2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV Extended Test Drive Review
With the introduction of the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, General Motors was the first OEM to market with an “affordable” long range all-electric car. For a few years, it appeared that Tesla would be the first to market with such a vehicle, however when GM introduced the concept Bolt at Detroit in 2015, it was clear that the race was on, and ultimately GM was able to beat Tesla to market by about eight months.
Now to be clear, I know that the Bolt and the Model 3 are distinctly different types of vehicles. However, the fact that they both have a single-charge range of over 200 miles, and basically the same base MSRP, there will inevitably be some degree of cross shopping. That said, the purpose of this review isn’t to compare the Bolt to the Model 3, as some other automotive publications already have. Personally, I think GM is going to find that more Bolt customers were former Nissan LEAF, Chevy Volt or BMW i3 owners, than they were Model 3 reservation holders that cancelled their reservation and bought a Bolt.
GM was kind enough to offer me six days with a loaded Bolt Premier, which gave me an opportunity to use the car for daily commuting as well as a couple of long weekend road trips. I ended up putting 800 miles on the odometer, which was more than enough time to get a good feeling of what the car has to offer.
Performance & Comfort
The 200 HP motor with 266 lb-ft of torque provides more than enough power for the 3,580 lb Bolt EV. Off-the-line acceleration is potent, and you can even get some wheel spin before the traction control takes over.
There is one drawback of having all that power available at zero RPM though. Since the Bolt EV has front wheel drive, the torque steer is definitely noticeable, but manageable. In fact, it reminded me a lot of the front wheel drive MINI-E that I leased from 2009-2012, which was a lot of fun to drive.
Also, when pushed to the limit, there was the typical understeer associated with front wheel drive, but it wasn’t unforgiving. If I just eased off the accelerator a bit the car quickly corrected. The Bolt will go zero to sixty in about six and a half seconds, and that’s quick enough to beat any stock EV on the road, this side of Tesla. The Bolt is such a good performer in fact, that at this year’s Refuel at Laguna Seca, Billy Kwan set a Production Class record, and even beat all of the Tesla car’s times from the 2016 event.
The ride is pretty good for a car of this size, perhaps helped somewhat by the added weight of the large 60 kWh battery. It is smoother than my BMW i3, which has a tighter suspension and is much less forgiving over uneven road surfaces. It probably isn’t quite as smooth as a Nissan LEAF though, which I’ve found to offer a very soft, comfortable driving experience, even on less favorable road conditions. GM clearly wanted the Bolt EV to fit more into the “Hot Hatch” category, with above-average acceleration and good handling, while Nissan was more interested in making the LEAF a comfortable all-electric family mover.
Since I brought up the word “comfort,” I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that I was a little disappointed in the Bolt’s front seats.
I understand that seating comfort is not an exact science, and what one person finds comfortable another may not. However, other publications like Consumer Reports and Edmunds have already written that they also found the Bolt’s seats to be less than satisfying. I too, share that sentiment. They seem to be very narrow and lack lower back support.
To be fair, my wife said she found the seats fine, but she has a small frame and is thin, so the width of the seatback wasn’t a problem for her as it was for me. Since I had the Bolt Premier model, it came with the leather seating option. While I have sat in the standard Bolt LT with the cloth seats, I haven’t had enough time in it to really make a fair comparison. I do urge potential Bolt owners to sit in both versions, and go for a long test drive before they make a purchase decision.
Interior Finishes & Controls
I really liked the layout of the Bolt’s center display and controls. Everything was easy to understand, and the bright 10.2” center display was simple to operate. I’d prefer if it were angled more towards the driver, or have a greater vertical angle though. It’s positioned on an odd angle, so the driver not only has to look to their right, but also look down.
There are plenty of energy information screens to scroll through if interested, and I particularly liked how the main screen displayed the number of miles driven and kWh used since the last full charge. I think this really helps people who are new to EVs to better understand their energy use.
We all understand miles per gallon, but not everyone who buys an EV understands mile per kWh, and having this on display will help. I think other OEMs should take a close look at how GM implemented this, and follow what they did because it works. In addition, you can configure the drivers display to show the instantaneous energy draw, as well as the level of recaptured energy in kWh from braking. All of this information helps the owner, most likely relatively new to electric vehicles, better understand the basics of energy consumption of electric vehicles.
While I do like the layout and the amount of space of the interior, there was a little too much shiny plastic in my opinion. I would have preferred if the top-of-the-line Bolt Premier had a little more top-of-the line feel to the interior surfaces. After all, the MSRP of the car I had was $43,905, but the interior finishes were more suitable for a car that cost much less.
Another nitpick I had was that the reverse gear is in an unusual position. You must press the button on the shifter, then push the shifter forward and to the left to find reverse. At first, I didn’t like this because it just felt unnatural and I missed getting in gear a couple times. However, after a couple of days, I had conditioned myself to do it correctly, and it was no longer an issue. It reminded me of the unusual gear shifter on the steering column of the BMW i3. Pushing the control knob forward for drive and pulling it towards me for reverse seemed backwards at first, since conventional shifters operate the opposite way. But after a little while with my i3, it only seemed right that I would push the knob forward to drive forward, and pull it backwards to drive in reverse. It’s all a matter of conditioning.
The rear seating area is spacious and comfortable, especially for a car of its size. The outward vision from anywhere in the cabin is excellent, and that helps make the small car feel bigger than it actually is. The ventilation system worked very well and was able to cool the cabin quickly, even on very hot days. The energy displays even tell you the energy use breakdown between propulsion, heating and cooling, and battery conditioning. This, again, helps the owner better understand the energy use of their electric car.
I really liked the rear camera mirror which comes standard with the Bolt Premier. It offers a better view outside of the rear of the vehicle, and this is something I’m sure will become commonplace on all vehicles soon. The Lane Keep Assist with Lane Departure Warning is another great safety feature. When activated, it gives a visual warning on the drivers display screen and gently nudges the steering wheel to move the car back into the lane you were driving in. It can easily be overpowered if it is your intention to leave the lane, but it is strong enough to let you know you may be unintentionally wandering out of your desired lane.
The Surround Vision gives a 360 degree birds-eye view for parking and the four-camera system works very well. The rear view camera is standard and worked well also, but it isn’t nearly as clear as the rear camera mirror. In fact, I got out of the car once to clean the camera off, thinking it was dirty because of the cloudy view. However, the picture didn’t improve so I realized the camera just isn’t very high definition. The rear view camera on my BMW i3 for instance is much clearer than the Bolts. However, the more expensive i3 doesn’t even offer the options of a rear camera mirror, or Surround Vision that the Bolt has, either.
The Bolt’s large 60 kWh battery takes about nine hours to fully charge on a 240v, level 2 EVSE. Both my JuiceBox Pro 40, and my ChargePoint Home EVSEs showed a charging rate of 7.3kW, until tapering down near the end of the charging session.
On one occasion, the Bolt just stopped charging when it was approximately 85% charged. The driver’s display had the message “Unable to Charge. See Charge Station.” I don’t have any way of proving if it was the car’s fault, or that of the EVSE, so I can’t blame the Bolt for this issue. I also charged it on 24 kW ChargePoint DC fast charger. It was charging at a steady 22kW and adding the expected ~33% state of charge per hour. This is one of the lower-powered DC Fast chargers, that are better suited for smaller-battery EVs. Still, it will add 90 to 100 miles of range per hour to the Bolt, which is still much better than level 2 charging. Unlike many other EVs, the Bolt surprisingly doesn’t have any LED lights in the charge port opening. This can be a little problematic when you need to plug in, in an unlit area.
On The Road
The first thing that I noticed was the presence of artificial creep. Put the car in drive and release the brake and the vehicle will slowly creep forward, like a conventional gas car. At first I was disappointed to find this, because personally, I prefer not to have this “feature” on my EVs. But then I remembered a conversation I had with the Bolt’s chief engineer, Josh Tavel, a couple years ago, when he told me they would have artificial creep for drive, but if the vehicle was in low the creep would disappear. So I tried it out and he was correct, no creep when in low gear.
Furthermore, if the car is in drive, and you come to a stop using the friction brakes, the car will creep when you release the brakes. However, if you use the regen paddle to stop the car, the vehicle will not creep when you release the paddle. Instead, it will hold the position until you use the accelerator. I really liked this implementation. It gives the driver the opportunity to decide if they want the vehicle to creep forward or not, upon releasing the brakes.
With an EPA electric range rating of 238 miles per charge, GM didn’t just simply beat competitors like the Nissan LEAF, BMW i3, Volkswagen eGolf, et al, they crushed them.
As noted above, the Bolt is also a great performer, and can out-accelerate and out-handle the competition as well. I planned two road trips to see how efficient the Bolt was at highway speeds with the air conditioning on and the results were very good. I averaged 4.0 miles per kWh for both trips, and I was driving 75 – 80 mph for much of the time with the air conditioning on. In all, I drove the car 800 miles and averaged 4.1 miles per kWh. That’s pretty respectable considering I had the air conditioning on all the time, and also drove in a couple rainstorms.
The first trip was a day trip to Bayhead down at the Jersey shore. The round trip was 147 miles and the Bolt consumed 36.5 kWh. My second trip was to Vermont and was over 200 miles each way. On the trip there the Bolt needed 51.1 kWh for the 203.4 mile journey. I’ve made this trip before in my i3 but always needed to stop along the way a couple times and use a DC Fast charger. Arriving at my destination with about 30 miles of remaining range, after driving over 200 miles on a single charge was really liberating. The Bolt minimizes the potential concern of range anxiety extremely well, and only the proliferation of nation-wide high-speed DC fast charge infrastructure will completely eliminate it.
The Bolt’s large windshield offers very good outward vision, and the rear camera mirror gives the driver a better view of what’s behind than a standard mirror could. However, I did notice that sometimes while it’s raining the camera mirror’s view can become obstructed by water, and you then need to flip the mirror back to standard non-camera position.
I also noticed (and liked) the electric motor whine, especially during heavy acceleration and deceleration. While the cabin is mostly quiet as with all EVs, you can hear the jet-engine sound of the Bolt’s electric motor a little more than you can in most other EVs. I imagine that this is the case because the motor is positioned in the front of the vehicle, just a few feet from the driver.
While I could have discussed the Bolt’s regenerative braking system in the previous section, I was so impressed by how GM implemented this feature that I wanted to dedicate more time reviewing it.
Manufacturers are still struggling to find the best way to implement the regenerative braking systems on their electric vehicle offerings. I know this for a fact, because I have personally been asked by more than one OEM to run polls and surveys among the EV community to gather information regarding how current EV drivers like or dislike the way the system is implemented in the EVs that they have driven. I now have a simple answer to give whenever I’m asked about my thoughts on regenerative braking: Just do what GM did with the Bolt EV.
The Bolt offers a regen setting for everyone. You want your car to act like your old gasser did? Then just leave it drive and the car will coast when you back off on the accelerator. In this mode it will still recapture some energy because it’s not totally freewheel coasting, but the level of regen is very mild. If you want a more aggressive regen, pull the shifter back and pop the car in low and you’ll instantly have the one-pedal driving experience that so many EV enthusiasts talk about. If GM had stopped there, the Bolt’s system would still be the best regenerative braking system available today, but they didn’t. They added a regen-on-demand paddle on the left side of the steering wheel that works so well, you can virtually drive all day without touching the friction brakes. This regen paddle initiates such strong regenerative braking, you can even stop the car on a steep decline nearly as quickly as friction braking would.
To give you an idea of how strong the regen is, if you’re driving in low, and pull in the regen paddle, it literally feels like you deployed a parachute to slow the car down! While this may be unsettling for many first-time EV owners, I believe they will quickly become accustomed to this, and before long love how it works. Personally, I like my regen strong, but I understand that not every EV owner will agree with me. What really makes the Bolt’s regen implementation special is that it can adjust to what the driver wants. You can select drive or low; you can use the regen paddle or not – there’s a level of regen for everyone. GM nailed it. There isn’t another regenerative braking system on the market that is this good. Period.
Before having this extended test drive opportunity, I was already a fan of the Bolt EV. From what I had read and heard from friends who drive a Bolt, GM had done a really impressive job with it. The fact that it offers more electric range than any of its competitors is certainly the Bolt’s biggest advantage. However, if GM has simply stuffed a huge battery into a car without trying to make it a great electric car, then I believe it wouldn’t have ever realized its full sales potential.
After spending nearly a week with a Bolt, I’m very pleased to say that GM really did their homework. They obviously listened to the focus groups and the surveys, and delivered an EV that is, at least as good, if not better in most regards, than their competitors. I really hope GM puts some marketing dollars behind the Bolt, because it deserves it. There really isn’t too much to be critical of with this car. In fact, the lack of a comprehensive DC Fast charge network to support the Bolt EV is probably its weakest link. That, and well, the seats.