COLLINGWOOD, Ontario—Few things in the automotive world are more polarizing than electric cars. At one end are those for whom battery power is a religion, and at the other end, those who claim they’d rather walk than drive a plug-in.
But those in the middle? They’re the ones Chevrolet is trying to interest with the all-new 2017 Bolt.
Unlike the Volt, which runs on electricity but can use its small gasoline engine as a generator when needed, the Bolt is entirely electric. Unlike the Volt, which has a published range of 85 kilometres on its battery, the Bolt advertises up to 383 kilometres on a full charge.
That’s 182 more than the Volkswagen eGolf, the longest-range of its mainstream-brand competitors. The Bolt’s range also matches that of the base Tesla Model X, but at less than half the price.
That’s the card GM is playing: it’s calling the Bolt the first affordable long-range electric.
More green for less green (if you’re in the right place)
Of course, “affordable” varies with each buyer. The Bolt has a starting price of $43,095 for the LT trim, and $48,095 for the upscale Premier, and there are options you can add on top of that.
Much also depends on whether you live in one of the three provinces with “green” vehicle rebates. Ontario hands back $14,000, while Quebec provides $8,000, and British Columbia pays $5,600. Rebates may also be available for a 240-volt home charging station that’s sold separately.
These provinces currently account for 98 percent of all EVs in Canada, and 99 percent of all Volt sales. Just why is open to interpretation: the incentives may be the prod for some buyers, but as well, some EVs aren’t sold in all markets.
That will initially be the case with the Bolt, which hits only those three for 2017. Sales will expand to other provinces starting in early 2018, although almost half of Chevrolet dealers across the country are qualified to service it right now.
Squeezing out every last kilometre of battery juice
My drive took me from just north of Toronto to Collingwood, Ontario, about 145 kilometres each way. The Bolt did the round trip without recharging, and with about 60 km left on the range indicator at the end of it.
I was a little lighter of foot than my co-driver, but we never really babied the thing, travelling about 70 km of it on the highway at speeds we’d normally use in a regular car (hint: not below the posted limit) and then on hilly rural roads.
The Bolt’s magic comes from an electric motor that puts out 200 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque. Like all electric vehicles, it provides its twist power right away, without the need to rev up. The motor is packaged in a compact unit along with the single-speed transmission and differential.
The battery is an all-new 60-kWh lithium-ion pack that fits under the floor. It’s warrantied for eight years or 160,000 km, and GM guarantees a minimum of 65 percent of original capacity when the warranty’s up.
There’s little maintenance other than the brakes-tires-suspension you’d reasonably expect on any other vehicle, along with occasionally flushing and filling the systems that cool the battery and electronics, as you’d do with a regular car’s radiator.
When the Bolt is plugged into a 240-volt system, the norm for public and home charging stations, it racks up about 40 kilometres of range per hour of charging. If you can find a DC fast-charger, you’ll get about 145 km in a half-hour. Although such chargers are rare – they’re very expensive to install – all Canadian Bolts come with the ability to plug into them as standard equipment.
Like any other hatch—just electric
Features depend on the trim level, and some were selected specifically for the nature of the beast. Even the top-line Premier has manually adjustable chairs, because seat motors are heavy and chew up power.
Heated seats and steering wheel are optional on the LT and standard on the Premier. They pull a lot of power too, but when your hands and butt are warm you tend to turn down the cabin heat, which is even more of an energy hog.
The tires on all are Michelin Selfseal, which aren’t run-flats but seal themselves if a nail punctures the tread. Canadians get a standard tire inflator kit, optional in the U.S., since we’re more likely to switch to winter tires.
Other available features include a bird’s-eye-view camera, blind spot monitoring, leather seats, premium audio, and a rearview camera mirror, first seen on Cadillac, which can broadcast a video image of what’s behind you.
How the Bolt feels depends on how you want to drive it. It has one of those awful electronic shifters, where you push over for Reverse and hit a button for Park. After pulling it into Drive, you can pull again for Low Mode, which increases regenerative braking and feeds more power back into the battery by capturing kinetic energy. Finally, you can use Regen on Demand, which maximizes regeneration when you pull and hold a little paddle on the steering wheel.
You can use these systems independently or together. The more regenerative braking, the less you coast, and with a little practice, it’s possible to slow or stop the Bolt without touching the brake pedal (the brake lights come on when this happens).
But when the Bolt’s just in Drive, it feels like any other torquey-engined little hatchback, with precise and quick handling, and more steering feel than I expected. It’s a well-finished, fun-to-drive five-seater, with folding rear seats and ample cargo space, that simply happens to run on electricity rather than gasoline.
Doing the math and knowing your limits
Of course, it’s also pricier than a comparable gas model, and it’s difficult to make a case for it strictly on economics. I live in Ontario, where the base Bolt is $30,706 with rebates.
I can buy the priciest Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback trim level for $24,945. Natural Resources estimates $458 to charge the Bolt for a year, versus $1,395 to gas up the Cruze. Going by that, it would take me a little more than six years to match the price difference with the fuel disparity.
You buy an alternative-fuel vehicle to save the planet, not your wallet. Electric cars have expensive batteries and lack the economy of scale that comes with volume mass production. If sales increase, these costs should eventually come down.
At the same time, I have no patience for those who say electric cars are useless because they have limitations. Of course they have limitations, but so does everything else on the road.
I can’t tow a horse trailer with a Chevy Spark, and as I discovered the hard way, I can’t get into my dentist’s underground parking garage with a dual-wheel 4×4 heavy-duty pickup truck (who puts the maximum-height notice at the bottom of the curved ramp going in?!).
Electric cars are one more option in the wide range of transportation available to us. No, you can’t drive one across Canada by pulling into a gas station and fuelling up in five minutes whenever necessary. It’s also tough to cross Canada on a bicycle, but pedal-power could be perfect for commuting a few kilometres in the city.
The Bolt is great to drive, and while real-world range depends on many factors, the published rate is impressive. If you’re considering going electric, I think this is the best of the bunch right now.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.