It may not look the part of the Silicon Valley superstar, but Chevy has gone and built the best electric car in the world.
– Menlo Park, California
When you’re taking the scenic route to Half Moon Bay, through the hilly roads to the west of my Menlo Park starting place, the driving is rather special. Deep forests crowd the smooth, winding roadways, and dramatic elevation occasionally combines with open places to reveal dewy valleys and other breathtaking varieties of Northern California vista.
The same can be said, certainly, of my very recent drive in the Chevrolet Bolt EV. Though, as I spend the day winding my way north along the San Francisco Peninsula, and then south from The City (in a hurry) to make my flight at SFO, it wasn’t the mountain driving that impressed me most with what might very well be the best electric vehicle on sale today. Rather, it was that last bit, the drive out of congested city streets, and onto a busy Highway 101, that had me sold. Make no mistake: This is an EV that is built to excel at driving in the real world, with average, uninterested drivers behind the wheel.
This is an EV that is built to excel at driving in the real world, with average, uninterested drivers behind the wheel.
On busy streets and freeways, the Bolt’s electric powertrain is king. The single permanent magnet drive motor produces 200 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque, and of course that twist is available as soon as you ask for it, no engine-revving required. That means sprints between city blocks, looking for open places in congestion to change lanes or to otherwise optimize positioning, is simple. Eye your opening, boot the accelerator, and go. Naturally, that same process works a treat for highways, too, especially in hairy motive conflict zones like California’s notorious 101.
The immediate goodness of electric powertrains has never been in doubt. Chevy spent lots of time reiterating the “EVs are fun!” message that has been canon to car nerds and Tesla owners for years now – though it’s fair that it could stand to be hammered home for average drivers.
But some of the Bolt’s magic lies in its impressive battery pack; as much (or more) as can be found in the response of its zippy electric motor. The lithium-ion pack is composed of some 288 cells, good for 60 kilowatt-hours and an EPA-estimated range of 238 miles. Offering 200-plus miles isn’t just a major blow in the fight against range anxiety, it’s also competitive with the 60-kWh versions of the Tesla Model S (219 and 225 miles for the 60 and 60D, respectively). Moreover, the range figure out-guns what Tesla has tentatively put forth for its upcoming, price-competitive Model 3.
Bolt designers were very clearly keyed in on day-to-day usability.
Range is great, but charging time is still a fact of life for EV owners. Chevy says that the Bolt will renew some 50 miles of range in “less than two hours” from a 240-volt charger, or 90 miles of range in 30 minutes if you’ve got access to a DC fast-charging setup. That’s a reasonable turnaround time; Tesla specs about an hour and a half for 50 miles of charge from 240 volts at 48 amps (though the time plummets to eight minutes if you have access to a Supercharger).
The 240-volt charging station for your home becomes pretty critical to the equation of Bolt ownership. The cost of that hardware is $699 from Chevy, and can be wrapped up into the sale or lease price of the car. Not a huge amount in the world of options, especially considering you get to keep it in your garage after you sell the Bolt.
Bolt designers were very clearly keyed in on day-to-day usability. Range and charge times are a big part of that, but so is the practicality found in the very usable interior. Interior space is more than generous, with the flat-floor battery pack opening up all kinds of volume that wouldn’t exist in a traditionally powered vehicle. I’m six-feet, five-inches tall; it’s a rare vehicle outside of the fullsize world that I can comfortably sit behind myself in. In the Bolt, even with the driver’s seat where I like it, there is just enough space for my knees, and the top of the cabin only lightly brushes my hair. Four large adults will fit in here with no problem, to say nothing of normal-sized folks or kids.
Four large adults will fit in here with no problem, to say nothing of normal-sized folks or kids.
There’s plenty of room for stuff with the people, too. Even with the rear seats raised, the Bolt boasts 16.9 cubic feet of volume in the hatch. That’s more than enough space for luggage or kiddie accouterments without having to sacrifice rear seating.
Placing the battery pack in the floor of the Bolt has really good consequences for the car’s handling, too. The pack weighs 960 pounds, or about 27 percent of the car’s 3,580 curb weight. All of that mass down low makes the Bolt feel quite planted and stable in corners; even those damp and winding mountain roads I started on were dispatched with, if not lightness, an amusing willingness to change direction.
Beyond its stable base, the Bolt’s handling isn’t surprising. The steering feel is virtually nonexistent, meaning one is left to judge grip from the skinny, 215-section Michelin low-rolling-resistance tires by dint of their audible protest. Suffice it to say that, though the chassis and rolling stock are up to the task of spirited urban driving, they’re not exactly at home with truly sporting pursuits. In the war for EV mastery, Tesla still reigns supreme here.
While the chassis and rolling stock are up to the task of spirited urban driving, they’re not exactly at home with truly sporting pursuits.
But perhaps the biggest sin Chevy has committed in its conception of the Bolt is one of omission: Why not make this thing sexy? I fully believe that, when and if people who aren’t already EV enthusiasts drive the car, they will likely find it compelling. But getting butts in seats for test drives – or hands-raised and deposits secured for as-yet-unbuilt hardware – is a hell of a lot easier for objects of desire than for workaday designs like Bolt.
Save for the blue-emblazoned “EV” on the nameplate, there’s not much to tell a casual observer that the Bolt is something more special than a new Chevy hatchback. (Note: the company wants the Bolt to be a crossover, but I’m having a hard time swallowing that, admittedly ambiguous, designation.) The sheet metal is attractive, and the detailing demure (outside of the rather ugly plastic panels on the grille), but you could more easily convince me that this is the new, bigger Spark, than sell it as a game-changing EV.
Inside, it’s more of the same. I really like the big and bright, 10.2-inch touchscreen display that commands attention on the dash, and the cross-hatched, white-ish, techy plastic along the top of the instrument panel is cool. But the steering wheel and seats, leather options and color pallets, all feel like they’re cribbed from the Malibu playbook. Which is to say, good, but not exciting, to say nothing of any have-to-have-it factor.
EVs are for everyone now, not merely the true believers.
Said another way: even people who don’t know what a Model 3 is kind of want a Tesla. People who already know what the Bolt is are going to be blown away by it; the rest of the world is going to have to be educated, and that’s a tough row to hoe.
I don’t want you, dear reader, to take away from this First Drive that the Chevy Bolt is anything but a remarkable piece of technology, and the most democratized good electric vehicle to ever go on sale. Even with prices ranging up into the mid-$40K range without available tax incentives figured in, the Bolt is affordable for a huge percentage of car buyers in the U.S. with a real-world starting price around thirty grand. (Pro-tip: Lease one instead of buying; you’ll get the benefits of the tax incentives up front rather than having to wait until April.)
While I will continue to quibble with what I see as an underselling of incredible technology, I’ll also happily endorse the hardware itself as the best we have. EVs are for everyone now, not merely the true believers.
Photos: Seyth Miersma / Motor1.com