Boasting 238 miles of EPA-rated range, the Chevy Bolt is a real car
Range has long been the Achilles’ heel of electric cars. The first salvo of consumer-focused battery-powered cars, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan Leaf, had EPA-rated ranges of just 62 and 73 miles (118 km), respectively—enough to get their driver around town, perhaps, but not enough to allow any meaningful travel between metropolitan areas.
The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV hopes to shake up the status quo with 238 miles (383 km) of EPA-rated range, enough to make it the first non-Tesla (or “affordable,” as Chevy says) electric car capable of the easy longer-distance intercity travel Americans have grown accustomed to. Last week, Chevy invited me to Monterey on the Central California coast, tossed me the key to the new Bolt, and told me to meet them in Santa Barbara for dinner that night about 240 miles (386 km) away.
The first half of our route, tailored by Chevrolet, largely followed the twists and turns of the Pacific Coast Highway as it leisurely cuts through beach communities and one-stoplight farm towns. PCH, a highway really in name only, rarely sees speed limits top 55 mph (88 km/h), and the road features lots of stop-and-go traffic that favor the regenerative braking capability of electric cars such as the Bolt. For good measure, our afternoon route would put us on U.S. Route 101 the majority of the time, only breaking off for a steep state route that’d take us up over a small mountain before dropping us into Santa Barbara.
After hopping in the ultra-thin driver’s seat, keying the Bolt on, and noting the 230 miles (370 km) of range available, I set off through Monterey. It quickly became apparent how much the Chevy felt like a completely normal car. Many automakers that produce electric cars tend to go out of their way to implement features that remind the driver they’re driving a car running on electrons. Those features range from kitschy (the Nissan Leaf’s weird nub-shaped shifter) to cool (the Tesla Model S’ lack of a start/stop button). The Bolt doesn’t have any of that. The start/stop switch, the gearshift, the cupholders—everything is where you expect it to be.
It’s so refreshingly normal.
The Bolt drives pretty normal, too, as I found on the way to our lunch stop about 104 miles (167 km) down the coast. The one-speed transmission that backs up the front-mounted 200-hp and 266-lb-ft electric motor has two drive modes familiar to anyone who’s ever driven a car with an automatic transmission: Drive and Low. Drive, according to chief engineer Josh Tavel, was optimized to make the Bolt feel like a traditional internal combustion car. In this mode, the little Chevy creeps forward from a stop and coasts when your foot is off the throttle with the motor only lightly regenerating electricity to mimic the engine braking you’d get in a gas-powered vehicle. There’s no weirdness with the brakes, either, as the Bolt’s brake pedal was designed to—and actually does—seamlessly blend regenerative braking with the mechanical stopping power of the disc at each corner of the car.
Low mode, on the other hand, operates more like a traditional electric car by enabling one-pedal driving. Letting completely off the throttle in Low results in heavy—though not overly aggressive—regenerative braking that can be further controlled by a paddle on the left side of the steering wheel and the brake pedal. I spent the first 25 miles (40 km) (or so navigating out of Monterey and onto PCH in Drive before switching into Low, which feels much more natural in the Chevy Bolt. I suspect most of the Bolt’s eventual buyers will do the same, too.
On the twisty sections of the Pacific Coast Highway, the Bolt proved to be a pretty competent handler. With the Bolt’s big 60-kW-hr battery mounted low underneath the floor, the Chevy’s center of gravity is kept low, so there’s little body roll to speak of. The steering wheel loads up with a nice, rewarding heft through turns, and the Michelin tires, selected because they provided Chevy with an ideal balance between maximum range and traction, proved to be plenty grippy as the road twists and turns.
The Bolt’s motor is sweet, too. Although it won’t rip your face off like a Ludicrous-enabled Model S, it’s got plenty of power. It’s really fun to stomp on the Bolt’s throttle from a stop; you get a shimmy of torque steer, but the thing just scoots away like a kicked puppy. Although it’s probably not any faster, Sport mode kicks things up a notch with completely linear throttle response and firmer steering feel.
A few short hours after setting off, we rolled into our lunch stop. I’d traveled 104.5 miles (168.2 km), and the range meter (which, along with the rest of the car’s infotainment suite, I’d love to talk about more, but I can’t because Chevrolet made me promise not to) indicated that I’d only used 60 miles (97 km) worth of range from the battery with 170 miles (274 km) of range left.
Not too shabby.
Our post-lunch drive covering the remaining 130 miles (209 km) to Santa Barbara, including a long stretch on a freeway, where electric cars are least efficient, and a small mountain to drive over, would prove to be a more difficult challenge for the Bolt. The highway stretch was uneventful to say the least. The Chevy has plenty of power for short on-ramp merges, and it never left me wanting for passing power regardless of its electronically limited 91-mph (147 km/h) top speed. Despite the lack of an engine to mask wind and tire noise, the cabin was still quiet enough that I imagine it’d be easy to have a conversation with passengers in the back seat.
The Bolt was doing well on range as I got nearer to Santa Barbara and broke off U.S. 101 for the mountain pass. The Chevy’s estimated range readout dropped to just 32 miles (52 km) worth of electrons remaining as I crested the top after the relatively steep route up, leaving me precious little wiggle room to Santa Barbara. Thankfully, the simple physics principle of what comes up must come down came into play here in the form of an 8-mile downhill stretch that’d drop me into Santa Barbara. Doing little more than coasting down the grade in Low, I managed to regain 18 miles (29 km) of range. Guess who wouldn’t be late for dinner after all?
About a half hour or so later, the little Chevy Bolt and I rolled into the restaurant parking lot. I parked at a Level 3 fast charger and plugged in. Without particularly trying, I’d covered 241.4 miles (389 km), averaging 4.6 miles/kW-hr with an estimated 38 miles (61 km) of range left. According to a screen I can’t specifically talk about, I’d used 51.9 kW-hrs of the battery’s 60-kW-hr capacity. Chevy says the Bolt, supported by Level 3 chargers like the one I’d plugged into, can gain 90 miles (145 km) worth of range in 30 minutes, 160 miles (258 km) worth in 60 minutes, and a full 238 miles (383 km) of range in about two hours.
If this seems rather anti-climactic, well, it’s because it was. The most impressive part of driving the Chevy Bolt across California is how little actually happened. Covering those 240 miles (386 km) wasn’t particularly challenging, and aside from the low-range warning I received as I hit the top of the mountain, there was nothing about the Bolt that made me think even once that I wouldn’t make it.
The Chevy Bolt is a real car, one you can buy from your local Chevy dealer for $37,500 USD before the $7,500 USD Federal tax credit and use and drive every day. Will it be a family’s only car? Doubtful, but knowing it’s capable of meaningful intercity travel means that plenty of people who might’ve been turned off by the lack of range on previous affordable electric cars now have a viable option that can be driven every day range-anxiety-free.