Updated 8/11/17 with additional charging information
On the way home in the 2017 Chevy Bolt, a Tesla pulled up behind us.
"Look!" I joked to my son. "He's just like us! I bet he wants to be friends!" The Tesla turned on its blinker and turned off into a neighborhood. "That's OK! I'll catch up with ya later!" I said in my best hayseed voice. "Oh my God, Dad." My son rolled his eyes and laughed at the same time, a reaction I've grown used to as he's entered high school. "We're totally Mater right now."
I laughed along with him but realized he was right. In the world of electric cars, Tesla is totally Lightning McQueen, the flashy upstart that oozes power and basks in popularity. The Chevy Bolt certainly gets the job done, but is often the forgotten vehicle on the lot when it comes to popular electric vehicles (EVs). The lack of visibility is criminal, since the Bolt is just as, if not more, capable than its flashy cousin.
Volt, Meet Bolt. Bolt, Meet Volt
Part of the problem is that Chevy has a major branding issue with the Bolt. Their hybrid vehicle, the Volt, has been around for years and has gained a solid reputation among hybrid enthusiasts. The Bolt, being brand new and with a name that’s almost exactly the same, suffers from major lack of name recognition. Most conversations I had with people asking me what car I was driving went like this:
"It's a Bolt." "A Volt?" "No, Bolt. With a 'B.' The Volt, with a 'V' is Chevy's hybrid car." "So this is a hybrid?" "No, it's all electric." "The Volt?" "The Bolt." "What?"
It’s too late for the first gen Bolts, but Chevy has said they’ll be introducing a larger version in the coming years. Hopefully they’ll add a catchy alphanumeric phrase to the name so that it’s easier to differentiate from the Volt (with a V). The upside to the lowered visibility of the Bolt is that, unlike a Tesla 3, you can go walk into a Chevy dealership and drive away with one right now. No wait list. No twiddling your thumbs till 2019. But should you?
The lack of creativity in the marketing department is the only problem with the Bolt. The styling is eye-catching, with an aerodynamic nose that streamlines the boxy hatchback. The engine compartment is tiny, there’s just enough room for a couple of motors and the few reservoirs required for things like wiper fluid, brake fluid, and coolant. This, plus the fact there’s no need for a central hump on the bottom of the car (the batteries are stored flat under the floorboards in place of running a transmission line), makes for a surprisingly spacious interior. Looking at the Bolt from the outside, you would think that a family of four would be cramped; but you’d be wrong. I sat in the back seat and was shocked at how much room I had. It has the room of a mid-sized sedan in a compact car footprint. There’s so much unexpected space, I want to get one in blue and slap a TARDIS vanity plate on it. It’s no minivan; but I could easily see my family of four taking a quick trip to Orlando in the Bolt.
And to Orlando we could easily go, and back, without having to worry about the Bolt running out of juice. The batteries have enough capacity for 238 miles of travel between charges, a range that can easily be extended with some regenerative braking (more on that in a bit). In fact, the Bolt recently beat out the Tesla S 75D in a recent range test by Consumer Reports, travelling 250 miles on a single charge. Rather impressive for a vehicle that costs half as much as its competitor.
Best In Class UI
After I got my head around the incongruously large cabin of the Bolt, I pressed the chrome-accented Power button and was treated to my second surprise. I remember there being a lot of chatter a few years back about how Chevrolet was hiring UI designers to craft an eyes-on-the-road, user-friendly, touchscreen interface for their new vehicles. I shrugged it off as so much marketing fluff; because everyone knows that vehicle UIs (even Tesla’s) are universally awful.
I shouldn’t have doubted them.
The Chevy Bolt’s standard MyLink 10.2-inch touchscreen radio has one of the best user interfaces I’ve used in a vehicle, ever. Radio controls were always under my finger, no matter if I was looking at the screen or not. I could glance and see who my last call was to (or who called me), what the time was, and how I was doing, performance wise, on energy. A tap on the associated quadrant for any one item brought up a deeper menu; but I could always get back to my default screen by clicking a persistent Home icon in the top left corner. The interface is customizable if you don’t like the default, letting you move controls around and add or delete sections. Not only that, the digital “gauge cluster” provides clear information in an easy-to-read format that requires little time at all to master. I preferred the “Advanced” default cluster that gave me real time feedback on how many kilowatts I was burning and recapturing; but there are two other equally useful interfaces to chose from.
And instead of cramming an immediately outdated navigation package into the stereo, Chevy has wisely made the infotainment system compatible with both Apple Car Play and Android Auto (selectable from the settings). Plugging your phone in to one of the two front USB ports pulls up the mobile OS of your choice on the touchscreen. With the on-board WiFi (which my kids will tell you is their favorite feature), you can download routes and podcasts and stream music without burning through your data plan.
The buttons are all well-placed – from the radio volume buttons and “Regen Paddle” on the back of the steering wheel (more on that in a sec), to the cruise and menu navigation buttons under your thumbs, the steering wheel is perfect (and nicely leather-wrapped, with heater, on my Premier trim vehicle). The volume and environmental knobs are also easy to find without having to take your eyes off the road. I much prefer it to the up and down buttons many other manufacturers are adopting. Knobs just work better when all you have to go by is touch.
Fit and Finish
The interior is well-appointed on the Bolt EV Premier trim level. The seats are leather-trimmed with accent stitching. The steering wheel is pleasantly wrapped as well. Both are heated…which I would only have to use a few times a year in the Florida “winter” but would still appreciate very much. Like the engine torque, all the heat you need to stay toasty is immediately available when you press the button.
The dash is accented with white plastic that has a subtle pixel-like pattern. It provides a bit of visual relief from the swoop of unbroken white. At night, there’s blue LED piping as well (you can turn it off if, like my wife, you find it gaudy…I liked it). You’ll find that same pixel pattern in the grey cupholders as well (there are four: two in the front, two in the fold-down armrest in the back seat, plus two bottle holders in the front doors). I didn’t like it as much in the grey plastic, I kept thinking I’d spilled something.
The fold-down armrest in the back seat is a life saver for road trips with kids, providing a barrier that’s wide enough to do some drawing or writing on. Rear passengers can plug their devices into the USB ports in the back seat as well (on the Premier trim only, otherwise you just get the front USB ports).
I was pleasantly surprised by the cargo capacity. It’s no minivan; but the Bolt has enough storage space for a week’s worth of groceries or a couple of suitcases in the hatchback. There’s also a false-floor under the cargo area where you can store the charging cable (with plenty of extra room if you need to hide something). The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split, so if you need to haul something bigger, like a set of golf clubs (or maybe your latest haul from the Bones Kickstarter), you’ve got plenty of capacity.
Plus it’s quiet. The interior is well-insulated from outside noise and without the buzz of the engine, conversations are easy to conduct. It’s the quietest car I’ve ever driven.
Zoom Zoom or Go Low
Driving the Bolt is fun. Full stop. It doesn’t have the roller coaster-like acceleration of a Tesla, but with a 0-60 time of a little under 7 seconds, you’ve got more than enough “horsepower” available to punch it off the line (much to the chagrin of the Mazda that pulled up next to me at the red light near my house with the intention of zipping ahead of me to merge). It’s acceleration like I’m unused to in my ancient Toyota and Honda vehicles. When I wasn’t testing out the responsiveness of the motor, however, I was discovering the joys of driving in “Low” mode.
The Chevy Bolt’s “Drive” setting is there as a security blanket. It simulates the responsiveness of a normal engine, where you would take your foot off the gas pedal and the friction of the gears and the weight of the car slow you gradually. It recoups a tiny bit of energy as the car slows; but it’s not “one pedal driving.” Sure, you can use the Regen Paddle to engage the engine brake and slow down the Bolt quicker; but that’s still a baby step.
The magic really happens when you click the Bolt’s shifter back once more from Drive and shift into “Low” mode.
With the Bolt in Low, the engine will brake much more aggressively, recovering energy from the forward motion of the car to recharge the battery. It’s so extreme that you don’t have to touch the brake pedal at all. This one pedal driving takes some getting used to; but after a few minutes it became obvious that this is the way the Bolt was meant to be driven. Easing off the gas gave me plenty of resistence to come to a complete stop at lights without ever having to move my foot over (don’t worry, the brake lights engage when the engine is braking, even if you don’t touch the brake pedal). The conservative estimate is 5% recovery in Low mode, but in practice I was able to run an errand to the local comic book store (about 5 miles away) and return home having used only a little over 1 mile of charge.
The trend continued as I drove around town. I would return home having used only a fraction of the estimated range that I should have for the miles I’d driven. On the highway, I saw more consistent draw-down of the Bolt’s charge, since there was little deceleration to help recover energy; but I never worried that I was going to run out of charge and never saw the gauge dip below the three quarters mark.
Charge Me Up
And that’s a good thing. I discovered while I had the Bolt for the weekend that charging from standard 110 volt outlets is slow. It would have taken most of the weekend to top off the batteries. If you’re considering the Bolt, you’re going to want to invest in installing a charger in your garage. Chevy can hook you up with an installer. Even without a home charger, you have options, like making the Bolt pull more charge from the outlet (though it warns against that due to fire hazards), or scheduling the charge so that it only pulls power when rates are low (though my weekend with the Bolt only cost me about $3 more in energy than an average summer weekend).
The Bolt fared much better when I went to a public charger and plugged in, with it sucking down as much juice as it could in a fairly short amount of time using the optional DC charger. Using the ChargePoint card provided by Chevy, I was able to keep the Bolt easily topped off all weekend.
One thing I didn’t worry about was range. I never paid much attention to how much range I’d gained from a charge or how much was left, because the gauge never seemed to move. Driving around town and plugging in here and there, I never had less than 140 miles available to me (and that was right after it was delivered, after a drive from Miami), more than enough for whatever I was doing that day. If your driving mainly consists of tooling around town, the Bolt makes perfect sense.
The safety features on the Bolt aren’t quite as extensive as the Prius Prime; but they’re still impressive. The back up camera on the Premier trim not only has a birds-eye view to help you with parallel parking, but cross-traffic alerts to make you aware of cars or pedestrians that are wandering towards the car just outside of the view of the camera. The side mirrors have blind spot indicators, a welcome addition since the D pillar in the back of the cabin can hide much larger vehicles than you’d expect.
There are also some nice safety features in the software package. If you have a young one, Chevy has added to all its vehicles a reminder that flashes when you power off the car to check the back seat (no judging, every parent needs a little help sometimes). You’ll also love the Teen Driver mode (your teenager will hate it). When the car detects a key fob that’s been designated as “Teen” it mutes the stereo until they put on their seatbelt, natters at them when they accelerate too fast or get too close to other vehicles, and sends you a report on how they did at the end of each drive.
But Is It Worth It?
The Chevy Bolt EV starts at $37,500 before the $7,500 federal tax credit. The model I drove last weekend had nearly every option available and topped out at about $43,500. However, it’s still considerably less than a similarly appointed Tesla S (a quick peek at their site shows the XM radio is bundled with their Premium Upgrade package, goosing the total MSRP to $67,700). The Tesla 3 will give the Bolt a run for its money; but its $35,000 starting price doesn’t include many of the features Tesla is known for – Autopilot alone is a $5,000 option that has to be purchased with the vehicle (incidentally, Chevy is starting work on autonomous driving Bolts). Plus there’s the added bonus that the Bolt is available right now. Your local dealer probably has one sitting on their lot, ready for a test drive. If you’re at all interested in switching to an EV, you need to take an extended test drive. Even if you’re looking at hybrids instead, I’d urge you to include the Bolt in your consideration. If your daily commute is under 200 miles, or you spend most of your time in the car going to and from places around town, a well-equipped EV like the Bolt makes sense. The Bolt isn’t just a top contender among EVs, it’s flat-out a great car.
Head over to the Chevy Bolt site to learn more and build your own.
Thanks to Chevrolet for providing a weekend loaner for this review. Opinions are my own.