Like a lightning bolt

BY David Booth. Dec 09 04:00 am

LOS ANGELES – Is 320 the magic number?

Or, more accurately, is the combination of 320 kilometres of range and a promised price tag of US$42,795 (before “green” rebates) the magic formula for the breakthrough the electric-vehicle segment so desperately needs if it is to be a viable alternative to traditional internal-combustion propulsion?

This is the question the Chevrolet Bolt asks. Or, to plead for more accuracy yet again, this is the question the Chevrolet Bolt asks before Tesla’s similarly endowed Model 3 will ask again in anywhere from 12 to 24 months, depending on your faith in Elon Musk’s promises.

In fact, I have to correct myself yet again. Although General Motors initially stated its goal in conceptualizing the new Bolt was 320-plus kilometres of range, its official overall rating from the American Environmental Protection Agency is actually 383 km (410 for urban use alone, 349 km when you’re blitzing down the highway at a steady 110 km/h). That, folks, is 383 kilometres, more than many urbanites commute in a week, meaning Bolt owners might not need to plug in their EV until the weekend.

And those startling numbers appear to be easily replicable. The Bolt I had a brief spin in boasted 373 km of available range at the outset of my short sojourn, and the range monitor dropped at exactly the same rate as the odometer increased. Fred Ligouri, Chevrolet’s electric car communications specialist, contends that at least part of “range anxiety” is not being able to trust your car’s projection of how much charge is left. If my experience is anything to go by, the algorithms that The General has developed to monitor the battery’s remaining charge are spot on.

It may help that the 60 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery — packaged in five groups with a total of 288 cells, the same as the first-generation Volt — are of a new, more energy-dense, nickel-rich formulation. Ditto for the new cooling system that is both simpler and more effective at regulating battery temperature. I don’t know which of those advancements are more important, but I can tell you that the Bolt only dropped below the 4.0 miles per kW power usage threshold when I was playing silly bugger with the throttle.

This was, again, more satisfying than GM originally boasted. First advertised with a zero-to-96 km/h time of seven seconds, the Bolt now claims a 6.5-second sprint time. No, it probably won’t be as fast as Tesla’s Model 3, but then, I can think of many cars — some of them “hot hatches” — that are not much quicker.

Whatever the case, the Bolt is plenty powerful. The permanent magnet electric motor’s 150 kilowatts translates into roughly 202 horsepower. There’s also 266 pound-feet of torque on hand, enough to squeal the tires — OK, chirp — when you shut the traction control system off.

Cruise at 120 or 130 km/h to your heart’s content and there’s still a foot-full of “gas” to come. Performance, as they say, is more than adequate. The Bolt is no hot rod, but those claiming to prefer a Model 3 simply because the Chevy “lacks performance” are fooling themselves.

The General has also improved its regenerative braking system. There are two “driving” modes available, the “Drive” and “Low” familiar to anyone older than 40 who’s ever driven an automatic transmissioned car. Drive has minimal regen braking, while Low has much more. But in each mode, there’s a little paddle behind the steering wheel’s left arm that lets you actuate regenerative braking without engaging the traditional brakes. So adroit is this last that I kept the Bolt in Drive (regeneration in Low was simply too abrupt), but used the paddle-operated regen system to slow down, almost totally at the exclusion of the traditional braking system.

That big battery pack offers one more advantage. Although those 288 cells are packaged in five bundles — four laid under the front and back seats with an extra one bundled under the rear bench — they are all assembled into one carrier. Said flat(ish) assembly is then bolted into the lower floor of the Bolt’s chassis, increasing, says Ligouri, the platform’s torsional rigidity by some 28 per cent.

And that’s perhaps the Bolt’s final surprise. It’s not half bad to drive. The suspension is compliant, the steering, though electric, is communicative and damned if it doesn’t do the on-ramp boogie thing with at least a little élan. The brakes don’t feel weird because the regen system is completely separate. Save for the absence of exhaust note and valve clatter, the Bolt feels refreshingly normal to drive.

Criticisms are relatively minor. While much of the interior is worth lauding — being a hatchback, there’s room a-plenty inside and the infotainment is extremely iPad-like, including some very familiar icons — it’s obviously built to a price point. Even though the Premium model I tested cost upward of US$44,000, the leather is, shall we say, a tad underwhelming.

Model 3 fans will, of course, point to this as proof The General isn’t as “committed” to the EV segment as Tesla is. But the truth is that GM has to at least pretend to make money on the Bolt, while Elon Musk can indulge in all manner of hedonism, confident in the fact that the stock market will always bail out any red ink the Model 3 generates.

Unlike American Bolt owners, who have to ante up US$795 for a high-powered DC charging port, Canadian Bolts come standard with a level 3 charging system, which helps justify that US$42,795 price tag. But even with that upgrade, the Bolt still needs an hour to recoup 80 per cent of its charge. Sorry, Bolt owners, no Supercharger stations for you.

Depending on your intended use, that lack of quick charging may or may not be a deal breaker. If you’re looking for cross-country performance on par with a Tesla, then you will find the Bolt lacking. If, on the other hand, the vast majority of your driving is urban or suburban, then there’s a new electric car in town and it’s wearing a bow tie.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016

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