Chevy Bolt’s charging challenge

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

If your smartphone is low on charge, relief is just a wall socket away. But what if your battery-powered car beeps that it’s low on juice halfway between Detroit and Lansing?

The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt five-door hatchback, the first electric vehicle under $40,000 to get 200-plus miles on a charge, is a milestone in addressing range anxiety.

“You could drive all week and never have to charge the Bolt,” Chevy’s Bolt communications chief Fred Ligouri said after a drive of the 238-mile-per-charge EV.

The Bolt, which GM is now building in Orion Township, will be in showrooms by the end of the year. The high-tech car is one of the clear favorites among 15 semi-finalists for the prestigious North American Car of the Year award. But tire-smoking acceleration and extended range don’t guarantee automatic success as Chevrolet seeks to transform electric vehicles from green curiosity to mass-market mainstay: Convenience and cost remain big reasons why EVs are currently below 1 percent of market sales.

“It’s going to need workplace charging, it’s going to need a home charging for sure that isn’t off a 110-volt outlet,” said Pasquale Romano, president and CEO of ChargePoint, which sells chargers for electric cars. “(That’s) because its battery is of a size – that depending on its state of charge when you get home – you’re going to want to plug that into a reasonable home charger to fill that battery back up again in the shortest time possible.”

EVs face daunting competition from more affordable, gasoline-powered cars that can gallop 400 to 600 miles on a tank of gas with just five minutes required for refueling. And gas doesn’t cost much above $2 a gallon.

Tesla has eased customer concerns by selling fast home-chargers for its all-electric Model S, a top-selling luxury sedan. The Silicon Valley-based startup is also building a proprietary, nationwide network of superchargers that its EVs can use to “top off” for long trips.

But such solutions are prohibitively expensive for more-affordable EVs like the Bolt.

The Tesla – with an average transaction price over $100,000 – packs an industry-leading 20 kilowatt, on-board charger. With such a large on-board charger, the Tesla Model S can hook up to a 240-volt Level 2 home charger (at a cost of about $2,500 with installation) to refuel its battery to 80 percent capacity in about three hours.

More mainstream electric cars like the $37,495 Bolt and $29,010 Nissan Leaf have 7.2-kW and 6.6-kW on-board recharging packs, respectively. As a result, it takes the Bolt 91/2 hours to recharge its 60 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery (the same size as a base Model S) on a 240-volt station. A full charge on a standard 120-volt wall socket would take 51 hours, according to Chevy. If somebody is doing a daily commute of 40 to 50 miles, a regular wall-socket would take more than 10 hours to recharge the battery.

Charging networks

General Motors brings years of experience to the battery game. The automaker found that only 35 percent of plug-in hybrid Volt owners installed Level 2 chargers. They are apparently content to charge the 53-mile range compact on a conventional, 120-volt outlet which can take upward of 12 hours. But with a backup gasoline engine to sooth range anxiety, customers are not fully dependent on the Volt’s battery to get around.

Bolt EV customers, by contrast, will rely solely on battery power, and GM expects most drivers will invest in a Level 2 charger. ChargePoint, which is providing Bolt buyers with a charging welcome kit, sells Level 2 home chargers though Amazon that start at $499 and range up to $749. Installation prices vary, but you may qualify for federal tax credit to recoup some costs through Dec. 31. DTE Energy initiated a 2016 program that awards 2,500 customers with $2,500 toward the purchase and installation of a Level 2 charger.

Chevy’s Ligouri expects a majority of metro Bolt owners will upgrade their vehicles with fast-charging Level 3 capability as a $750 option. A Level 3 station provides 90 miles per half-hour charge.

Buyers will benefit from urban networks of Level 2 chargers and even-faster Level 3 chargers installed by companies like ChargePoint and EVgo in gas stations and store parking lots like Dunkin’ Donuts where EV owners can charge outside the home. Cost at metro-area EVgo Level 3 stations is $5.95 per session plus 20 cents a minute.

Beyond big cities, resources get scarce. For example, Mackinaw City – 289 miles from Detroit on Interstate 75 – doesn’t have a single charging station. The Obama White House is seeking to remedy that situation with a national program to create 48 electric recharging corridors – with chargers available every 50 miles – across 25,000 miles of U.S. interstate. One of those corridors is I-94 so that an EV driver could refuel on his way from, say, Detroit to Chicago.

Price will increase

The additional equipment costs associated with charging EVs like the Bolt exacerbate the biggest reason drivers have avoided EVs: sticker shock.

A Harris poll last year found that 67 percent of respondents said cost was the No. 1 barrier to buying a battery-powered vehicle. Determined to encourage the adoption of EVs in order to meet its strict carbon dioxide emissions laws, the federal government gives a $7,500 income tax credit toward purchase of EVs like the Volt. As a result, the Bolt’s base cost comes down from $37,495 to $29,995.

That is still well north of a larger $22,130 Chevrolet Cruze hatchback in LT trim. At current gas and electricity costs, the Bolt would make up that price premium in about 12 years, assuming 10,000 miles traveled a year.

However, under current law, the Bolt’s tax benefit may soon disappear. Federal law only allows 200,000 credits per manufacturer – and GM estimates it is already at about 110,000 when sales of its current Volt plug-in, Spark EV and (now defunct) Cadillac ELR are added up.

When the tax credit phases out, the Bolt’s sticker price would not only dwarf that of a Cruze hatchback, but would be comparable to a fully loaded Honda CR-V.

GM expects most Bolt sales will be on the West and East coasts, as well as urban areas like Metro Detroit. Montgomery says all Detroit-area dealers have committed to sell the car. When It will be available for lease as well as sale, though Chevy has not released pricing details.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News.

Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

Staff writer Melissa Burden contributed.