21 August 2017

Long-Distance Driving in a Chevy Bolt

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest electricity will be powering multiple forms of motorsport in 2018. Audi, Porsche, Mercedes, and BMW will all be represented in the upcoming season of Formula E, with Porsche having left the hallowed grounds of Le Mans to do so. Speculation also runs rampant of a new FIA electric series featuring touring cars.

Montreal recently played host to the final Formula E weekend of this season, a series whose cars sound like the union of a manic Cuisinart blender, the starship Enterprise at warp nine, and the tires of a 787 Dreamliner during a hard landing at LAX.

With the electric circus in town, it seemed like a perfect time for a long-distance, fuel-free road trip. Montreal is exactly 729 miles from my front door (1,166km if one is measuring with maple syrup and hockey sticks) and, given the all-electric nature of the race, I began to ponder the feasibility of driving home in an all-electric car. GM Canada provided a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt, I provided a carefully planned route, and a convenience store provided stashes of alarmingly unhealthy road-trip snacks. In other words, I was charged up and ready to go.

The new Chevy Bolt has advertised range of 238 miles on a single charge, and the all-electric hatchback from GM promises the ability to push boundaries of electric travel while providing a driving experience close to that of a normal car. Range anxiety has long been the argument against all-electric vehicles, a point which the Bolt successfully vanquishes given that it can cover the distance between New York City and Boston on a single charge. Careful planning is required for long trips, though, as the nation’s charging infrastructure is understandably not as established as traditional gasoline stations.

Powered by a permanent magnetic electric drive motor, the Bolt is advertised as making 200 horsepower and 266 pounds-feet, pushing the five-door hatchback to 100km/h (62 mph) in a tick under six-and-a-half seconds. It’s worth noting these numbers are but a few digits off the measures of an early-90s Fox-bodied Mustang. My teenage self weeps at what used to pass for hairy-chested speed.

The Bolt’s motor gets its juice from a lithium-ion battery pack weighing just over 950 pounds. That’s hefty, but GM has shrewdly packaged the unit so it sits low and flat amidships underneath the passenger compartment, allowing designers to create a spacious cabin and giving the Bolt the center of gravity of a garter snake. These are both Very Good Things.

Offered to American buyers in two different trims, LT and Premier, the Bolt opens its pricing at $37,495. Our tester, painted a natty shade of Cajun Red, was more expensive model charging a $4,300 premium for comforts such as a leather interior, heated rear seats, and the opportunity to select a $485 Bose audio system. Its drivetrain is identical to the cheaper model, so driving impressions in this story apply to both trims.

Given the alien nature of some past alternative-fuel efforts, the fact that the Chevy Bolt drove like, well, a normal car is nothing short of remarkable. The front seating area was more than ample for this 6-foot, 6-inch author and the seats were all-day comfortable. The Bolt has ample electric oomph to confidently pass a slow moving truck or plodding camper.

On the highway, driving a constant speed, I found few opportunities for battery regen via deceleration (save for the blast through Montreal, whose drivers display an alarming mix of apathy and aggression). I decided to stick to my first planned pit stop, 150 miles away from my starting point. With the Bolt’s 8-inch digital dashboard showing 70 miles of remaining range, I plugged into a public fast charging station in the vast parking lot of a pharmacy. The Bolt’s display promised an 80-percent charge in 54 minutes.

This, of course, brings us to the inherent problem facing road trippers driving an all-electric car great distances. Charging a battery is like filling a glass with water: you can start very quickly but need to slow down as the glass fills up to avoid making a mess. Filling a conventional gas tank to its brim takes but a few short minutes.

As I waited, a Nissan Leaf hummed into view, its driver making envious noises about the Bolt’s range capabilities. He plugged into the other available socket, gained a few miles of range in 15 minutes, and vanished back into the city’s bloodstream. I continued my crossword puzzle. After a total of 79 minutes at the fast charging station, the Bolt showed a total range of 228 miles and my credit card showed a bill of $13.37.

Eastbound then, where the terrain is hilly and electricity is expensive. This second stint behind the wheel saw nearly 200 miles of driving before making a stop, where I must confess to making an error in judgement. Public fast-chargers along this route rack up a bill per minute, not per kilowatt. This is opposite of a traditional gas pump, where one pays per gallon of fuel but can leave the car in front of the station indefinitely while chowing down on convenience store snacks.

I erroneously thought I’d charge the Bolt to near 100 percent, which took a total of 104 minutes. This was completely unnecessary, given the car had charged itself to nearly 80 percent in about half that amount of time. In fact, I had nearly 200 miles of range in less than 60 minutes. Dawdling cost me twelve dollars of money and forty-five minutes of time. Lesson: when paying for electricity at public chargers, unplug and skedaddle once your battery is hovering near 80 percent.

As darkness fell, the Bolt’s automatic headlights flicked on, shining bright enough to illuminate the dark side of the moon. Its large, colourful display in the centre stack danced and dazzled with all kinds of information about how much charge I had left, where the electricity was going (motor, climate, or entertainment), and where the next charging point was located. The Bolt does a good job of coaching drivers on how best to spend their electrons, inviting drivers into the game by providing vivid graphics and telltale graphs. Not interested? Shut it all off and simply display the audio information.

My final long stop was at a large gas station just outside the provincial capital city. Here, I withdrew 43.9 kWh from the power grid in exchange for $18.18. A final quick top-up just before home was unnecessary in terms of range but I wanted to use up the remaining $9.11 on my non-refundable eChargeNetwork card. For my trouble, I was rewarded with 20.2 kWh of electricity.

So, let’s boil all this down what you’re really here for: the numbers. I’m going to use rates and measures for my area of the country and we encourage you to do the math for your part of the world, too.

The journey totalled 729 miles and I purchased 155.5 kWh of electricity, costing $66.77 at public fast charging stations. Considering average fuel prices near my home, that figure means it would have been necessary to do better than 48mpg in a conventional car to spend less than I did in the Bolt to cover the same amount of highway. That’s about the same as a Prius. Not bad.

But, as with everything in life, we pay for convenience, and electricity at public fast charging stations is far more expensive than what comes out of the socket at home. Using the same monetary and distance measures, but substituting residential electric prices in my town, the Bolt equalled a remarkable 130mpg. Factor in time-of-day considerations, such as cut-rate electricity during overnight off-peak hours, and GM’s electric hatchback returned a financial equivalent of 245mpg. That, friends, is nothing short of astonishing.

Absent of twiddling my thumbs at the second charging stop, I spent just over four hours charging up the car in addition to my twelve hours of driving. Naturally, the Bolt will take longer to charge up at home, compared to the fast-charge stations used on this trip. Figure on an overnight top-up if you’ve installed a 240V system in your garage. My personal car currently sits unused in the driveway at night, doing nothing. How about yours?

To be sure, a freeway is not the Chevy Bolt’s natural home. There were few occasions to make use of its regeneration tools, chipping away at my maximum possible driving distance. Around town, drivers who take advantage of the ample opportunities for regeneration will be rewarded with extra range. It should be noted that I deployed no hypermiling techniques on this trip, setting the Bolt’s cruise control at the speed limit and making copious use of the air conditioning and infotainment system.

Where GM will knock it out of the park is when they decide to plug this powertrain into a small crossover the size of its Chevy Trax or Buick Encore. The buying public is, for better or worse, currently infatuated with such machines. The efficiency of the Bolt’s power system combined with the space of a crossover will offer a lot of benefit city dwellers … and the occasional, well-planned road tripper.

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