2017 Chevrolet Bolt Review: We Discover Why Electric Cars Are King

Test Drive

A marvelous little transporter that will leave you wondering why we haven't we been driving EVs for decades.

As lovers of obnoxiously loud cold starts and the high-pitched hiss of a turbocharger layered over cries of screaming tires, every cell in our bodies wanted to turn around and walk away whilst approaching the bread loaf silhouette of the Chevrolet Bolt. Why, even after Tesla showed everyone it didn’t have to be this way, do automakers insist on removing sex appeal from EVs? Curiosity got the best of us, though, and with unjust remorse, we accepted the Chevy Bolt into our press fleet.

We haven’t looked back since because this whisper-quiet electric car will turn you into a believer and a mouthpiece for the EV, gearhead intuition be damned. Driving the Bolt is such a joy, it’s a small wonder it ended up on Car and Driver’s 10 Best list, but it sure as hell isn’t the aesthetics that do it for us. A single glance at its exterior immediately makes a few things apparent. First is that Chevrolet made this a jack-of-all-trades transportation device. It might be as unsexy as a calculator watch, but at least it’s as functional as one. Designed for urban areas, it’s sized perfectly to carry five passengers in a spacious and open cabin that can still fit into tight parking spaces.

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A 17 cubic foot rear cargo hold won’t give you crossover storage space, but the Model 3 will only bring 14 cubic feet to the table whenever it decides to go into production. Those of us with experience getting windows smashed for any shiny object left inside the cabin will love the false bottom cargo compartment that swallows backpacks and valuables without leaving a trace. The designers really tried to solve the perils of city living here, but design aside, the Bolt’s selling point becomes apparent in the way it drives—for obvious reasons. We’ll be blunt and say it, electricity is the way of the future. Sure, the ICE will be around too, but one whisper quite cruise in an EV and you’ll start to wonder why Karl Benz even bothered with gasoline.

The sense of satisfaction and wellbeing that you get driving an electric car is hard to describe if you’ve never driven one, but it’s probably a similar to what a lifelong alcoholic feels when they sober up and replace their diet of fermented plant byproducts with kale smoothies. Fueling the healthy lifestyle is a 60 kWh battery pack sending its juice to the electric motor under the hood (no “frunk” here), which in turn sends ample twist to the low rolling resistance tires up front. This seemingly simple hardware, a battery and an electric motor, is the Bolt’s main selling point because of the miraculous range it has at its disposal. That's 238 miles to be exact, far more than the 29.2 miles the average American drives per day.

It’s enough, actually, that the average American can get away with recharging the Bolt just once per week, which is just what we decided to do. A week’s worth of commuting, errands, and leisurely travel without once opening the charge port. Is it possible? Who knows, but we got the idea for this test during a chat with Henrik Fisker about the EMotion. He postulates that most EV buyers will live in dense cities like London, Paris, or San Francisco where street parking reigns king, making nightly charging a massive inconvenience. Once a week juice-ups on the fast charger would be more practical, and we decided to find out if that lifestyle was already possible on the current generation of electric vehicles.

Doing that is harder than it sounds when considering how fun the 200 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque the Bolt makes can be. It sounds merely adequate for a 3,550-pound car, but bear in mind that full torque is on tap as soon as the accelerator is provoked. That means taking advantage of a gap in the passing lane is a welcome event, with the Bolt vanishing from cars in the adjacent lane. With a 0-60 mph time of 6.5-seconds attained without a smidgen of tailpipe emissions, green light getaways are devoid of guilt and therefore more satisfying. It was hard to not pull alongside other cars with a smug look on our faces, wondering if even half of American drivers knew that they were missing out.

But it’s not the brisk acceleration or joy of a vibration-free drive that highlights the differences between the EV and gas-powered car, the real magic comes from braking, an event that ranges from “where’s my pulse” in a Corolla to “guess the fun is over” in a McLaren. That’s because in the Bolt, sophisticated regenerative braking means you never have to touch the brake pedal, which makes scaring passengers a new source of entertainment. One-pedal driving is enabled either by pulling the paddle on the left side of the steering wheel to turn that forward momentum back into juice for acceleration on a whim, or by putting the Bolt into its low range setting so braking happens automatically.

We strongly recommend the latter option, which is engaged by tapping the electronic precision shifter (ironically not very precise) downwards when the Bolt is in drive. Upon activating it, braking power can be modulated by how much you lift off the accelerator, turning the entire stop and go process into a single seamless step rather than two. We think it should be the Bolt's default setting. Unlike three pedals and a gated shifter, you never miss braking. It seems a barbaric act from the past, like our reformed alcoholic passing out in the gutter in a pool of their own urine. Unless you have six figures to blow on a car (and until the Model 3 is out), the Bolt is the best shot at a clean new life, but it still comes at a price.

Our tester was spec’d in Premier trim and given DC fast charging provisions ($750), the Driver Confidence II package ($495), and the $485 infotainment package, which adds up to $43,510 with the $875 destination and handling charge. The Premier trim adds comfort and convenience options like roof rails, 17” machined wheels, leather appointed seats that are heated up front and in the back, a heated steering wheel, ambient lighting on the instrument panel, rear cross traffic alert, rear park assist, surround view, a rear camera mirror, and blind-zone alert. The latter three options seem geared towards mitigating the blind spot that the C-pillar casts while other items serve to justify the Bolt's steep price.

Making the deal more enticing is an available $7,500 federal tax credit that brings our tester down to $36,010, though it’s unclear how much longer the incentive will last under a Trump administration. This brings us to one of the Bolt’s biggest problems: the fact that it remains a viable gasoline alternative only to those who can afford it. It’s a wonderful example of what can be done in the electric vehicle realm when an automaker is willing to put effort that way, but the bulk of the money goes to the hardware and engineering with the difference being made up in the interior. Despite Chevy’s best attempts, the cabin feels downscale compared to almost any other car in this price range.

It’s no fault of Chevy’s, blame the fact that most automakers haven’t nailed down the EV thing quite yet and therefore need to cut corners wherever possible to make these cars affordable. While attending the Bolt’s first drive event, a Chevrolet representative told us that the ideal owner buys the Bolt as their second car. That very notion goes to show that even with the EV for the everyman image, the Bolt remains a car for the well-off. At least it holds up its end of the bargain as a practical fully electric car with over 200 miles of range. Clever engineering keeps the batteries from invading cabin space and if that doesn't satisfy the tech sweet tooth, there is an 8-inch driver information display to play with while doing the regenerative braking shebang.

GM took a note from Tesla by installing a large 10.2-inch touchscreen in the center where the HVAC, multimedia, settings, and report cards on everything from the battery to your EV driving proficiency are displayed. The menu screen is fully customizable, allowing drivers to prioritize the functions they're most likely to use. It's a big step up from the infotainment system GM typically uses, but an interesting thing to note is that the Bolt can't be had with navigation. In lieu of that, GM installed Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, figuring that everyone just uses their phones to get around anyways. This overlooks the fact that in-car navigation serves as a nice backup for when a cell tower isn't nearby or a data plan runs dry.

At least a 4G LTE hotspot and an ample number of USB charging outlets are on hand to lessen the chance of an incapacitated cell phone. This expectant forward thinking fails to find its practical mark, but its so easy to forgive when the Bolt hits the mark on every other category. Most importantly, it passed our snuff test, going a full week without needing to be charged. This required no change in our driving habits, driving style, or air conditioning usage to pull off, and even allowed for an emergency trip into the next town to track down a stolen phone with range related anxiety remaining a foreign emotion. And therein lies the genius of the Bolt.

It manages to be so great not just because it extends the capabilities of a typical electric car, but because it improves on them. Designed as such from the ground up, this is no gasoline vehicle modified to be an EV afterthought. But unlike any current Tesla, these benefits are available for a relatively low price. Then GM further invested in the Bolt's future by making it more practical than what we expect the Model 3 to be. For those wishing to plug the gap between the present day and when cheap (and good) electric cars will dominate the market, there's no better way to go that costs less and offers the least compromise. Good job GM.

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