The Bolt EV was GM’s natural follow-up to the Volt’s pioneering steps into electromobility. With the compact plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) market covered with the Volt, it was time for GM to go after the fully electric (BEV) subcompact segment, and for that, GM teamed up with Korea’s LG. The result was a small yet space-efficient EV with a big, flat roller-skate battery between the wheels and a powerful motor. It was GM’s first BEV-dedicated platform.
When the Bolt came to market, in late 2016, it had the longest range of any electric car and had thousands of reservations across the globe to fill.
So, all was set for success, right?
Well … no.
General Motors Engineering had developed a winning model, but the production ramp needed to be fast — in order to catch the competition with their pants down and stay ahead of the curve. Instead, Chevrolet did a slow-moving ramp up, taking ages to go nationwide in its domestic market and basically disregarding overseas markets, to the profit of others (the Nissan Leaf comes to mind). Perhaps other models were not as good, but at least they were available.
Not caring for international deliveries was probably the most damaging mistake, as the success of a subcompact like the Bolt in the USA was always going to be limited by its size — small cars aren’t a significant portion of the US market. Elsewhere, like in Europe and Asia, it was the right size to be a best seller, and possibly a game changer.
Yet, GM basically ended its European operations by selling the German brand Opel to PSA, with both the seller and buyer having little consideration for the thousands of reservations that the Ampera-e (Bolt’s Euro twin) had at the time. That effectively ended the nameplate’s career on the Old Continent, while damaging the Opel brand even more.
In South Korea, the first year of deliveries (2017) were symbolic, at best, with only 588 Bolts delivered. That’s far from that year’s best seller (the Hyundai Ioniq Electric – 8,000 units), or even models like the Kia Soul EV and Samsung SM3 ZE, both with 2,000+ registrations. The GM model lost the opportunity to cash in on its far better specs and disrupt the market.
In 2018, the Bolt delivery numbers have been significantly higher, but now the GM model has strong competition from the Hyundai–Kia stable, with both the Kona and Niro BEVs offering similar specs as the Bolt, and with the added bonuses of wearing more fashionable bodies (crossover bodies) and offering 39 kWh versions — for those people who do not need 400 kilometers of range and appreciate a lower entry price.
Is this an EV that could have been “The Next Big Thing” but actually never broke through?
More importantly, can it return to the spotlight if GM finally decides to back it up with a decent production rate and real international distribution?
Let’s consider this a bit more while going through my multi-day test drive of the vehicle.
We arrived at Vancouver International Airport late in the evening. After putting the luggage into the Bolt, we got on our way to our base in the neighboring city of Burnaby. But first we had to figure out how to put the gear into “R”…
Blame it on the jet lag or whatever, but the fact is that it took a couple of minutes to find out how to put it in reverse (answer: left button + lever down + left motion).
Anyway, after that first annoyance, the rest of the trip was actually enjoyable, especially when I pushed for the 200 hp and felt the tires squeal, reminding me of my first car (Fiat Uno Turbo, a car known for having too much power for its own good).
“These next days will be fun,” I thought as I was set to explore more of the potential of this pocket rocket in an unassuming, family-friendly shape.
After an extended sleep time, we headed out to explore the Vancouver whereabouts, starting at the Lynn Canyon Park. When we got there, and while we were trying to find a parking spot on one of the unpaved roads of the natural park, it felt good knowing that we weren’t gassing the local forest.
A few hours later, while descending Cypress Hill Mountain, I got to explore all the potential of one of the nicest features of the Bolt, the “L” driving mode. With enhanced regeneration, it allows possibly the best one-pedal driving of the current crop of EVs. Not only stopping the car with ease, it is also great going down mountains. Going down Cypress Hill Mountain, it allowed us to charge the battery more than 20 kilometers (13 miles or so) without ever using the brakes. The regeneration alone was enough to keep the car braking as needed, making this feature almost as fun as full acceleration.
Getting to the famous Stanley Park on a Saturday afternoon, especially on an extended weekend, was never going to be easy, so we had to endure some kilometers of stop-and-go traffic, but once again the Bolt handled it with ease. The instant torque, one-pedal driving, and small footprint helped us to get out of there faster than expected.
The time spent waiting in traffic allowed us to focus more on the inside of our Bolt, and while the plastics were hard, the design and color contrasting combination (dark grey + back inserts + white) made it look more upmarket than it actually is. Deceptions of the eye …
The reactions of the back passengers highlighted that they hadn’t imagined so much space in a small car. I explained that was the advantage of dedicated BEV platforms, because you don’t need space to stuff a gas engine and related apparel in there. You can have more space dedicated to passengers, thus allowing compact car space in an objectively smaller subcompact model.
They also appreciated that the seats were higher than the front ones, permitting a better view of the front and the infotainment system. The center screen was clear and easy to understand.
Other features mentioned were the back USB ports, which one doesn’t usually get in cars this size. And they are there not only to charge your devices but also to use for the infotainment center screen with Android Auto and the like.
Sunday was time for a (packed) Grouse Mountain day. There was a full parking lot and the local charging station had both plugs being used (one Leaf and one Tesla). I guess on that day, if the charging station had 6 plugs, all of them would have been used. Besides our Bolt and the two EVs charging, we also saw another Bolt, a second Tesla, and an Outlander PHEV (they are everywhere!) parked or trying to find a spot.
(Note to ChargePoint: the Grouse Mountain station needs more plugs.)
“This kind of reminds of Lisbon, tourists all around and not enough chargers,” I sarcastically commented. At least I was secure with the guess-o-meter’s prediction that I had over 250 km (156 miles) of range and zero range anxiety.
The Bolt guess-o-meter itself is another little gem, proving once again that a lot of time and thought was dedicated to developing the car. Besides the regular range, it also shows a maximum range and a minimum range on the main panel. The minimum range is an important tool to dispel any range anxiety that the driver might have, as it knows that even with bad weather conditions or aggressive driving, you have a minimum range basically guaranteed.
In fact, running around Vancouver and the neighboring mountains wasn’t good enough to test the Bolt. This car also deserved open road testing, so that all 200 hp could run loose and the 400 km (250 mi) range could be tested outside the urban environment.
A small EV with no range anxiety, imagine that!
A high point of the day was late in the afternoon when I gave a test ride to an 87-year-old driver, Mr. Antonio da Oliveira da Silva. He was amazed with the Bolt, especially the screens. “It looks like a spaceship!” In the end, he said that automobiles had come a long way since his first car, a ’58 Plymouth Belvedere.
Time for the big(gish) trip in Canada — going from Burnaby, stopping first in North Vancouver, and then heading up to Squamish in the north.
We left with a full charge in the morning, meaning that the guess-o-meter showed 414 km (259 mi) of range, which was more than enough to make the 160 km (100 mi) round trip.
For me, the question was more: “How much range will it still have when it returns, after a day of open road?”
We first stopped in Granville Island to visit the local market, which has something of an artsy environment. The boat houses were a clear highlight.
After another stop in North Vancouver, we finally left the Vancouver metro area and followed along the scenic coast through Highway 99.
We stopped for lunch at Horseshoe Bay and enjoyed the beautiful landscape that surrounded us, but only after shooing an annoying seagull that for some strange reason wanted to eat our pizza…
After a small stroll along the Bay and a few pictures, it was time to get back on the road. After two involuntary stops — one because of road maintenance and the other caused by an accident — we finally arrived in Squamish, a nice little village that had a place that somehow reminded me of a modern day version of those saloons where Yukon gold diggers would spend their hard earned money on booze.
Too many old Hollywood movies, I know. Moving on…
The village has a charging station, close to the local townhall, that wasn’t listed on the charging maps (recent addition?) but had several street signs advertising it, including one a couple of kilometers before reaching the village.
This is an important addition to the local network, as there isn’t any charging station available on Highway 99 after leaving the Vancouver metro area.
We started the trip back by going to Shannon Falls, and after experiencing the Sea to Sky Gondola, we did some hiking at the top of Sky Pilot Mountain, where we got to see some snow in the neighboring peaks. However, locals said that climate change was visible there, as snow used to cover these peaks more heavily in the summertime.
After returning to the Burnaby base — 192 km (120 mi) later, with the A/C turned on most of the time — our “Smiley Face,” as we ended up calling the Bolt, still had 200 km (125 mi) of range. So, in total, that’s 392 km of range. Not bad.
“This EV has a good range,” a local told me. “It can go all the way to Whistler and back in one charge.”
And he wasn’t the only one to use the Whistler trip as a yard stick for measuring the range of an EV.
“There you have it,” I thought, “if the local Vancouver dealerships want to advertise the range of the Bolt to the local public, just say that they can go up to Whistler and back in one charge.”
While visiting the Steveston fishing village, we checked the local charging station. It’s one of the standard ChargePoint slow chargers that exist in the Vancouver area, making up the majority of the local infrastructure.
The problem with them is that, unlike other networks that allow credit card use, you need the ChargePoint card to charge there, which can be frustrating for non-customers like me.
Running around downtown through Skytrain, I had the chance to check out the local EV fauna more closely. Unexpectedly, the Chevrolet Volt wasn’t the most common plug-in vehicle around, with a few models being more common in that area, like the Nissan Leaf (mostly old ones, but a few new too), all three Teslas, and the Outlander PHEV. The Chevy Bolt EV was already as common as the Volt.
It seems Vancouver is not Volt territory, so in order for the Volt to be the most common plug-in vehicle in Canada, I assume the bulk of its sales are in the Eastern part of the country. (Toronto?)
On this last day in Canada, we had something of a surprise. While public charging stations are rare and few have fast-charging capabilities, we saw a new apartment building with available plugs for residents. That’s something we welcome and hope to see more frequently worldwide in the coming years, as a significant part of the population lives in apartment buildings.
Chevrolet “Smiley Face” Bolt EV pros:
- Big range;
- Space-efficient platform;
- Best-in-class regenerative breaking;
- Clear, easy-to-understand multimedia system;
- Some torque-steer and tire chirping. Too fast for its own good?
- Considering the price, interior materials could be better;
- $40,000 is a lot for a small Chevrolet. Maybe not so much for a small Buick?
- Primary markets for the Bolt (North America) not suited to the car’s characteristics.
In a nutshell:
This car is a gem, but a bit like the ugly duckling story, it lives with the wrong family. Chevrolet thrives on Camaros and big pickup trucks, not leaving a lot of love or care for the little Bolt EV.
For it to regain success, GM needs to focus on promoting the Bolt in international markets (primarily Asia but also Europe, and new ones like Latin America). It could do so by following the same strategy as Hyundai has used with the Kona BEV, releasing a slower but cheaper 40 kWh version to complement the 60 kWh version. Many buyers in overseas markets already feel happy with 40 kWh in their EVs (case in point: Nissan Leaf success in Europe), which would allow the Bolt to overcome some of its current issues.
As for North America, the Bolt should have been born as a Buick (Electra, anyone?), as the car’s characteristics (space, efficiency, silence, etc.) better suit the three-shield brand’s ethos than the general brashness of Chevrolet.
All images credit: Jose Pontes