GM invited us to come to San Francisco for a new round of test drives of their new flagship all-electric vehicle: the Chevy Bolt EV. Note: The lovely folks at Chevy paid for our travel, hotel and fed us quite nicely.
I had mixed feelings when I first got inside the 2017 Chevy Bolt EV more than a year ago at CES 2016 and those mixed feelings persist today. My concerns aren’t about the engineering, technology or even the implementation of the vehicle. The Bolt is unequivocally the best $30,000 EV you can buy today (in some states + Canada) and for my money, the best car of any kind on the roads right now at its price point. GM/Chevrolet deserve a mountain of praise for delivering the first affordable EV with more range than anyone could hope to use on a daily basis.
But there are still some concerns…
First the good stuff, and there’s plenty of that. The Bolt EV is huge inside, with an interior that is 1-2 class sizes bigger than its exterior, according to Chevy. And it zips around quicker than any car in its class. 0-60 times (under 6.5 seconds) approach the Camaro/Mustang-type of vehicles and most of that power is right away. Including a 238 mile range makes this car “the whole package.”
Grower, not a shower
Chevy calls this a “compact crossover” and while I don’t know if I like that classification because this FWD vehicle with low clearances shouldn’t ever be taken off-road, I see how Chevy gets there. It has the ground clearance, tires and maneuverability of a compact car.
However, because you are perched high on top of a 60kWh battery, it does have a lot of the niceties of a crossover like lots of vertical interior space and what I’d classify as stadium seating in the back as they are lifted up even further. For folks with bad knees, it is a lot easier to get in and out of than a sports car or even a sedan, which I think is an under-appreciated factor for many car buyers. Driving position and headroom room are significantly higher that a typical car, let alone one with the footprint of a compact car.
Because of the electric powertrain, the Bolt EV is almost all interior. That means you can park easily in those compact parking spaces but actually have tons of room in the rear seats and even more room behind them for storage. This would be fantastic for my family of 4.
Because of its electric powertrain, the Bolt has a very low center of gravity; much lower, I’d wager than any other “compact crossover” and it’s handling is indicative of a vehicle perched much lower to the ground. Couple that with a super-peppy for its weight 266lb/ft torque and over 200 horsepower (about double the Nissan Leaf!) and this little baby can really scoot.
I got some time out on the San Francisco coast to really put its power to the test. On the interstate, going from 50-70mph felt almost instant. Passing on a semi-blind 2 lane road was super easy and to the dismay of my Chevy PR passenger, super fast. The Bolt EV isn’t going to be marketed to sports car fans but I’d wager that most will be pleasantly and perhaps violently surprised by the Bolt handling and speed.
The Bolt comes standard with a big, bright capacitive 10.2-inch display which makes CarPlay and Android Auto the best experience I’ve so far had with the technologies. However, I wasn’t able to use USB-C devices like the Pixel XL or Nexus 5X – Chevy says an update will soon fix this. Using my iPhone however, I was able to get around San Francisco as well as Apple Maps could find its way around and use the phone and steering wheel buttons with Siri to listen to music and respond to messages.
Chevy also has a ton of power usage settings on both displays which I think will take some time to get used to. I think some simplification here will be helpful to the typical Bolt customer.
Most of the features of the car are nice additions that mostly stay out of the way of the user unless needed. A good example is the rearview mirror camera overlay. If you need it it is there but turning it off for normal driving keeps it from being a distraction.
One pedal driving
“Regen” or regenerative braking is a super important part of EV driving and Chevy’s strategy here deserves some time. Regen not only turns physical drive momentum back into electricity but it saves significant wear and tear on the vehicles brake systems.
Chevy touts its one pedal regen driving as “4 different modes” which is a bit confusing. To simplify, its matrix strategy is to have D (regular drive mode) and L (high regen drive mode) markers on the drive stick and an extra regen paddle behind the steering wheel on the left-hand side that can be invoked at any time to add extra regen. Two big things here:
- As someone who has driven one-pedal for the last 4 years, this is the strongest regen package I’ve ever tried. Coming to a stop and not even touching the brake all day are very real scenarios.
- I think most folks new to EVs will start out in (D)rive mode. I hope, however, once they are comfortable, they will switch default to (L) but I don’t think Chevy does enough to encourage this. (L) required a double shift every time you start the car. My feeling is that (L) should be the default and the (D) should be a sort of “training wheels” mode for newbies or guest drivers.
As far as brake lights are concerned, the Bolt’s are activated by negative Gs when slowed enough by regen. At high speeds, this works well, but for low-speed city driving it is hard to tell if people at a stop sign, for instance, are actually stopped when in regen. Not a big deal.
I think everyone was a bit surprised when Chevy announced its EPA rating of 238 miles from its 60kWh battery pack. That is a lot of range for a $30K car (after incentives) and it will serve 99.x% of daily drives incredibly well. By the time we were done with our day of driving around San Fransisco, we still had 100 miles left on the battery, even with the hills and acceleration tests.
Think of it this way: at 60mph, you are going to have almost 4 hours of drive time in the car. That’s enough for most people on a daily basis.
Chevy offers a Level 1 charger which comes in a secret compartment in the trunk where a spare tire once was planned. I lived with only a level 1 charger, which you can add up to 50 miles of range a night. But the Bolt’s internal inverter takes up to (240V X 32A) 7.7kW charge which can be delivered by its specially-sourced AeroVironment charger, that conveniently can be included in the price of the lease for a few bucks more a month. With this charger, you are going to wake up every morning with 238 miles of range.
This was an excellent 1st drive of the Bolt EV and I came away as impressed as ever. However, I still have many of the concerns I’ve had since the Bolt was launched. Unfortunately Chevy hasn’t, for whatever reason, been able to answer these properly and I’d recommend coming to terms with these questions. In no particular order:
- Winter/cold driving: The paranoid part of me wonders why all of the Bolt test drives are in sunny California rather than home turf of Michigan? How do those low resistance tires handle snow? How good is the Bolt’s battery heating system at warming up the battery? (Lithium batteries work to -30 degrees FYI). How does the cold affect its range? We just don’t know these answers yet. As someone who lives in New York, these are the types of things that can kill a sale.
- Crash tests: The Bolt hasn’t yet been crash tested or rated. Chevy expects good marks and has clearly been thinking about safety a great deal but this is a new platform and there could be surprises.
- Dealerships: My experience with Chevy (well all car) Dealers has been incredibly poor and though Chevy believes otherwise, I don’t know that car dealers will give the Bolt justice in presentation or placement. Remember, dealers make most of their money on repairs and service and EVs require a fraction of that service time. Also Dealers must pass some testing and buy charging equipment if they want to become certified to sell the Bolt. Just over a third of Chevy’s 3,000+ Dealers have done so so far.
- OTA Updates: Besides CarPlay/Android Auto and OnStar, none of the Bolt’s systems can be updated over the air. That means that unless there is a recall, you are pretty much going to be driving the same system in 4 years as is delivered on day 1…for better or worse.
- Long distance driving. The quintessential American Road Trip! Chevy is relying on 3rd party DC charging infrastructure from makers like NRG EVGO, Chargepoint and others for putting up a nationwide network. But there are a lot of problems with this. The business concerns of Chargepoint and EVGO mean that lesser used routes might not get the type of coverage that dense urban areas receive. Also, at 55kW peak DC charging capability and no upgrade available here, the Bolt is at best going to add 90 miles in 30 minutes of charging. That’s a long wait for just over an hour of driving making this NOT a road trip car.
- GM Politics: It truly upsets me that GM advocates for the dealership model and puts lobbying money behind those efforts, actively squeezing out the smaller/newer players. Chevy tried to distance themselves from this effort and says it advocates for a fair playing field (which is inherently impossible). On top of that and perhaps more upsetting is that GM has through the AutoAlliance group tried to lower federal guidelines on EVs – even while making and delivering the most compelling EV to date. My conscience won’t let this one die.
- Upcoming competition: The elephant in this room is that other US carmaker which I’ve managed not to mention at all in this review. A similar priced/range vehicle that might be a lot sexier and more forward thinking and fewer of the above concerns is on the horizon. Is it worth waiting?
Any new platform will have hurdles to overcome and the Bolt EV is no different. I still believe, however, that this is a truly remarkable vehicle that I can easily recommend to anyone considering a car in this price range.
While it is easy to put this up against other EVs in the field which are either much more expensive or have a much smaller range, I think the Bolt’s ability to bring in new EV drivers who wouldn’t otherwise venture out of their ICE habits is what sets the Bolt EV apart.