Driving the Chevrolet Bolt: Dance 10, Looks 3

Is GM's affordable EV a fait accompli, or fatally flawed?

Chevrolet Bolt Review
Chevrolet

After an opening west coast run in the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt, I can confidently state that the substance is there. It’s the surface I’m worried about.

As advertised, the Bolt can easily travel its official, EPA-affirmed distance of 238 miles on a single charge. The Chevy banishes range anxiety like an all-day Xanax. Over my three-hour test, I also observed the gasoline equivalent of 120 mpg, and that included a few energy-sucking romps to its limited top speed of 92 mph. (The Volt’s federal mileage estimate is 128 mpge in the city, 110 on the highway and 119 combined).

And it’s not just about clocking pollution-free miles and swearing off gas stations like a recovering unleaded addict. The Bolt goes about its business beautifully, with a spunky surge of electric torque, confident road manners and the angelic, distant-choir hum of an EV. Relative to its tiny footprint, the Chevy is well packaged, with tall-roofed room for four adults and flat-folding rear seats for reasonable cargo utility.

And for a car with 288 pricey lithium-ion battery cells (60 KwH) stuffed below deck, one that easily doubles the driving range of any EV not named Tesla, the price is right. Accept a $7,500 federal tax credit, and the base model, $37,495 Bolt LT is yours for $29,995. (For EV fans, Uncle Sam is more like Sugar Daddy Sam). The better-equipped Bolt Premier starts from $41,780, or $34,280 following the tax break.

Chevrolet

So why do I suspect that the Bolt may still struggle to gain traction in showrooms, especially in EV hotbeds on the Pacific coast (primarily) and Northeast? In a word, it’s a Chevy. I truly hope I’m wrong here. But the Bolt, like so many would-be Detroit pioneers before it, fails to absorb the blackboard lesson of that hot professor Tesla: A cutting-edge car should be cool. It should spark daytime reveries and nighttime desire.

The Bolt’s cool factor, frankly, hovers right around zero. Electric tech aside, there’s no sense of gotta-have, from the kitchen-appliance exterior to a cheapskate cabin that screams “Middle America” like Jim Harbaugh’s WalMart khakis.

The Bolt’s subcompact exterior hews to the Dork Wagon school of EV design, the idea that electric buyers are so focused on pragmatism or planet-saving that they don’t mind driving an insipidly styled car. The only clue that this is a future-forward EV comes from black-plastic trim that recalls the BMW i3; but even BMW’s polarizing EV looks like a modern museum piece compared with the Chevy. The Bolt also conforms to my least favorite automobile layout, the neither-nor crossover that’s not low enough to be a hatchback or tall enough to be an SUV. Over three hours on the road, I never saw a single head swivel toward the Chevy. That’s not a good sign.

The cabin starts strong with a robust steering wheel and useful 10.2-inch center touchscreen -- though without navigation, even as an option. That display tends toward kicky pastels in blue, orange or fuchsia, a first sign of questionable taste. But a second driver’s display brings welcome transparency to that pressing EV question: How far can I really go in this thing? In many EV’s, including Teslas, the display of remaining mileage or battery level can be unpredictable or overly optimistic, the miles suddenly trickling away like hourglass sand if you crank the heater or, say, play around with that racy Ludicrous mode.

In contrast, the Chevy sandwiches a large, accurate numeric readout of remaining miles between a best-case and worst-case scenario. Another digital bar shows which direction you’re trending, based on driving style, terrain, climate control and ambient temperature.

The cabin itself, unfortunately, trends toward the subcompact basement. I bookended my Bolt drive with stints in a pair of Chevys, the plug-in hybrid Volt and a 2017 Cruze Hatchback. Both models whipped the Bolt in interior design and materials, including a Cruze Premier that starts below $24,000, compared to nearly 42 grand for the Bolt Premier.

A band of white plastic traces the dashboard, eerily similar to the glossy crap that everyone hated in the first-generation, plug-in-hybrid Volt. (At least there’s less of it in the Bolt). Worse is the wedge of plasticized coating on the passenger-side dash. It’s rendered in a painfully twee, white-diamond pattern that recalls a carrying case for Barbie’s Magic Makeup Salon.

Stretching a tidy 164 inches, the Chevy is just four inches longer than a Honda Fit hatchback. So to carve out space for rear passengers, front seats feature a lightweight steel framework that supports a plastic, foam-lined shell. But the thin-backed, weight-saving seats are meagerly padded and offer little lateral support. You can’t have power seats at any price, only flimsy manual controls. Definitely consider the optional leather on Premier models. It’s vinyl-esque, but still beats the standard, scratchy fabric that looks and feels like recycled burlap.

An awkwardly placed electronic shifter demands a kind of T-Rex-armed move to operate. The tall center console intrudes on elbows in the narrow cabin, though it’s also roomy enough to hold a digital tablet. As in a minivan, there’s a useful storage cubby on the floor for purses or other gear. But the bin’s cheap black plastic, repeated on door trim, is a rock-hard fossil from the old GM. A loaded Bolt Premier is at least smartly equipped, with such features as the cool, Cadillac-based rear-view camera mirror; wireless phone charging, 4G LTE WiFi, front pedestrian braking and forward collision and lane departure monitors for $43,800 before the $7,500 tax credit.

Chevrolet

You’ll be hearing excuses for this interior from other publications, and here’s how to tell they’re bullshitting you. Listen for these disclaimers: Batteries and electric propulsion are very, very expensive. GM spent so much money on the technology under the skin, making it inevitable and forgivable to cut corners inside.Well, screw that. We know GM and Tesla are fighting over affordable bragging rights, and price targets are fine. But is “$29,995” really such a great selling point? Better to charge $2,000 more for the Bolt and give people a cabin that at least simulates that of a $40,000 car.

Consider it a lost opportunity, because everything under the Bolt’s skin is wildly impressive, including the sophisticated driving experience. With limited time to see what Chevy’s electric buggy could do, I drove quite aggressively in the sere canyons north of Los Angeles – and was still on pace for 210 miles of range. Softer-pedaling journalists in our group were on track for 270 miles, easily exceeding the 238-mile estimate. My run included a half-dozen zesty 0-60 mph sprints in about 7 seconds flat, enabled by 200 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of instant-on electric torque. Some car magazines claim the Bolt reaches 60 mph in as little as 6.5 seconds, a time best achieved when the battery is 100 percent stuffed.

The underfloor battery pack acts as a structural member, its installation boosting the car’s torsional ridigity by 28 percent. The battery lowers the center of gravity and helps reduce noise, vibration and harshness to an impressive degree. The Chevy may look stingy inside, but it feels substantial on the road. Pointed down the Pacific Coast Highway toward Santa Monica, the Bolt squirted past dawdlers with silent, joyful thrust. Like the Volt, the Bolt’s most charming performance trick is the plastic steering wheel paddle that essentially operates as a second brake pedal, activating the regenerative force that sends heat energy back to the battery in the form of electricity. Cruising down steep switchbacks east of Malibu, I squeezed the paddle to regulate the Bolt’s speed, as you’d do with engine braking in a manual-transmission car.

Shift into Low range, and the Bolt amps up the level of automated regenerative braking, meaning the car slows smoothly yet decisively when you step off the throttle – allowing the “one-pedal” driving that’s part of the charm of an EV.

There’s not much road feedback through the electrically assisted steering, yet the Bolt changes direction with verve and goes precisely where you point it. Brakes are another plus, with a firm, linear pedal rather than the tentative, pudding-soft feel of many hybrids. Run-flat, 17-inch Michelin Energy tires are designed to maximize mileage, not performance, but they deliver reasonable grip for anything short of canyon carving.

Chevrolet

As for charging, the Bolt will fully gorge an empty battery in less than 10 hours on your basic 240-volt, 32-amp charger – perfect for overnight home charging, or at workplaces that offer this “Level 2” charging. For an extra $750, the Bolt adds a DC fast-charging coupler that can add 90 miles of range in 30 minutes. For now, that growing DC network features 868 American locations with 1,808 total plugs, according to the Dept. of Energy – but the vast majority concentrated in major coastal cities. Tesla has the Chevy beat on two fronts there. Its fast-zapping Superchargers add about 170 miles in 30 minutes. There are only about 327 Supercharger locations with 2,214 plugs, but they’re more strategically distributed through flyover states to help owners string together longer trips.

Let’s get to that elephant in the room, a Musky, increasingly mighty beast that GM (and most legacy automakers) would love to drop with both barrels. Surely, the battle between the Bolt and Tesla’s price-competitive Model 3 doesn’t demand a death match. Such a take speaks to the immaturity of the EV segment. If EVs do become truly mainstream, there’s room for everyone, with a rising tide lifting all electric boats. Still, some buyers can’t help but to compare-and-contrast. The Chevy’s advantages include its head start. Bolts head to showrooms beginning in January, and Tesla’s rival won’t follow for several months. The Bolt is built, warranted (for eight years and 100,000 miles) and supported by one of the world’s automaking giants. That includes 3,100 Chevy dealers in all 50 states, roughly 2,200 of which will sell and service the Bolt.

Comparisons may get rougher from there. Some Tesla prospects will take one look at the Bolt’s outside, then one quick poke inside, and fall into convulsions of laughter. The Bolt and Model 3 are priced roughly atop each other, but the shapely Tesla looks like a car that might cost $20,000 more. Tesla fans already have a hive mind. Presented with this choice, including Tesla’s exponentially higher brand cachet, they’ll buzz with anticipation and wait for their Model 3. For as long as it takes.

For everyone else, there’s the Bolt. Its 238 miles of range makes the Bolt a real car, not a commuter buggy or conversation piece. The Chevy's merits have already earned it Motor Trend’s 2017 Car of the Year award, despite its voters' blind eye to its homely design. Motor Trend also called it a “game changer,” but that’s for the market to decide: GM hasn’t changed an automotive game in 50 years, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Bolt should render the Nissan Leaf and other short-hop EV's obsolete. But it doesn't render GM and Detroit skepticism obsolete, not least among trend-conscious EV prospects who wouldn't be caught dead in a Chevy, not matter how great it is.

I’m hopeful for the Bolt, whose tech, performance and progressive ways deserve a wide audience. But $30,000-and-up is still a lot of money for sensible shoes, especially with unsightly bunions inside.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home.