"It's a hot rod that just happens to be green," says Payne
To Hell with Green. Hell, Michigan that is.
When a 200-mile-plus range, 60 kWh Chevy Bolt tester arrived in my driveway one Friday, my thoughts immediately turned to Hell’s twisty, driver’s roads. And local autocross clubs. And Woodward stoplight drag-races.
Forget your tree-hugging, lane-clogging hybrids. Big battery EVs are here, and as the Tesla Model S and Bolt EV prove, electrics are about much more than going gas-free — they are a hoot to drive.
They had better be. They ain’t cheap. Teslas are luxury goods, and my compact Bolt hatch’s $43,510 price tag puts it north of five-door toys like the VW Golf R and Ford Focus RS. No wonder GM assigned SCCA-racer, ex-NASCAR-crew Josh Tavel as its chief engineer.
I love the Bolt’s handling and drivetrain dynamics, and I was determined to drive the stuffing out of it like any other pocket rocket. Dour greens advertise electrics as a ticket to sainthood. I say EVs are a gateway drug to devilish fun.
With a 238-mile range, Bolt can reach just about anything I want in southeast Michigan. First on the menu: A Sunday afternoon autocross at Oakland University organized by the fun-loving folks at the Detroit Alfa Romeo Club.
Payne, have you gone mad? Autocross an EV?
I’ll admit, I got some curious looks as I pulled into the Oakland paddock. Tight, pylon-marked, parking-lot autocrossing is the domain of nimble predators like the Mazda Miata, Porsche Cayman and Pontiac Solstice. High-horsepower Corvette C7s or Dodge Challengers are out of their element here — like deploying the USS Nimitz in Walnut Lake.
It’s also home turf for hot hatches: VW Golf, Ford Fiesta/Focus ST, Honda Civic Si. The battery-laden, 3,580-pound Bolt appears a linebacker compared to these sub-3,000-pound sprinters — but the Chevy’s batteries are in the floor, making for a low center of gravity. Add instant torque and single-speed transmission, and the Bolt actually has inherent advantages over much of its competition.
In fact, Chevy’s sister Volt plug-in has been an autocross pioneer, showing respectable results in SCCA H Stock class. My biggest fear was tires.
Where my competitors would bring performance rubber to this knife-fight, my Bolt wears stock, 215/50/17, low-roll resistant Michelins. Maximized for fuel economy, they shrieked under duress in my California hills test last year.
My attempt to swap out the Bolt bagels for stickier Sumitomo performance rubber off my Civic Si was fruitless (holes don’t match), so the stock rubber it was. No matter. My 32-second times were very competitive in H Stock. With stickier tires I would have been breathing down some Ford ST necks.
Didn’t I tell you big-battery EVs were hot rods?
Torquey off the line, the Bolt stayed remarkably flat under G-forces. It pushed through slow corners, natch — but not as bad as an Alfa Giulia 2.0 Ti the factory brought for test runs. How good was the Bolt? My best time in the Giulia was only half-a-second quicker.
My four autocross runs sucked electrons. Each quarter-mile lap drank 3 miles of range. But with 200 miles on tap, that still left me plenty of juice to go drag racing on Woodward.
The beauty of Bolt is it’s also fun to drive slow. Select LOW gear and the electric motor goes into full battery-regen mode, braking every time I lifted off the gas (er, electron?). I coasted to a stop at lights without ever touching the brake pedal.
I watched my miles increase on the odometer’s range predictor. Try that in a gasmobile.
A good day of bad behavior under my belt, I retreated home with 148 miles of juice left. Metropolitan range anxiety may not be an issue, but recharging is.
I habitually plugged in whenever I returned home, but the payoff on a standard, 110-watt outlet is meek. Just 4 miles of range per hour took me 13 hours to get back the 52 miles I burned Sunday. A Level 2, 240-volt charger is preferred, but that will add another $2,500 to your bill.
My Monday trip to Hell (navigated via Google Maps thanks to Bolt’s Android Auto app) would be planned around an EVGo Level 3 DC-charging station — of which there are disappointingly few in the Detroit area. Also disappointing is the cost — a whopping $10.55 for each half hour of charge good for 40 miles. With $3-a-gallon premium petrol, the 25-mpg Golf R is a bargain by comparison.
I plugged in with 137 miles of range remaining, ate dinner across the street at the Macaroni Grill (love the fried cheese, folks) and was on my way to Hell at 7 p.m. with insurance miles depending on how much playtime I’d get.
I got plenty thanks to a frisky Audi TT sports car.
Sinister in black with black wheels, the 220-horse Audi (same engine as the hot hatch GTI) took the bait when I locked on his rear bumper.
I shifted from LOW to DRIVE and we both floored it down fabulous Hankerd Road. The thing about electrics is they GO RIGHT NOW. The Bolt stuck to the TT as we hit (censored to avoid self-incrimination) mph. Just at the speed where the gas engine would pull away, we hit a series of curves which the Bolt EV handled with aplomb, its low center of gravity hugging the crests like peanut butter on a banana.
The Audi never shook its Chevy shadow. My EV hatch was hot enough for Hell.
I reflected on the Bolt’s pros and cons on my fast trip home along the I-696 race track. Traveling at 80 mph didn’t degrade the battery, answering my lingering range anxiety questions even as the odometer dipped below 100 miles. The monostable shifter, while fashionable, is a mixed bag. It’s an easy toggle from LOW back to DRIVE (when I see, say, an eager Audi), but unpredictable when shifting to reverse out of a driveway. And GM missed an opportunity to badge the Bolt as a Cadillac. The pentastar beak would have lifted the car and brand — not to mention its styling.
Still, as I plugged in for another loooong night on the electron teat, my verdict was overwhelming: The Bolt EV deserves a place alongside other hot hatches. It’s quick. It’s got utility. And while it doesn’t have a stick, its LOW drive mode is plenty engaging.
Now, if I can just find some serious autocross tires ...
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV
Battery-powered, front-wheel drive, five-passenger
Single AC, continuous magnetic-drive motor powered
by 60kWh lithium-ion battery
One-speed direct drive
$37,495 ($43,510 Premier as tested)
200 horsepower, 266 pound-feet torque
0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 93 mph
EPA 110 city/128 highway/119 combined MPGe;
238-mi. range on full charge. Detroit News observed:
218 mile range (Maximum: 257 mi. if efficiency-minded.
Minimum: 178 mi. with lead foot.)
Engaging daily driver (addictive LOW mode); useful
instrumentation and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto navigation
Charging time/expense; granola tires
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★