The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV is the first mass-market electric car to surpass 200 miles of range, something that otherwise only a $70,000 Tesla can achieve.
Bolt boasts a range of 238 miles between charges. Bolt is a pure electric vehicle; there’s no range-extender engine like on the Volt. The Bolt is a tall compact five-door hatchback with the passenger space of a midsize car, thanks to pushing the wheels out to the corners. These virtues, along with a price that makes the cost-per-mile numbers work for commuter travel, make it potentially the first mainstream EV.
We spent six hours behind the wheel of a pre-production Bolt EV, logging 240 miles along California coastal roads and freeways at varying speeds and elevations. Our drive depleted the battery, but other automotive journalists on the same route tried harder, and arrived with as much as 25 miles left. So the EPA-rated 238-mile range is not only real, but can be increased with careful attention to efficient driving.
After its introduction as a concept car at the 2015 North American International Auto Show, the Bolt EV was developed in record time by a close partnership between General Motors and the Korean battery maker LG Chem, which designed the battery pack, some powertrain components, and the digital dashboard displays. The battery pack, electric motor and drive unit are manufactured in Korea, but the Bolt is built in Michigan.
The EPA classifies the Bolt as a small wagon, which we might go along with, but Chevrolet calls it a crossover, which we’re not buying because there’s no all-wheel drive nor higher ground clearance. We call it a tall compact wagon.
It’s built on dedicated architecture for electric cars, although some suspension components and accessories are shared with other GM vehicles. It handles well.
Bolt’s powerplant is a simple design. A big flat 60-kilowatt hour lithium-ion battery pack sits under the floor and powers an electric motor that drives the front wheels. That motor is rated 150 kilowatts (200 horsepower), and can squirt the Bolt to sixty miles per hour in less than seven seconds. With that kind of acceleration you’ll never get in anyone’s way in the city. In fact, big bulky gas burners will be in your way. You will feel all superior, and be shouting, “Get those dinosaurs out of my way!”
There are two distinct drive modes. In the normal Drive mode, selected on a lever like a transmission lever but not, the car behaves like it has an automatic transmission; but in the Low mode, the regenerative braking is much stronger, and will actually stop the car without the brakes being applied. It extends the range, but it takes some getting used to, to be appreciated.
The Bolt EV’s onboard charger operates at up to 7.2 kilowatts. A 120-volt charging cord is stored under the rear cargo area. Chevrolet believes that most Bolt buyers will install a 240-volt outlet in their garage (it might already be in the laundry room), so they will be able to charge the battery pack using a 240-volt Level 2 charging station. GM says that with Level 2, it takes less than two hours to get 50 miles of charge; so that would be overnight for a full charge of 200-plus miles. The Bolt also offers an available 50-watt DC fast-charging port, which GM says will give you 90 miles of range in 30 minutes of charging. It costs $750, and uses the Combined Charging System (CCS) protocol adopted by all U.S. and German makers except Tesla. It makes the Bolt EV do-able for road trips.
Unlike BMW, Nissan and Volkswagen, GM doesn’t plan to finance the building of fast-charge infrastructure across the country. That’s also unlike Tesla, with its nationwide network of Supercharger sites.
The Bolt is rated by the EPA at 119 MPGe. Miles Per Gallon Equivalent, or MPGe, measures the distance a car can travel electrically on the amount of energy in a gallon of gasoline. The Bolt’s score is beaten only by one model of the BMW i3.
Neither the NHTSA nor IIHS have crash-tested the Bolt, but Chevy engineers told us they’re confident the Bolt will earn the top scores. The lack of an engine and transmission up front required some innovative crash engineering in the stubby nose, they said, but they worked on it long and hard and are sure they got it.
Crash forces are absorbed and diverted around the passenger compartment by a lower cradle holding the traction motor and driveline, plus an upper cradle that contains the power electronics. Each is attached at four points. GM engineers went through many designs to find the one that delivered their own best crash scores; that’s why they’re confident that the Bolt will ace the government and insurance industry tests.
The Bolt is the first car on the market to use the new Michelin self-sealing tire; if it picks up a nail it fixes itself, and you never know it. So there’s no spare tire in the Bolt, or even an inflation can, because it’s not necessary.
The Bolt EV LT and Premier qualify for government incentives, including a $7500 Federal income tax credit and a $2500 rebate from the State of California, which also allows the Bolt in commuter lanes on the freeway.
Bolt LT comes with climate control, HID headlamps, LED daytime running lights, rearview camera, two USB ports, 10.2-inch color touchscreen, digital rearview mirror, and 17-inch wheels.
Bolt Premier upgrades upholstery to leather and adds additional features, including the latest rearview camera system.
The Bolt has family resemblance to other small Chevrolets, an upright hatchback with a short nose, racy lines, sharp creases, rising windows, and wheels pushed out to the corners. This shape makes it look smaller than it is. There’s a plate in front where a grille would otherwise be, because there’s no gas-burning engine needing air for cooling.
Electricity aside, the Bolt’s standout quality is its cabin space. Its 94.4 cubic feet of interior volume just edges out the much larger and more expensive Tesla Model S, although the electric Nissan Leaf is nearly as good, with 92.4 cubic feet.
The cabin is light and airy, and fits four adults in comfortable seats; with five, it’s pushing the comfort level. Everyone, including the driver, sits high and upright, a position unlike that in the rakish Chevy Volt midsize electric/gas sedan. The front seats are thin, but there’s a lot of legroom thanks to the flat floor and slim dash and console. And the short nose allows superb visibility for the driver, especially useful for parking in tight spaces.
The interior is attractive enough, despite some economy-grade hard plastic. There’s a digital instrument cluster behind the steering wheel, and 10.2-inch color touchscreen fixed on the center stack. The thin fonts on white background look sophisticated, and more importantly are easy to read.
One unique high-tech feature is GM’s new digital rearview mirror, which uses a rear-facing camera to give a wide 80-degree image in a digital display that replaces the mirror glass. Compare that to the 22 degrees of a rearview mirror, usually blocked by rear headrests, roof pillars, wiper, and window frame. The image is crisp, although there can be glare.
The rear seat folds flat to create a deep cargo bay with a storage compartment under its floor that slides out for easier loading. It can fit into a slot in the seatback to gain several inches of height in the cargo bay.
It’s quiet inside. Well duh, it’s an electric car. We heard only occasional motor or electronics whine.
One thing about GM’s electric cars is their awesome torque. To add to the Bolt’s 200 horsepower (150 kilowatts), the motor makes 266 pound-feet (360 Newton-meters) of torque. You won’t find a vehicle that small with that much torque, this side of a tractor. The Bolt can leap like a spider away from stoplights, and jump like a cockroach into holes in city traffic.
Even with four adults inside, the Bolt accelerates with authority, and can even chirp the inside front tire out of a turn.
It corners fairly flat on 17-inch alloy wheels, with steering that has a nice positive self-centering action.
The brake feel was consistent enough that we didn’t feel any transitions between regenerative and friction braking. As for the Low mode that relies on regenerative braking, with regen-on-demand stalk on the steering column, Tesla calls it one-pedal driving. Some like it, some don’t. One thing is, you have to unlearn the smooth style you’ve come to know. You can’t just lift the throttle and glide gradually to reduce speed or stop. When you lift the throttle, the car puts on the brakes, so you have to run up closer to a stop sign before you back off. Some automotive journalists say that’s a smoother, calmer, and easier way to drive. But any graph of speed changes in traffic would indicate otherwise.
Except maybe for the Fiat 500e that once briefly offered a fantastic lease deal, the Bolt EV is the most financial sense-making electric car made, if you don’t mind having other people help pay for your car. But it still can’t unequivocally save money compared to gas-powered car. And its green virtues, which we didn’t get into in this review, are arguable (lithium mines, coal-powered electric plants). However: mechanically, it works. Quick acceleration, nimble handling, good interior room in a small exterior package. Spring another $750 for the fastest charging system, and find a place on the road to use it, and you can even drive farther than 240 miles at a time.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.