I’ve been trying to figure out who would buy the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle.
Greenies? Well, yes, except that priced at $37,495 before the $7,500 federal EV tax credit (which may run out as early as 2018) that’s a lotta dough compared with a $25,000 hybrid Prius.
Families? Sure, the cab-forward Volt is roomy for a subcompact because it has no engine up front — but it’s a shoebox next to a similarly priced Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid.
Empty nesters? No, either one of the much cheaper Chevy Cruze hatchback or Buick Encore small crossover makes more economic sense
And then it hit me: The kind of folks who’ll buy a Bolt are car enthusiasts like me.
Strip away the Green Car of the Year mumbo jumbo and Save the Polar Bear politics and the Bolt is a hot hatch. I looove hot hatchbacks. As my patient readers have been reminded ad infinitum, I think the V-dub Golf hot-hatch twins (GTI and Golf R) are, pound for pound, the best cars on the planet. They are practical commuters during the week, speedy autocrossers on the weekend.
Who would throw $40,000 at a hot hatch? Guilty as charged. After all, I put $1,000 down on the Bolt’s main competitor, the promised 5-door Tesla Model 3, sight unseen. And I would happily part with $40,000 to buy a Golf R even if it’s nearly double the price of a base Golf. We enthusiasts are crazy that way.
Now that I’ve figured out the target demographic is staring me in the mirror, how does the Bolt stack up to a Golf R, Ford Focus RS and Model 3?
I’ve driven the Bolt three times and on each occasion I couldn’t wait to stomp it out of a stop light. As proof of the Bolt’s hot hatch bona fides, Chief Engineer Josh Tavel is a hot shoe (in SCCA’s Spec Racer Ford class, a cousin of the Sports 2000 racing I do) and developed the Bolt with performance in mind. On my torrid test drive with Tavel outside Chevy’s Orion Assembly plant this summer, Tavel and I talked speed.
My latest spin came in Los Angeles, where my co-driver and I — Gary Witzenberg, another crazed, oil-blooded club racer — couldn’t wait to get out of town to flog the hatch through the seriously twisted canyon roads north of LA.
Our drive route alone tells you Bolt isn’t your average green machine. With a game-changing, 238-mile range (the 200-mile-plus Model 3 won’t be here for a couple of years), range anxiety wasn’t an issue. That’s peace of mind that you used to have to lay out $80,000 to experience in a Tesla Model S.
While you could call the Bolt “Tesla Jr.,” it does have charging issues (more on that later), but range isn’t a problem. On my 96-mile route, I had juice to spare.
Charging up (pun intended) up the canyon road, pedal to the metal, the Bolt squirted from turn to turn. The Chevy is nearly two seconds slower to 60 mpg (4.7 vs. 6.5 for Bolt) that the Golf R, but its monorail-quiet torque makes it feel faster. Regenerative braking prolongs battery life but the brakes are never mushy, always firm. With its short, 102.4-inch wheelbase, the Bolt feels nimble like any compact car, rotating quickly in tight switchbacks.
Over half-a-foot taller, the crossover-like Chevy has more roll than a Golf. But the gigantic 60kWh battery underneath lowers the center of gravity. That helps weight distribution, too, lessening the front-driver’s natural instinct to plow in corners (though the Bolt lacks the sensational, AWD torque-vectoring of the Golf R and Focus RS).
Its athleticism is compromised, however, by low-rolling resistance, eco-Michelin tires specially developed for the Bolt to swallow sharp objects. Run over road shrapnel and the rubber will stretch so as not to puncture. My tester didn’t ingest any nails, but the narrow tires squalled constantly through curves as if in pain. Enthusiasts will want to switch to something grippier.
If the Bolt can’t keep up with the V-dub in raw speed, it has a few performance tricks of its own. Snap the upscale monostable shifter (also found in a Buick Lacrosse and Caddy XT5) from drive to low and you can drive the Bolt for miles without touching the brake. Just let the regen brakes do the work.
On a long downhill grade back into LA, I gained 14 miles of range using low. Try that in a gas-powered car. Back in town, I used low to cruise into a stoplight without using any brake at all. Mistime the stop? Use the regenerative button on back of the steering wheel to assist.
Despite flogging the Bolt mercilessly for miles — including two hard acceleration runs to confirm the Bolt’s 93 mph top speed — my onboard computer still predicted a range of 207 miles. So I’d have plenty of juice left for the next day’s commute. This, however, is where Bolt EV gets complicated. Most of my hot-hatch friends are apartment dwellers without access to the 240-volt, Stage 2 plus equipment needed to recharge the Bolt in an estimated 9 hours (a 110-volt socket requires a lengthy 51 hours). This is also why Bolts seem an unlikely buy for Uber drivers — convenient and quick charging is a challenge.
For all its cabin space, the Bolt’s biggest liability next to its competitive hatch set is its interior decor. Outfitted in full leather with carbon fiber and chrome accents, my preferred manual Golf R funbox lists for $36K. The Bolt doesn’t wear leather until the top $42K Premium trim level, and the dash is marred by plastic-ey white trim that looks like it was designed by a toilet bowl company.
The down-market look takes away from a roomy interior and classy digital displays that offer my favorite Apple Carplay/Android Auto app — just like the Golf. Chevy’s interior will also dissuade Tesla Model S buyers, who will expect a more luxurious interior for their $40K. That’s what’s tricky about putting Chevy in a compact space inhabited by upscale brands such as Tesla and VW.
I like the sporty exterior much better (check out the cool, wavy LED taillights) except for the black plastic nose which, fortunately, can be remedied. In true enthusiast fashion I would outfit my Volt in Mosaic Black Metallic which comes with a silvery beak — giving the car a more menacing appearance.
Menacing. Now that’s a proper hot hatch.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2017 Chevrolet Bolt
Battery-powered, front-wheel drive, five-passenger hatchback
Single AC, continuous magnetic-drive motor powered by 60kWh lithium-ion battery
1-speed direct drive
$37,495 ($43,710 Premiere as tested)
200 horsepower, 266 pound-feet torque
Zero-60: 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 93 mph
EPA 110 city/128 highway/119 combined MPGe; 238-mile range on full charge
Begone range anxiety; fun to drive
How long to recharge?; toilet bowl interior trim
Grading scale: Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★