First Drive: 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

SANTA MONICA, California – Against a verdant backdrop of lush cropland, the electric car we’re driving presents an ideal picture of sustainability.

When it comes to alleviating range-anxiety the Chevrolet Bolt – able to go 383 km on a single charge – is truly a game-changer.

But like any moment frozen in time, there’s a little more to this snapshot than what you see in a strategically framed instant.

So stark and dry were the hills surrounding us that the field appeared as an oasis. The life-giving water jetting out from the rotating sprinkler system has been re-routed at great cost to both man and environment. Lovely and bucolic as this scene is to the eyes, its acrid smell is an assault to the nostrils thanks to the pesticide sulphur – once known more prophetically as brimstone.

We’d driven 180 km before pulling over here for a quick shot. We’re duly impressed by that number; even though it represents less than half of the car’s projected range. When it comes to alleviating range-anxiety the Chevrolet Bolt – able to go 383 km on a single charge – is truly a game-changer. But while it does so without consuming a single drop of fossil fuel, nor emitting one particle of noxious gas, its pristine image is as utopian as the lush backdrop.

EV technology has yet to become the panacea to our pressing energy woes. It still depends, in some measure, on the use of fossil fuels to create the energy stored in its battery cells. But over the vehicle’s lifetime, the reduction of gasoline consumption and elimination of emissions has a far lesser impact on the environment than a traditional internal combustion-powered vehicle. Admittedly, it isn’t the perfect solution – yet. But it’s a positive step forward in reducing our dependence on Big Oil and its far-reaching environmental damage.

General Motors deserves kudos for such a noble effort as the Bolt. They managed to beat Tesla Motors to the podium by delivering the first range-anxiety-free, mainstream passenger car under $40,000 (after rebates), that doesn’t look or drive like a science experiment.

At first glance, the Bolt looks like a taller version of the recently debuted Chevy Cruze Hatch, with the black trim and etched-metal-grille design cues of the Volt thrown in. While it is indeed modern, the cabin is refreshingly free of futuristic weirdness, which should help make it more acceptable to mainstream buyers. The two-tone colour palette of our tester looks good, although materials are rather unremarkable vinyls and textured plastics. However, it’s far roomier than its compact size suggests, thanks to the tall roofline – and the wide expanses of glass create an open airy feel and terrific visibility. There’s plenty of head and leg room for passengers both fore and aft.

The main visual interface is a 10.2-inch touchscreen with another smaller colour screen in front of the driver where the gauges usually are. Rendered in soft pastels, the large screen shows such vehicle information as range, direction of energy flow to and from the battery, and which accessories are drawing power. It provides feedback on how efficiently you’re driving, factoring in smoothness, elevation and air-conditioning use and provides a summary at the end on how far you’ve driven on a charge, and how much range is left. It’s important to note that the range display and distance driven were perfectly accurate, which leads to driver confidence that the car has as much charge as it says it does. In fact, we found the projected range to be on the conservative side: even allowing for the use of HVAC and “spirited driving” in the hills above Santa Monica, we managed to have more charge left in the “tank” than expected. The rest of the vehicle functions are ergonomically friendly, with simple knobs for climate and sound control.

While the Bolt can be left in “Drive” and functions exactly as any conventional vehicle would, moving the shifter to “Low” lets you perform what GM likes to call “one-foot driving.” In this mode, the amount of regen is increased to the point that braking becomes unnecessary – the car will slowly stop when the accelerator foot is lifted. Of course, it also stores the regenerated energy in the battery, which helps increase or maintain range. A paddle behind the steering wheel lets you use regenerative braking to bring the car to a complete stop.

The most surprising characteristic of the Bolt is that it’s actually fun to drive. The low battery placement under the floor of the car, coupled with lightweight steel, provide a sturdy chassis with a terrific centre of gravity. With a 0–96 km/h sprint time of 6.5 seconds, the Bolt is pretty quick. The electric motor’s 150 kW, or 200 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque are enough to produce a bit of tire squealing when zipping through the canyon twisties. The steering is pretty decent too, accurate and nicely weighted; it provides more feedback than we expected from an EV.

Clearly, GM has succeeded in producing the first really viable mainstream all-electric vehicle. The Canadian government is taking steps to help provide the proper supporting infrastructure, and incentives for EV buyers in Ontario, Quebec and BC, which should make ownership an easier financial decision – especially when considering how much less in “fuel” BEV buyers will pay at the outlet versus at the gas pump.

Depending on which province you’re in, there are considerable rebates to help knock down the Bolt’s $42,795 base price. Ontario residents are eligible for a $12,839 incentive on the Bolt, and $14,000 if they opt for the Bolt Premier trim. And while US owners will have to pay $795 USD for the Level 3 charging system, it will be standard equipment on any sold in Canada. It’s capable of charging the Bolt to within 80 percent of its capacity in approximately an hour. A 240 volt Level 2 charger should take about nine hours from nearly empty, or roughly 19 hours on a standard 110 volt household outlet.

Many owners will find the range is more than sufficient for their weekly driving needs, and may only need to use the charger on weekends.

The first Bolts are expected to arrive in Canada in early 2017.

All-electric goes mainstream 1/4/2017 6:28:00 AM