Payne Q&Auto: Chevy Bolt EV’s chief speed freak

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV just won Green Car of the Year. It’s the first green vehicle under $40,000 to travel 200 miles on a charge. It gets a $7,500 federal tax credit because the government wants us to live green.

But the all-electric Bolt EV is really more hot hatch than tree hugger.

Like other five-door hot rods — Ford Focus ST, VW GTI, Honda Civic Type R — it’s lightning-quick off the line, a blast to drive through the twisties, and looks cool. Which makes sense once you’ve met its chief engineer, speed freak Josh Tavel.

Tavel grew up in a racing family. He began flogging dirt bikes in kindergarten. He was driving a 1978 Porsche Turbo at age 14. (“I had to cheat the rules a bit,” he says). He was autocrossing at 15.

A rising GM talent at 37, he is determined to bring performance to the green segment. Like Elon Musk, Tavel does not see battery power and performance as mutually exclusive. Tavel engineered the Bolt EV as a mini-Tesla Model S. Talk EVs and the planet isn’t in his vocabulary — he touts electrics’ inherit performance benefits: Instant torque and a low center of gravity.

I sat down with the Long Island native at Orion Assembly north of Detroit (where the first Bolt EVs are rolling off the line this month) to talk dirt bikes, Daytona and Bolt.

Q: Your first car?

Tavel: A Porsche 944. I started racing BMX in kindergarten. I’ve raced motocross. I’ve shattered both tibia so I can barely walk anymore. When I was 3 years old, my parents say I would sneak out the screen door into the garage and sleep under my Dad’s Trans Am. Cars are a a magnetic thing for me.

Q: Education?

Tavel: My parents got transferred out to Minnesota in high school. I went to college there. Minnesota State, mechanical engineering, Masters at Michigan in automotive systems. I went to work for Jim Derhaag — Trans Am race guy. I eventually went to Rolex 24 (at Daytona) — first wrenching, then engineering. My (team car) was on the pole at the Daytona 24 Hour. I’ve been there probably six years. Even after I started working for GM at 21 or 22, Derhaag would fly me to the track and I would support. Our drivers were Ron Fellows, Derek Bell, Justin Bell, Simon Gregg, Kenny Wildon. Ron Fellows is one of the coolest drivers I have ever worked with. Derek is the chattiest guy on the radio — nonstop. He had no filter whatsoever. He talked the entire race every turn — it didn’t matter if he was racing wheel-to-wheel.

Q: How’d you get your start at GM?

Tavel: I started in Wisconsin plant as a quality engineer. I’ve managed ride and handling, foundation, brakes, chassis controls. I’ve engineered steering gears, steering parts. I’ve managed steering, suspension, structure on trucks. Then advanced vehicle dynamics. Then I went to Brazil and ran integration for midsized truck in Latin America and Middle East.

Q: Your first project lead?

Tavel: I was lead development engineer on the Chevy Cruze diesel in Milford. Then I was the chief engineer for Cadillac ELR. Then I came to Bolt EV.

Q: What’s in your garage today?

Tavel: Chevy Bolt, Spark, Yukon. A Spec Racer Ford, and 1970 Datsun 240Z E-Production SCCA race car. I’m starting (to build) a Corvair — a highly modified Corvair. And I also have two Corvettes in the garage. Fixes top coupe and a Grand Sport C6 which is my Dad’s.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.