PALO ALTO, CA – In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’m not a big fan of electric vehicles (EVs). There’s nothing automotive that gets my adrenalin rushing faster than the sweet sound of a big V-8 engine in full song. The hum of an electric motor just doesn’t cut it, nor does a typical EV’s leisurely performance compared to the muscle of an internal combustion engine.
It’s not that I don’t believe we need to find ways to better protect our environment, I just don’t think electric cars are the “silver bullet,” despite the efforts of many spin-doctors trying to convince us otherwise.
EVs may be one of the solutions, but they’re not the sole answer. And they certainly don’t satisfy the needs of folks like me who find driving a true pleasure.
While EVs have made great strides from their initial glorified-golf-cart days, their styling (Tesla aside) tends to be quirky and they are typically bland to drive. As niche vehicles for urban use, EVs are a viable alternative; as an affordable family car that will take the whole clan to grandma’s house for the weekend, not so much.
So there it is. That’s my bias right up front.
An insider who understands
It turns out Josh Tavel understands my skepticism, in fact, he shares many of my feelings about EVs and their shortcomings. Tavel is an engineer and accomplished sports car racer – simply put, he loves tinkering with cars and driving them to their limits.
He’s a car guy. He’s also the Global Vehicle Chief Engineer for Chevrolet’s new Bolt EV, recently named the North American Car of the Year.
Tavel agrees that most EVs on the market lack the dynamics that people who enjoy driving appreciate. Setting aside concerns over factors such as range anxiety, the current crop of EVs (again, except for the stratospherically priced Tesla) lack the performance and responsiveness we’ve come to expect, while their handling characteristics are typically numb and boring.
So when this racing driver was assigned to the Bolt project, he said it was a personal goal to give this car performance and dynamics that even an enthusiast would appreciate.
“I wanted the Bolt to be a great family car that was fun to drive – and it just happened to be an electric vehicle,” Tavel told me during a chat at a media preview of Chevy’s new offering in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Josh, you have succeeded.
Fun to drive… really!
After driving the Bolt EV on the hilly terrain along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, as well as through the dense urban streets of downtown San Francisco, I’m impressed with this car’s drivability. It is fun to drive.
Tavel took over as the point person on the project about a year and half ago, moving to Korea where the Bolt’s development was centred. The development of all GM’s small-car programs are mainly based in Korea.
That location also aligns with GM’s partner on its EV programs, the Korean electronics giant LG, which developed much of the Bolt’s technology and battery systems. The Bolt is being built at GM’s Orion Township plant in Michigan.
noted that the Bolt, unlike the Volt which was an adaptation of GM’s existing Alpha platform, was designed from the ground up as an EV – its 60 kWh lithium-ion battery pack is an integral part of the car’s platform, with the supporting struts forming a key part of its side impact protection design.
The rigid battery structure has helped enhance the overall torsional rigidity of the platform by 28%, compared to comparable subcompacts in the GM lineup. As enthusiasts know, a stiff chassis is the solid foundation that’s needed for enhanced handling dynamics.
As a bonus, the positioning of the battery under the floorpan lowers the Bolt’s centre of gravity, contributing to better handling.
Tavel developed the Bolt’s suspension to capitalize on these attributes and the result is a car that handles extremely well, while still delivering decent ride comfort.
On a stretch of twisty road on the Pacific Coast Highway through the hilly region north of Palo Alto, the Bolt was a joy to drive, carving through the switchback turns like a sports sedan. Yet it still swallowed up potholes and expansion joints with nary a whimper – a firm but comfortable level of ride.
The responsiveness of the Bolt’s motor was an unexpected surprise. The compact motor module weighs 78 kilograms, but generates impressive numbers – 200 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque.
Its offset gear wheel and shaft (versus a planetary gear system) provides a high final drive ratio of 7.05:1. Translation: The Bolt accelerates remarkably quickly (0-to-96 km/h in 6.5 seconds) without gear shifts or the high revs of a internal combustion engine.
I was most impressed by the motor’s responsiveness when passing or merging with interstate traffic. This car literally launched into the fray, thanks to all that torque on tap. When I needed muscle, it was there.
Without question, the feature that really blew me away was the Bolt’s innovative one-pedal-drive (OPD) technology. It was something Tavel was passionate about including in the Bolt, and he conceded he had several battles with management, some of whom wanted the OPD system dropped altogether.
Kudos to Tavel for persisting – it engages the driver while having the practical advantage of recharging the battery through regenerative braking.
Using the OPD mode, the driver can control acceleration and deceleration by simply pushing on the throttle pedal or feathering it to slow down. In fact, one can bring the car to a complete stop without touching the brake pedal.
The energy generated from deceleration is fed back into the battery pack. If more urgent deceleration is needed, there’s a paddle on the steering wheel that will increase the drag from regenerative braking system. (In an emergency, applying the brake pedal is the appropriate reaction.)
It may sound complicated – and the technology going on behind the scene is surely far beyond my comprehension, but it’s not unlike driving a motorboat – apply more throttle and the boat speeds up; ease back the throttle and the drag of the water causes the boat to decelerate.
“Bolt EV customers who want an engaging driving experience will love the thrill of one-pedal driving,” says Tavel. “They will be able to tailor the vehicle to their preferred driving style and maximize their range.”
Easy to master
I found the system easy to master. Once I engaged it (by shifting the electronic gearshift into L mode), I only used the brake pedal four times during a drive of about 130 kilometres that included twisty downhill highway stretches as well as stop-and-go urban driving up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco.
I would suggest the OPD system is not only more engaging, it also encourages better driving habits by forcing drivers to look further ahead – never a bad thing – and anticipate situations around their vehicle.
The OPD system will also save you money because brake overhauls will be less frequent. After spending more than $800 to replace the front pads and rotors on my family chariot, that’s a maintenance feature I can readily appreciate.
Of course, the real purpose of the OPD system and the regen paddle is to help extend the Bolt’s range, which is already impressive enough with up to 383 kilometres of driving available on a full charge. During my test drive, climbing the hills, combined with a cool outdoor temperature of eight degrees Celsius, depleted the Bolt’s range, but using OPD helped regain much of the capacity.
Aside from the Bolt’s surprising performance and dynamics, I was impressed with the cabin of this EV. I found it quite roomy and comfortable, as well as easy on the eyes.
The Bolt’s exterior dimensions put it in the subcompact crossover category – it’s 4,165 millimetres long sitting on a 2,601-mm wheelbase; 1,765 mm wide, and 1,600 mm high – but its cleverly designed cabin offers the space of a compact sedan with 2,673 litres (94.4 cubic feet) of interior volume.
Officially, it’s listed as a five-passenger vehicle, although fitting three adults across the 60/40-split rear bench might be a bit too snug. However, three youngsters should be fine. If there’s a baby or toddler in your family, it’s worth noting a rear-facing child seat will easily fit behind either of the front seats, even when they are positioned well back in their tracks.
Legroom is generous front and rear, thanks to the new thin-shell front seatbacks which I found quite comfortable during our four-hour drive. And the cabin’s flat floor makes it easy to get in and out of the Bolt.
The cargo area also has a flat floor, even with the rear seatback folded. In that configuration, there’s 1.603 litres (56.6 cubic feet) of cargo space; with the seatback upright, the cargo hatch capacity is still 479 litres (16.9 cubic feet).
If it sounds like this EV skeptic may be softening his stance, you’re right. The Bolt is fun to drive – it feels and drives like a “normal” family car, perhaps even a sporty hatchback – except it’s motivated by electricity, not gasoline.
With its extended range, this EV is not just a commuter car, it can be used for road trips as well.
Applying government incentives for purchasing an EV (in some provinces), plus acquiring and installing a home charging station, makes the Bolt more affordable and more convenient, as well.
In Ontario, the price for the base model Bolt LT is $30,406 after the government incentive is applied (the MSRP is $42,795 plus $1,600 freight and $100 federal air conditioning tax.) Upgrading to the Bolt Premier boosts the list price to $35,405 after the Ontario incentive.
It’s all enough to make me concede that having a Bolt in my driveway is not such a far-fetched concept.