Chevy Bolt: The First Affordable Long-Range Electric Car

Image courtesy of Chevy

The new Chevy Bolt is the first affordable electric car that provides almost 250 miles of charge-free electric driving. It costs less than $30,000 after rebates and is rated at 238 miles on a single charge. That’s a huge improvement compared to the BMW i3 and Nissan Leaf that barely get 100 miles, and its range is comparable to some Tesla models that cost two to three times as much.

I’ve been driving a Bolt for a week, on loan from General Motors, and it’s been an education, as well as a lot of fun. The Bolt is a remarkably innovative vehicle that is transformative and a precursor to the future of automotive transportation. And it’s good to see a large, once lumbering American company become one of the leaders in automotive innovation.

The Bolt is an all-new design with a 5-door body style that’s called a small crossover in which the driver sits up high, just three inches lower than a Toyota Highlander SUV. The tall roofline provides enough headroom for a six-footer plus. The EPA designates the Bolt as a small wagon.

My first experience in a Bolt was as a passenger in a Lyft in San Francisco a few weeks ago. Sitting in the back seat, I was surprised by the roominess. The car seats four comfortably and, with the rear seats folded down, provides enough room for a couple of bikes and luggage.

I drove the Bolt in and around San Diego, on local roads and highways, and then made a 280-mile trip from San Diego to Malibu and back that included highways and winding canyon roads. I made one stop at a charger in a shopping center for 30 minutes while I had lunch, which added 90 miles of range. When I returned home I still had 70 miles of capacity left, indicating that I got 260 miles of range, 22 miles more than rated.

One of its features is regenerative braking, meaning the Bolt will recharge the battery as you brake or decelerate, converting its moving energy to electricity, adding 5-10 percent more range. To employ, you use a paddle on the steering wheel or drive in “L” and lift up on the accelerator to slow down, never needing to apply the brakes, even to come to a full stop. Even though you’re in L at highway speeds, there’s no excess noise and there are no revs of an engine because, of course, it’s all done with electricity, so there is no engine.

The car handled well with its low center of gravity due to the batteries being located along the floor board. The batteries’ mass also provided good damping when encountering bumps in the road. Steering was quick and precise, and it drove almost like a sports car. The Bolt is capable of 200 hp and 0-60 mph in about 6.5 seconds.

The car’s interior is attractively finished and modern with a 10.2-inch color touch display in the center for battery and charging information, audio and phone settings. The car has a backup camera and physical controls for adjusting temperature, fan speed, and radio volume and a convenient storage slot for your phone. A second display facing the driver provides readouts of the speed, battery capacity, audio information, and other data that can be set to your preferences.

The Bolt has 60kWh lithium batteries, an all-electronic transmission, and is equipped with 10 air bags. Optional safety features include a side mirror blind zone alert, rear cross traffic alert, forward collision alert and forward pedestrian alert.

Bluetooth allowed me to pair my iPhone and dial handsfree using Siri or from the touchscreen. Navigation is not offered. Instead you can connect either an iPhone or Android to one of two USB connectors and use Apple’s CarPlay or Android Auto for navigation, as well as to play music, radio, and podcasts. The car has an analog input jack to plug in an external source such as a music player.

The Bolt, like all GM cars, comes with OnStar, a service that connects you to an operator for assistance, as well as provides emergency services in the event of a crash. Connection to OnStar is with a built-in cellular phone that also provides a wireless connection in the car for an extra monthly charge. I used OnStar to ask it for the location of a restaurant and it sent the turn by turn driving instructions directly to the car.

Home charging is done using an onboard charger that connects to a 120-volt outlet and will charge at the rate of 4 miles per hour. A $700 optional home 240-volt charger will charge 25 miles in an hour and do a complete charge in about 9 hours. Unless you drive hundreds of miles per day, your typical charge time will be just a few hours each day to top off.

The cost savings compared to gas depends on your electric rates and the price of gasoline, but for most, it reduces your cost by about two-thirds. In some municipalities, owning an electric vehicle provides additional incentives such as lowering your cost of home electricity. A Bolt purchase qualifies the buyer for a $7500 federal tax credit, a state refund of $2500 in Calif., and $5000 in Colorado.

The Bolt, to many buyers, makes a strong statement about the benefits to the environment. That benefit depends on the source of electricity, but for many states, such as Calif., which generates a large portion of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources, its impact is substantial.

One of the issues with any electric car is range anxiety, i.e. knowing that on a long trip you’ll need to recharge along the way, and knowing that if you can’t, you’ll be stuck. While there are over 15,000 chargers in the U.S., many are congregated in metropolitan areas. Also, you’ll want one that offers fast DC charging called CSS (Combined Charging System), to get 90 miles in 30 minutes, compared to many public chargers that get just 25 miles in an hour. There are still fewer than 2000 CSS chargers nationwide, although the number is growing rapidly. Tesla addresses this issue by providing their own network of about 2000 superchargers that charge even faster. But they are incompatible with other brands.

On my trip from San Diego to Malibu, there were about a dozen fast charging locations within a few blocks of the main highway. I used an app from EVgo that provides the locations and availability status of all charging locations. But even though it showed some locations with multiple CSS chargers available, some had only one, along with other non-compatible chargers.  If I were to take a long trip I’d do some careful planning to determine when and where I would refuel and try to do it during mealtime. But if the chargers are occupied, it could cause an unexpected delay.

What’s remarkable about the Bolt is that it does what it does so well and is so affordable. It was just five years ago that Tesla introduced the first U.S. developed electric car with similar mileage for $70K. Tesla is hard at work on their own affordable model, the Tesla 3, that will sell for between $40-$50,000, but it has a backorder of a couple of years. It is a more conventional looking sedan with less practicality for some than the Bolt’s design. For many — those who rarely travel long distances and who have access to a charger — the Bolt is as close to perfect as a vehicle can be: economical, practical, and fun.

During the week with the car, many stopped to ask me about the Bolt and got confused between a Bolt and a Volt. The Volt is GM’s other plug-in vehicle with a smaller battery that goes about 55 miles on a charge and then uses its gasoline generator to take over when the battery is depleted. Clearly, GM needs to work to educate the public about each of these vehicles. Finally, I should note that I own a Volt, my second, and visit a gas station just a few times each year. With the Bolt, you’ll never need to visit one.