara, California, that spanned approximately 240 miles on coastal highways. The route included elevation changes and higher cruising speeds, conditions that do not typically favor electric cars, which do best in stop-and-go situations that make the most of their regenerative-braking capability. (Chevrolet claims that about 40 miles of the EPA-rated range is attributable to regen adding energy back into the battery while the car is underway.)
During our day with the Bolt, we did not drive in an overly aggressive manner, nor did we hypermile. Most of the time, we stayed out of the standard Drive setting and kept the car in its Low mode, which increases the amount of regenerative slowdown you get when you lift off the go pedal. (More on that later.) Temperatures were in the 60s for the first half of our route, so we left the fan blowing without activating air conditioning; as we drove farther south, the temperature rose, and we set the automatic climate control to 72 degrees.
The results speak for themselves: After driving 238 miles, we arrived at our destination with the range estimator displaying 34 miles remaining. No complicated math was required to see that the Bolt clearly can far outperform Chevy's initial estimate. Other drivers on the same route achieved varying numbers-one vehicle finished with a range indicator simply flashing Low rather than displaying a number-but each of the four Bolts on our drive completed the tall task. We'll go ahead and brag that we won, with our car showing the most remaining range at the end of the route, despite one wrong turn that added a couple of miles to our journey.
Helping to keep track of available range is a useful gauge prominently displayed on the 8.0-inch digital instrument-cluster screen. The number in the middle represents the car's best estimate for how much farther it can travel before running out of juice. This number is flanked by maximum- and minimum-range estimates. As you drive more efficiently, a green bar rises from the middle number to indicate that you're trending upward toward the maximum range. Use more energy, and a yellow bar stretches down toward the minimum range number to indicate a downward trend. The spread between the maximum and minimum numbers narrows as you deplete the battery further. For example, our fully charged car displayed a main range estimate of 225 miles at the start, with a maximum of 265 and a minimum of 184 miles; when we finished the route, the main number read 34 miles, with a maximum of 40 and a minimum of 27.
Range anxiety in the Bolt happens on a different scale than in most other EVs. With less than one-fourth of battery capacity remaining, the range display can sometimes turn a somewhat alarming shade of orange, the sort of color that in another EV might prompt you to find a charging station posthaste. But in the Bolt, you're likely to have 30 or 40 miles of range remaining when this happens, giving you plenty of time to run a few errands before needing to find your next charge point. Speaking of which, GM does not quote total charging times, instead saying that a 240-volt charger will add 50 miles of range in less than two hours and that a 480-volt quick charger can add around 90 miles of range in 30 minutes. However, the Bolt's 7.2-kW onboard charger (the Tesla Model S with the optional 20-kW capability can charge almost three times faster) means it will take roughly 8.5 hours to fully recharge its 60-kWh battery. A portable 120-volt charge cord is included, but that option won't replenish the battery pack with any urgency.
The central 10.2-inch infotainment screen offers additional metrics useful for EV driving and charging. One screen shows how much energy is being used by certain vehicle functions, including Driving and Accessories, Climate Settings, and Battery Conditioning (which only becomes an issue only in extreme temperatures, when the car has to use energy to regulate the temperature of the battery pack). Another screen is a sort of driving scorecard that rates things like driving technique, climate-control usage, and terrain. All information on the two screens (both of which are engineered by South Korean electronics giant LG and designed by GM) is clearly and cleanly presented, and the responsive central touchscreen also includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capabilities. Chevy promises more details are forthcoming about certain built-in navigation capabilities, connectivity features, and optional active-safety systems.
While the Bolt's technology palette is attractive, we were a bit disappointed with its interior quality, which is more befitting a $20,000 car than a $30,000 one. Chief engineer Josh Tavel admitted that priorities for the Bolt dictated more of a focus on innovative tech than it did on soft-touch dashboard materials and the like. This is an understandable compromise, even with an abundance of hard plastic trim, some of which is poorly grained. Clear forward visibility, a spacious back seat with plenty of leg- and headroom for two adults, and a deep rear-cargo well help offset the interior's subjective shortcomings.
As we found during our initial prototype drive, the engineering team was not willing to compromise on the Bolt EV's dynamics. While developing the ride and handling of the Bolt, Tavel-an avid SCCA racer-says that he discouraged benchmarking other electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf and the BMW i3. Instead, he set loftier targets by seeking out great-handling cars for around $30,000 (which he doesn't name) regardless of propulsion system. The effort paid off: The Bolt isn't just good to drive for an electric car, it's good to drive, period. Sure, its cornering limits are relatively low because of its low-rolling-resistance Michelin tires, but the ride is satisfyingly firm without being harsh, and body motions are well controlled. Steering is heavily weighted, but not overly so, and has good on-center feel.
We would tell you all about the action and feel of the Bolt EV's brake pedal, which uses regenerative braking for the first bit of its travel before activating the hydraulic brakes, but we hardly touched it during our drive. Several different configurations for the regenerative braking system enable single-pedal driving in nearly every scenario. The standard Drive setting enables the lowest amount of regen, while pulling the shifter back for Low ratchets up the amount of regenerative braking when you lift off the accelerator pedal, to the point where it can bring the car to a complete stop. In both Drive and Low, a helpful paddle behind the left steering-wheel spoke provides on-demand regenerative capability for when you want even more aggressive deceleration. Introduced on the current Chevy Volt, this paddle is a bit more useful in the Bolt EV because it is able to bring the car to a complete stop; the car also will hold itself at a stop if you slow to 0 mph in Low, while Drive mode allows low-speed creep similar to the familiar behavior of a car with a gasoline engine and a conventional automatic transmission.
The gradual and progressive feel of the right pedal (no gas pedal or throttle here) allows for precise adjustments that make it easy to get used to this single-pedal driving style. A Sport mode button on the dashboard increases pedal sensitivity for the perception of better responsiveness, but it actually doesn't provide any additional thrust-which isn't exactly insane or ludicrous. Tavel said that the main reason the Sport mode is included on the Bolt EV was because of positive feedback received from Volt owners about a similar mode in their cars.
Quick, Not Fast
If the Bolt can indeed get from zero to 60 mph in about 6.5 seconds, as Tavel claims, it will match our best result for the BMW i3, the quickest entry among today's current crop of relatively accessible EVs, which excludes expensive machines like Tesla's Model S and Model X. The Bolt's torquey electric motor (200 horsepower, 266 lb-ft of torque) can easily chirp the tires from a stop and provides plenty of instantaneous power for slicing through city traffic or passing on the highway. Top speed is 90 mph, a relatively pointless measurement for most EV drivers. Even so, our inner hooligan wonders how far the Bolt could go while maintaining that velocity.
The waiting game for the Bolt EV will continue for a bit longer, as GM is only vaguely saying that the Bolt goes on sale in "late 2016." The Bolt will be assembled at GM's Orion Township, Michigan, plant, with several parts-including the electric motor and battery pack-manufactured by LG in South Korea. The Bolt EV is said to be available in all 50 states, but not all of Chevrolet's approximately 3300 dealerships nationwide will choose to apply for Chevy's new "electrification certification" that will allow a given dealership to sell the Malibu hybrid, the Volt, and the Bolt. (Around 2200 dealerships are currently certified to sell the Volt.)
Chevrolet hasn't yet detailed any sort of pre-ordering process for the Bolt, but we won't be surprised if high initial demand creates a waiting list. The Bolt EV is worth the wait for a few extra months. It's a well-rounded, eminently usable, forward-thinking small hatchback that's satisfying to drive-and perhaps the most compelling argument yet for the staying power of the mass-market electric car.
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