By Steve Schaefer
Today, I said goodbye to my Chevrolet Bolt EV, affectionately named, in the style of Pee Wee Herman, “Bolty.” My Kinetic Blue 2017 all-electric hatchback served me well for three years and 26,490 miles, but a lease is a lease and I had to return it by January 8th.
I’ve driven and tested cars for nearly 28 years, mostly with weekly test vehicles. As I learned about and drove electric cars, I became very interested in them. I sampled a Nissan LEAF when it arrived in 2011 and a few other EVs, but the real turning point was when I convinced the generous folks at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to lend me a baby blue Fiat 500e for three months in early 2016. My happy time with that little car, whom I named Fidelio, convinced me that I wanted an EV of my own.
I began to focus on only electrified vehicles in my auto review column and blogs. I started www.stevegoesgreen.com to write about my adventures with Fidelio, and it’s since expanded to cover other climate-related topics.
The Bolt EV was a revelation—with its 238 miles of range it would be able to handle almost anything, including the 165-mile round trip to visit my granddaughters. I ordered my car in October of 2016 without ever driving or even seeing a real car. I was hoping I’d like it.
I impatiently waited for delivery, and finally, the very first week of 2017, I got the phone call that my Bolt was on the truck and being delivered. In a day or two, I was down at Boardwalk Chevrolet in Redwood City, CA to pick it up.
Exactly What I Needed
I took to my new car immediately, and it proved to be exactly what I needed and wanted. It may look compact, because it has almost no front or rear overhangs, but the Bolt is spacious for 4 or 5 passengers and the hatchback folds down easily to carry lots of gear, including an upright bass or two electric basses, amps, and the works. The high roof means abundant headroom, even for tall folks (I’m only 5-8).
One of the wonders of EVs is how quickly they accelerate, and the Bolt, while not Tesla fast, is as quick as a Volkswagen Golf GTI – about 6.3 seconds zero-to-sixty. The weight of the 960-pound battery means a low center of gravity, for taut responses and level handling.
And it does it all virtually silently. If you turn off the audio system, you’ll hear a very low hum from the motor, and wind and tire noise are muted. And, since there’s nothing reciprocating, like pistons in a gas engine, there’s no vibration. You get used to it, and gas cars then feel rough.
Electric cars don’t need transmissions, since maximum torque is delivered from the first moment the motor spins, but the Bolt has an “L” (Low) setting on the one-speed transmission’s lever. If you use D (Drive) it feels like a normal automatic transmission, but in L, when you lift off the accelerator pedal (not the “gas”) the car slows down quickly—even to a complete stop. When you get used to this “one-pedal driving,” it feels natural, and you can barely tap the brakes as you slide into a red light and stop on a dime. It feels like downshifting a manual transmission. The regenerative braking helps charge up the battery, too.
I ordered the light interior—white and light gray–which felt airy, but by the end of three years, the white leather on the driver’s seat was looking grayer. But other than that, and one little hook for the rear cargo cover that occasionally popped out, everything in the interior was solid and worked as it should.
Of course, the best thing of all is that my Bolty didn’t use one drop of gasoline for three years! At first, I plugged it in at work, but last April I finally installed a Level 2 (240-volt) charger in my garage when my solar panels went up (on Earth Day). So, for more than half of 2019, Bolty ran on sunshine.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The Bolt embodies all the strengths and weaknesses of EVs. The obvious strengths are the low environmental impact, quick acceleration, and quiet operation. There’s essentially no service, either, except tire rotations—no oil changes, no radiator flush. There are a lot fewer moving parts to have problems. And when you use regenerative braking, the brake pads last practically forever.
So, what about weaknesses? The most significant is the range issue. Although today’s EVs easily top 200 miles between charges, and some can go more than 300 miles, it still takes time to charge, and you may not be able to find a public charger when you need it. Even fast chargers take longer than a stop at the gas station. It may not matter in most situations, but on a long trip it requires some careful planning and willingness to be flexible. I avoided it, because the couple of times when I knew it would be an issue, I took a gas-burning vehicle. Yes, I feel a little guilty, but that’s a good way to drive an EV 51 weeks a year.
I expect the charging problem to be solved as charging stations proliferate and fast charging gets really quick. And actually, most charging can and should be done slowly at home or at work while the car sits parked. I know this won’t work for everyone, which is why I test and recommend hybrids and plug-in hybrids for those situations. Someday, the subscription model may become popular, where you no longer own a car, but simply reserve the kind you want as you need it, from a fleet. Then, you could select a long-distance vehicle for a trip and use a less expensive, smaller low-range vehicle when you stayed local.
Another issue with EVs is that initial costs of purchase or lease are higher, mainly because batteries are still expensive, even though prices have come down. My upper-level Bolt Premier with options had a sticker price of nearly $44,000. With $5,500 in rebates and financing assistance, I put down $10K and paid $332/month for three years. This price disparity will go down over time, but it can be intimidating. However, if you look at the total cost of ownership over several years, EVs come out ahead, with much cheaper fuel (electrons) and virtually no service required.
A third concern is choice. The Bolt has company now, as more and more EVs and plug-in hybrids are appearing in showrooms. But there still is no all-electric pickup truck, for example (but there will be soon). In the next few years, manufacturers will fill in their lineup with many more EV and hybrid models, from hatchbacks to sedans to SUVs.
Only One Significant Issue
The only notable problem with my Bolt happened last year, when, after what the dealer told me was a routine software update, my car’s battery suddenly charged only to about 100 miles and not the 200+ it should. I tried running it way down and charging, but it wouldn’t move past 100. That made my car like one of the older EVs, such as a LEAF, Kia Soul EV or VW e-Golf. I complained to my dealer, but they were unresponsive. I tried another Chevy dealer closer to my house and they checked with GM headquarters and got the OK to do a battery swap for me, at no charge. It restored my range and happiness.
Sharing the EV Love and Information
As an EV driver and auto writer, I valued the Bolt for giving me a way to experience the EV life firsthand, so I could share my car and my knowledge in my columns and blogs. I could participate in events, such as National Drive Electric Week (each September) and Earth Day events in April. I hosted National Drive Electric Week events for two years at my workplace, where EV driving employees parked their cars in rows in the parking lot and talked with other employees. I am an EV Ambassador for Acterra, a Palo Alto-based environmental organization. And I now work at Ridecell, where we develop and sell software for carsharing and ridesharing fleets, including the 260-Bolt Gig Car Share fleet in Sacramento.
As an EV person, I began phasing out gasoline-only test cars in 2018, and in 2019, I tested only one—the short-term Chevy Cruze rental I had when my Bolt got its battery swapped.
I considered buying Bolty at the end of the lease, but even though the bring back value was barely more than half the initial price, it would still cost more per month to finance than my lease. I looked at other EVs, including the worthy Hyundai Kona Electric (258-miles of range), but I was hoping to lower my monthly costs.
I researched used EVs, and It turns out there are some screaming deals. Second-hand early Nissan LEAFs can run as little as $6,000. I ended up buying a little Fiat 500e, just like Fidelio, my 2016 test car. I got it at Rose Motorcars, in Castro Valley, CA. They specialize in the secondhand EV market, and I like the way they do business.
My new Fiat is the same color as the first one, too, so I’ve named it Fidelio II. A 2017 with 23,000 miles on it, it feels like new, and cost just $10,000 (under $200 a month). It’s smaller, and most significantly, has a third of the Bolt’s electric range, but I plan to use it for my local errands. There will likely be another EV in my future, but for now, Fidelio II should work fine.
What I’ll Miss
I’ll miss some of Bolty’s features. Fidelio II doesn’t have the high regenerative braking (L) transmission setting, so no one-pedal driving. My Bolt’s inside rearview mirror was a video camera—much better than a regular mirror.
And, the backup system, with multiple cameras, provided a birds-eye view of my car in the big 10.2-inch center screen—so parking squarely in a spot and avoiding curbs was a snap.
My Bolt had the upgraded Bose stereo, for premium sound, with Apple CarPlay, so I could hook up my phone and play my music. It also used the phone for navigation, which meant I could set up a destination before I got in the car and it was projected onto the dash screen. I’ll miss the ability to send verbal texts (through Siri) as I drive.
For safety, I had blind spot monitoring, a very worthwhile feature, and cross traffic alert told me if there were cars on the road behind me when I was backing out of my driveway.
I like the styling of the Bolt—inside and out—but I’m an old hatchback guy. I had a 1986 Honda Civic Si back in the day. Apparently the gently sweeping interior was designed by a woman—unusual in the industry. The use of white accents gives it a certain sparkle.
I loved the rich blue exterior paint—and enjoyed seeing my car across the parking lot. I took photos of it in various scenic locations, just for fun.
The Bolt is a product of GM Korea, the former Daewoo, but it’s built in Michigan. That’s the way the auto industry works these days. The LG battery is Korean, as well. In any case, quality is high.
My personal goal, as a Climate Reality Leader and car enthusiast, is to spread the word on the joys and benefits of electric motoring. We need clean cars and clean energy! I will continue testing and reviewing every new EV I can get, but I’m going to miss my Bolty.