PALO ALTO, Calif.—After what has felt like an interminable wait since our brief taster at CES last year, we finally landed some proper seat time with the new Chevrolet Bolt. It’s the most convincing battery electric vehicle (BEV) to emerge thus far from one of the traditional automakers, a ground-up design with clever packaging and a 60kWh battery that gives it a range of 238 miles (383km). And until Tesla’s Model 3 goes into production later this year, it’s the only reasonably affordable long-range BEV on the market.
It’s not entirely surprising that Chevrolet was the first of the traditional OEMs to respond to Tesla. Parent General Motors tried to make EVs viable in the early 1990s with the EV1, perhaps a little too soon before battery technology made the leaps it has. More recently, it has sold more than 110,000 plug-in hybrid EVs in the form of the first- and second-generation Volt. While the Bolt obviously benefits from this institutional know-how, the new car is a ground-up design, not an evolution of its PHEV platform.
The monocoque body is a complex mix of different strength steels that package a skateboard layout for the powertrain. The car’s 60kWh lithium-ion battery pack lives between each axle, connected to a motor-generator unit that drives the front wheels. It’s a 150kW (200hp), 266lb-ft (360Nm) permanent magnetic drive MGU, preferred by GM’s engineers for its reliability, efficiency, and volume production. Range is a decent 238 miles (383km)—more than enough for a couple days of driving for most of us.
Wrapped around the steel monocoque is an attractive, almost-one-box shape; we’d call it a hatchback, but Chevrolet prefers to think of it as a small crossover. It’s the work of GM’s South Korean design studio under the lead of Stuart Norris. Like the BMW i3, we think it looks best in “stormtrooper” white (not the color’s actual name). However, it’s not the slipperiest shape in the world, with a drag coefficient (Cd) of 0.32; by comparison a Tesla Model S has a Cd of 0.24, and the Chevrolet Volt 0.28.
Norris and his team have done a great job of packaging, though. The Bolt has a B-segment footprint, but its interior space is more like a bigger C-segment vehicle. That’s down to a few factors; the skateboard drivetrain layout certainly helps, as there are no intrusions into the cabin for an engine or gearbox. But there are other neat touches, too, like the front seats, which are much thinner than usual (and no, they don’t appear to sacrifice any comfort). When you first open the rear hatch, it looks like the trunk is relatively meager, but fret not. There’s a false floor that can be removed (it stows on the true floor to the cargo space), giving 56.6 cubic feet (1,603L) with the rear seats in use. Fold those seats back and the cargo space expands to 94.4 cubic feet (2,673L).
It’s a light, airy cabin thanks to the large glasshouse, and rear seat legroom is more than acceptable for tall passengers, even with the front seat pushed back. There’s a decent amount of cabin storage space (including a center cubby that’s big enough to fit an iPad), and the ergonomics give us no cause for complaint. However, the driver’s side A pillar (the piece that connects the roof to the front of the car) is very thick, and even though there are generous openings just behind the pillar, you may need to crane your neck a little to see if something is coming around a tight left-hand bend.
By contrast, the rear camera mirror (standard equipment on the Premier trim) is a boon for visibility. It stitches together images from a pair of rear-mounted cameras and displays it to you as a wide-angle view on the mirror’s LCD display. For the first five minutes, it seems slightly unnatural because of the different focal length compared to a traditional mirror, in addition to the subtly different scene it shows you. The cameras are mounted above the license plate so your view is lower down than you expect from a rear view mirror.
Chevrolet has also reworked the car’s UI, evolving it from what we’ve seen in the second-gen Volt. The main instrument display is now much flatter and a little more muted, in much the same way Apple dropped the 3D window sliders from OS X a while back. The main infotainment display is a 10.2″ LCD touchscreen that uses a new tile-based UI. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are both included as standard. This goes a long way to excuse the stock navigation, which we continue to think could use some work.
We knew much of the above before flying into the Bay Area to get behind the wheel. The missing piece? What the Bolt would be like to drive on a mix of roads that included some sinuous and empty back streets as well as stop-and-go city traffic. After about 100 miles behind the wheel, we’re happy to report that the experience is a good one. The Bolt’s low center of gravity keeps it well planted to the road, and even on low-rolling resistance tires, understeer was hard to find. The suspension damping filters out bumps and potholes, but beware of the latter. The tires need to be well-inflated to be at their ecological best, and as we’ve found out with previous EVs (a Model S and a Volt) they can puncture on a pothole edge or curbstone with much less effort than you might expect.
How you drive the Bolt depends on which of two modes you use. Put the gearshifter into D and it drives like a regular car, albeit one with buckets of low-down torque. It’s not lightning fast, but zero to 60 takes 6.5 seconds, so it’s no slouch either. It coasts well at speed (although technically the drive isn’t disengaged, so it’s never freewheeling), and to slow things down, you either use the foot brake or the regen paddle that’s behind the left spoke of the steering wheel. The main instrument display gives constant feedback on your driving behavior; a bezel changes from green to yellow if you brake or accelerate too hard.
D is perfect for highways and anything above 30mph (48km/h). But on urban streets and stop-go traffic, switching the transmission to L (for low) is the way to go. This mode enables one-pedal driving, something the Bolt’s engineers fought hard to include even though it wouldn’t add a dollar to the sticker price. In L, the accelerator pedal is all you need. Depress it, and the car behaves as normal. As you lift the pedal, regenerative braking kicks in aggressively, with even more deceleration on offer via the regen paddle. (The brake lights will trigger any time the car slows at more than 0.12G.)
The cars that Chevrolet had on hand for our test were the more expensive Premier trim cars, $43,595 when specced with DC fast charging, the Infotainment Pack (better speakers, wireless phone charging, and a pair of rear USB ports), and the Driver Confidence II pack. The latter bundles together a bunch of advanced driver assists, although there is no adaptive cruise control (there is lane keep assist). Base LT trim cars start at $37,495, which means that after the federal EV incentive, the price is comfortably below the median US car purchase. And we think it’s a rather good value, even if you go for the more expensive version.
Recharging times depend on your power supply. A normal 110v outlet gets you about four miles’ range per hour. The Bolt will draw 7.2kW from a level 2 charger (connected to your 240v power at home via a partnership with AeroVironment or at a public charging point), which is good for about 25 miles of range in an hour. And finally, there’s DC fast charging, which adds 90 miles of range in 30 minutes. Time limits coded into DC Fast chargers limit them to 30 minutes at a time, so if you’re road-tripping, be prepared to set an alert to unplug and replug your car every half hour. The Bolt’s engineers told us that DC Fast charging draws 50kW, although there’s still some confusion out there, and it’s possible that the Bolt can draw up to 80kW should the charger provide it.
Sales of the Bolt have already begun in the so-called compliance states, California and Oregon, with deliveries set to begin in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia this month. Chevrolet told us that the plan is to have Bolts on sale nationwide by mid-year, but the criteria for choosing where to send cars comes down to customer demand for EVs, dealer readiness, and infrastructure needs.
So there you have it. Four(ish) years post-Model S, one of the OEMs finally stepped up and built a compelling BEV that can (just about) handle a week’s commuting without needing to top up. It’s comes in at a price point that’s dead-center for the US car market, and it really is spacious enough inside that you won’t mind putting adults in the back. (In fact, your first exposure to a Bolt may well be as a backseat passenger if you use Maven or Lyft.) The lack of cutting edge semi-autonomous driver assists may well prove to be a stumbling block for some, particularly those with designs on a Tesla Model 3, but unless that’s a deal breaker, ignore the Bolt at your peril. Now, if we can just convince Chevrolet to stick an MGU between the rear wheels and give us a 400hp/300kW Bolt SS, we might be in EV heaven.