The Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car is a tall compact five-door hatchback with the passenger space of a midsize car, thanks to a chassis that pushes the wheels outward. With a range of 238 miles between charges, it’s the first mass-market electric car to break the 200-mile barrier, something that otherwise only a $70,000 Tesla can achieve. With its interior room, range, and a price that makes the cost-per-mile numbers work for commuter travel, it’s the first mainstream electric vehicle.
The EPA classifies the Bolt as a small wagon, and that’s close enough; meanwhile Chevrolet calls it a crossover, but that’s a stretch because there’s no all-wheel drive nor higher ground clearance. We see it as a tall compact car. It’s built on dedicated architecture for electric cars, although some suspension components and accessories are shared with other GM vehicles. It handles well enough in turns.
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 superior, and be shouting, “Get those dinosaurs out of my way!”
The 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 most 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.
The battery pack, electric motor and drive unit are manufactured in Korea, but the Bolt is built in Michigan.
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.
Gasoline-powered rivals include the Hyundai Accent, Mazda2, and Toyota Yaris. The Bolt is bigger and has more standard equipment than those cars, including HID headlamps, LED daytime running lights, rearview camera, 60/40 split folding rear seat, automatic climate control, two USB ports, 10.2-inch color touchscreen, digital rearview mirror, and 17-inch painted aluminum wheels. And that’s just the base LT model.
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. As for its overall green virtues, it’s a big argument we won’t get into here. Lithium production and coal-powered electric plants must be considered in the car’s pollution scorecard.
The NHTSA hasn’t crash tested the Bolt, but the IIHS awards it the top “Good” rating in every category, enough to make it a Top Safety Pick. This despite calling its headlights “Poor.” Many other cars get that Poor rating from the IIHS, and we’re inclined to agree with them. There is a big difference in the lighting effectiveness of cars for sale today.
For $495 there is a safety package adding forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning with active lane control, and automatic high beams. But adaptive cruise control and high-speed emergency braking isn’t available.
The lack of an engine and transmission up front required some innovative crash engineering in the stubby nose. 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.
The Bolt was 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 ($36,620) and Premier ($40,905) boast government incentives, including a $7500 Federal income tax credit and a $2500 rebate from the State of California. So if you do optimistic arithmetic, you’ve got a quick little five-seat hatchback for $27,500 and no gas bills whatsoever.
The LT gets three option packages. A comfort and convenience package adds heated front seats, a heated leather-wrapped steering wheel, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. A safety package called Driver Confidence I includes blind-spot monitors, lane-change alert, rear cross-traffic alert, and rear parking assist.
Those features are standard on the Premier, along with leather seat upholstery, heated seats for the rear, a false cargo floor that hides a compartment below, light piping in the interior, GM’s new digital rearview mirror, with a rear-facing camera that gives a wide 80-degree image in the crisp digital display that replaces the mirror glass.
Two option packages are offered on the Premier. An infotainment package bundles a premium audio system, two more USB ports for the rear seats, and wireless device charging in the console. And the Driver Confidence II package adds forward-collision alert with pedestrian detection, low-speed automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist, and automatic high beams.
The Bolt has family resemblance to other small Chevy cars, including the new Spark and aging Sonic. It’s 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.
We spent six hours behind the wheel of a 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.
Even with four adults inside, the Bolt accelerates with authority, and can even chirp the inside front tire out of a turn. The torque is awesome. 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.
It corners fairly flat on 17-inch alloy wheels, with steering that has a nice positive self-centering action.
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. The brake feel was consistent enough that we didn’t feel any transitions between regenerative and friction braking.
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. 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. We can’t see any plus to what amounts to late-braking.
The Bolt EV is the first electric car that makes an economic argument, but depreciation remains a wild card. And that argument comes at the expense of taxpayers, since it’s government subsidies that make Bolt’s numbers work. Meanwhile, 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.