It’s been more than eight years since I first drove one of BMW’s MINI E electric prototypes around downtown Los Angeles. One of the first characteristics I noticed about that car was the extremely aggressive regenerative braking that enabled driving virtually without touching the brake pedal. While BMW has persisted with that strategy as the only control mode on the production i3, other automakers have provided similar abilities only when shifting the transmission to Low mode. After driving the new Chevrolet Bolt EV from Tesla’s Silicon Valley backyard into the heart of San Francisco, I think all Bolt drivers should consider driving this way all the time.
General Motors began customer deliveries of the mid-December 2016 and until this past week, limited availability of cars has restricted media drives to various car of the year jurors. While GM has been loathe to compare the Bolt to the forthcoming Model 3 from Tesla, it was no coincidence that the staging point for the beginning of our drive was just minutes from the Palo Alto-based company’s headquarters. For me personally, the location and timing had extra meaning for my most recent visit to the valley came almost exactly nine years to day after I arrived there for my first drive of the Tesla Roadster, several months before customer deliveries began. As it turned out, our drive route also covered some of the very same roads where I evaluated the Roadster all those years ago as well as where I drove the Model S in 2016.
Prior to getting on the road with Bolt, we had a chance to speak one-on-one with many members of the team that brought GM’s new EV to life including director of battery engineering Bill Wallace, Stuart Norris, managing director of the GM Korea design studio, Steve Majoros, marketing manager for small cars and crossovers at Chevrolet and lead propulsion system calibrator Adam Heisel.
Norris explained that when then-CEO Dan Akerson initiated the Bolt project more than four years ago, “the team was given a clean slate package and a mandate to produce a viable $30,000 EV with a range of at least 200 miles.” After studying the lesson learned from its own plug-in vehicle projects including the Volt, Spark EV and the original EV1 as well as competitors and evolving transportation market, the Bolt form factor emerged.
With rising urbanization and congestion, a small footprint was desirable to aid maneuverability. The growth of ride-hailing as an alternative mode of getting around in cities drove the desire to create a vehicle with easy ingress/egress and a durable but comfortable interior. For the consumers buying vehicles, the shift from sedans to lifestyle vehicles (aka crossovers and SUVs) with a taller seating position and a liftgate for easy loading of everything from groceries to antiques to sports equipment actually melded well with the other requirements to define the shape of the Bolt.
The relatively tall stance gives ample room for four adults and capacity for five as long as those in the back aren’t too broad shouldered. The under-floor 60-kWh battery is a stressed member of the car’s structure and the open doors reveal a flat surface all the way across with no sills to step over. GM clearly learned some important small car packaging lessons from the brilliant Honda Fit because the Bolt is definitely one of those larger on the inside machines. For comparison, a Tesla Model S is more than two and a half feet longer, yet has 1 cubic foot less passenger volume than the Bolt’s 95 cubic feet.
The Tesla only qualifies as a large car by EPA definitions because of its 26 cubic feet of cargo space between the back end and the oddly-shaped “frunk” in the nose. The Bolt has 17 cubic feet behind the rear seat and several times that with the seat folded flat. The end result is a surprisingly stylish small car with immense practicality.
One of complaints leveled by Tesla fans at the Bolt is that it’s interior looks a bit cheap by comparison and it’s not high-tech enough. Compared to other luxury cars in its price segment, the Model S also falls short on the interior amenities and materials and much more affordable Model 3 is likely to be closer to the Bolt in finish than its larger sibling. Yes, most of the surfaces in the Bolt are hard to the touch, but the design team has done an admirable job on colors and textures to still make it very attractive and a pleasant place to be.
After several hours driving the Bolt through both twisting mountain passes and the crowded streets of San Francisco, the seats also proved to be both comfortable and very supportive. Despite having a mere 10.2-inch central display (compared to the 17 in the Model S and the 15-inch unit in the Model 3, I was glad to see GM pair it with physical controls for the climate control and audio system. Both the central display and the instrument cluster (something the Model 3 lacks) were among the highest quality displays I’ve ever seen in a car, bright, high-resolution and glare free regardless of the angle of the sun. They also remained completely visible when wearing polarized sunglasses.
Another aid to driving the Bolt is the new rear camera mirror. The inside mirror incorporates a full color display that shows the unobstructed view from a rear camera. The viewing angle is wider than what is available from the standard mirror devoid of the rear pillars and headrests. This different view takes a bit of getting used to compared to a standard mirror but overall, it’s superior.
But how does it drive?
In a word, great! Tesla had done an amazing job over the past decade of demonstrating that electric cars don’t have to perform like golf carts. However, while I appreciate hard acceleration as much as anyone gear-head, away from the drag strip, the difference between 2.7 seconds to get from 0-60 mph and 2.5, 2.4, 2.39 or 2.389 is utterly meaningless. You have way more than enough thrust to merge into any traffic or make a pass on a two-lane road. Where Teslas (and likely upcoming competitors from Lucid and Faraday Future) fall short is in the real world.
Maneuvering through the crowded streets of any major city or hustling across the mountains from Palo Alto to the Pacific coast require a very different skill set. Just as I would much rather have a Miata over a Challenger Hell Cat in these environments, I’ll take a Bolt over a Model S. With more than half a ton less mass and 14-inches less wheelbase, the Bolt is shockingly fun to drive.
No, it won’t win a drag race against the Tesla, but the 266 lb.-ft. of instant torque is enough to get to 60 mph in under 6.5 seconds, plenty for any normal driving. Better yet, the car feels much more nimble and maneuverable. I drove the Bolt on many of the same roads where I experienced the Roadster years ago and the Model S more recently. While the Roadster was a totally impractical sports car that loved the mountain environment, the massive Model S is totally out of its element here.
The Bolt brought a smile to my face every time I angled the steering wheel into the next curve. The 960-pounds of battery under the floor keeps the center of gravity low and body roll to a minimum and the electric motor’s torque squirts the car down the short straights between the corners. Pushed to the limit, a Miata would probably win a timed race, but Bolt is eminently practical and fun.
The Miata also lacks the ability to pump upwards of 56-kW of electrical power back into the battery when going downhill with the shifter in low. Once you get accustomed to the feel, it’s remarkably easy to modulate the acceleration and deceleration with your right foot using only a single pedal. When you need a bit more slow down, squeezing the paddle behind the left spoke of the steering wheel augments the braking. Maximum stopping power can still be achieved by hitting the brake pedal.
Propulsion calibrator Heisel explained that they took a different approach with the Bolt than previous hybrids and EVs. Most such vehicles phase out the regenerative braking at about 5 mph and blend in friction braking to bring the vehicle to a stop and hold it. Having worked on such systems for hybrid vehicles before leaving the engineering ranks, I can affirm that this is actually quite difficult to do smoothly and consistently.
The Bolt uses only regenerative braking when backing off the accelerator pedal all the way to a stop. In drive, the deceleration is comparable to the engine braking you will see in a conventional car with an automatic transmission. Tap the shifter to engage low and the regen becomes much more aggressive, getting to about .25 g, comparable to the maximum braking that most drivers do in daily commuting. The regen-on-demand paddle increases that to about .3 g.
When the car is close to stopping, the system actually reverses the current flow, applying reverse motor torque to bring the car to a stop and hold it. For extended stopped periods when the car is on a grade, the stability control will actually apply the friction brakes to avoid draining energy needlessly and overheating the motor. Because the car is already stopped when the brakes are applied, it’s imperceptible.
When doing EPA certification testing to determine the driving range, the feds require the car to be in drive which yielded a combined range of 238 miles. Bolt engineers acknowledged that extra energy recovered from driving in low will provide a notable improvement in that range although they declined to say by how much.
During the 10.5-mile driving leg through San Francisco, I opted to stay in low the entire time, using the brake pedal only when absolutely necessary which was only a handful of times. When we left the Fort Point lookout below the Golden Gate bridge, the remaining range estimate showed 133-miles. By the time we reached our lunch stop more than 10 miles later it was still at 130 miles and aside from not using the brake pedal, I drove as I normally do without any effort at hypermiling. After lunch another 10 miles or so around town dropped the range by another 3 miles.
As automakers start to reach the 200,000 cumulative EV sales threshold in the next year or so, federal tax credits will be phased out and these cars will have to compete on their own merits. After several hours behind the wheel of the Bolt, it’s my feeling that General Motors has crafted an outstanding compact car that will meet the needs of the vast majority of car buyers while delivering a surprising amount of fun without ever visiting a gas station.
Even if Tesla manages to actually start delivering the Model 3 to customers by the end of 2017 (something I have little confidence in them doing) most of the people that put down 1,000 deposits will likely be waiting at least another couple of years before getting one and then they may well find it doesn’t really meet their actual needs. As this is written, the Bolt is only available at Chevrolet dealers in Oregon and California. But as production ramps up over the next several months and dealers are prepared, Chevrolet plans to have it available nationwide by late summer. If you are waiting anxiously for that other car, you might want to visit a Chevy dealer in the next few months and take a test drive. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.