First drive: 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV [Review]

We check out Chevrolet\'s entry into the mainstream EV market.

For all of the fanfare surrounding its initial unveiling, the Bolt EV's actual launch has been somewhat stealthy. That's no surprise, really, as Chevrolet chose to hit the ground running in the bigger EV markets first (California and the Pacific Northwest, namely). A nationwide roll-out will follow (along with the requisite marketing push), but don't expect to see the Bolt EV really move into the limelight until later in 2017. For now, you'll have to be content to spot its cameos in upcoming variants of the company's interminable (though, Chevrolet insists, highly effective) "Real People" ad spot series.

Thanks to Tesla, new electric vehicles are expected to boast impressive range and performance. Chevrolet took those expectations to heart and produced a car that actually delivers, albeit at a level reflective of its far more modest price point.

By the numbersThe Bolt EV represents a first in many respects. It's the first mainstream EV with a range greater than 200 miles; the first with a MSRP starting below $30,000 after federal electrification subsidies; and the first dedicated EV sold on the open market by any GM brand, period (the infamous EV-1 was not sold to the general population and GM's other electric vehicles have simply been battery-powered variants of existing models).

On paper, its 238-mile range is already pretty impressive. Just look around at the rest of the compact EV landscape if you're not convinced. smart EV? Ford Focus Electric? Volkswagen e-Golf? Not even close. Even the dedicated Nissan LEAF isn't in the ballpark. The Bolt EV boasts double the range of even the most advanced of those models.

But that's not even the best part. What's more admirable is that the Bolt EV's excellent range comes paired with surprising performance. Horsepower? 200. Torque? 266lb-ft. Those numbers match up nicely with a lot of turbocharged four-cylinder engines available elsewhere in the small crossover segment. At 3,580lbs, the Bolt EV isn't exactly a featherweight, but it's not egregiously overweight, either.

Put it all together and the Bolt is a 238-mile EV with a 0-60 time below the seven-second mark. Go ahead and compile a list of electrified cars that are doing that for under thirty grand. When you're done, you can pick up your homework assignment on unicorn anatomy.

One note: Chevrolet's certification process for the Bolt EV's range was done with the car in normal "Drive." We'll touch on this a bit more later, but there are ways of getting even more range out of Chevrolet's little crossover than simply dawdling around in "D."

Unfortunately, with more capacity comes more charging time. A 240V Chevrolet accessory home charging station can fully charge the Bolt EV in 9 hours; SAE Combo fast chargers can restore 90 miles of range every 30 minutes. On standard 120V, well, it's not pretty. Chevrolet's spec sheet doesn't give an actual number, but we'd estimate it's in the neighborhood of 22-24 hours to go from discharged to full range.

Future-proofingChevrolet isn't going to have this segment to itself forever. Being good on paper for now isn't good enough to sell people in a segment where being different and disruptive can often matter more than offering good numbers. So what's the Bolt's big differentiatior?

Well, as it turns out, what makes the Bolt the best is the fact that it isn't all that different at all.

Critic-proofingThe Chevrolet Bolt EV is an excellent car, full-stop. That's right. We're not calling it an excellent EV or an excellent vision of future mobility solutions masquerading as personal transportation. In the real world, on real roads (longer ones than you might expect, even), it's a very, very good car.

It should comes as no surprise that the Bolt's sweet spot is found in varied, low-speed driving--in as much as that is antithetical to the constant (and relatively high) speeds of the freeway. Be it the grind of the city or the twisty sections of your favorite hilly road, this is a car that thrives in an environment where you'll go and slow in equal measure.

Why? Well, like any other electrified vehicle, the Bolt EV relies heavily on regeneration to maintain its battery pack's state of charge.

Now, don't bail on us. We know what you're thinking. "Regenerative braking stinks. It has no feel. The stopping distances are terrible." Banish all of that from your mind, because this car is a little bit different.

Yes, if you brake very gently, you'll essentially only activate the regenerative system. But once you actually go for the stoppers, it's all friction-based. There's no blending of the two. This means the Bolt EV's brakes feel far more lively and effective than your typical electrified car's.

But what if we told you the best way to drive the Bolt EV is without using the brakes at all?

The same, only differentThere are four ways to drive the Bolt EV. The first is the most conventional--stick it in "D" and use the accelerator to go and the brake pedal to stop. The second is a mode borrowed from the larger Volt PHEV. You still use the classic "Drive" selection on the gear shifter, but rather than relying only on the brake pedal to slow, you make use of the paddle on the steering wheel (mounted where you may otherwise find a shift paddle on the left side) to initiate regen on-demand.

Number three is where things get interesting. The Bolt EV introduces a new concept for driving--doing so with only one pedal. Rather than utilizing "Drive," you put the selector in "L." Yes, inconspicuously disguised as a simple low-gear selection is the Bolt's magic mode, and if you give it a chance, we're willing to bet you'll like it as much as we do.

In this mode, regeneration kicks in far more aggressively as you release the accelerator. Think of it like engine braking on steroids. But while engine braking in a gasoline-powered car will simply cut off the fuel injection system, regeneration in an EV actually converts your car into a big inertial generator, putting charge back in to your battery.

This mode shines in two scenarios: In the city, and in the twisties. Whether you're going from stop sign to stop sign or corner to corner, the Bolt's pace is determined entirely by throttle pedal position. It seems strange in theory, but imagine driving a small, torquey car with a hyper-advanced dual-clutch transmission that always keeps the car in the lowest possible gear without the normal annoyances such as bellowing exhaust drone or runaway fuel consumption.

Sure, it takes a little getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, you'll be hooked. We promise. It's as good as it sounds. And it gets even better. Unlike engine braking, the Bolt EV's regenerative braking can actually bring the car to a complete stop. If you need that done in a hurry, you can use the friction brakes or grab the regeneration paddle on the wheel for a little extra deceleration (the Bolt EV's hidden "fourth" driving mode).

As an added bonus, it's even possible to exceed the charging rate of Chevrolet's accessory fast charging station via regenerative braking alone. The Bolt EV, then, is the first EV that can really be all things to just about all people. It can be a conventional car, or a hypermiler's dream. The way you drive it is up to you.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe Bolt EV's special sauce makes it a truly outstanding car. It's a good car first, and an EV second. There's not much more one can reasonably ask.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV base price, $29,995 (after federal incentives).

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Chevrolet.

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