Well, it was last month actually, and I didn’t outright purchase a Chevy Bolt EV, I leased one. I test drove the Bolt back in early 2017 when they first started showing up in dealer showrooms and wrote about the experience (see: I Drove A Bolt Today).
You may know that I’m the proud owner of a day 2 reservation for a Tesla Model 3 and have been patiently waiting for the base model car to start shipping. “Given that, what’s all this Bolt business about? Did Steve give up on the entry-level Model 3?” No. It’s simply that the need arose in the household for an additional car. The decision was made that the vehicle should be electric if at all possible, and at the moment the only so-called affordable, long-range EV readily available in the states is the Chevy Bolt. So I visited our friendly local Chevrolet dealer to see what kind of deals were available. They gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I had no choice but to sign ze papers right then and there. Then, by hook or by crook, another driver took over the Prius, so I’m now driving a pure electric car for the first time in my life.
I want to warn you that this article is going to meander a bit. It’s not going to strictly be a review of the Bolt, but comments about the car will be made. Nor is it going to (once again) contrast the Bolt to the Model 3, but a comparison here and there is inevitable. The larger view is that driving the car made me think about GM in general, its current approach to the electric car, the death of the Volt, and whether the Bolt EV give us a glimpse into the current mindset of GM. Perhaps as a reflection that GM is not a monolithic entity, but rather a beast made up of many parts, there are some very hopeful aspects to note about what GM is up to, EV-wise, as well as some signs that make you wonder if the automaker has truly gotten it yet. I would just like to say that I for one, as an American, hope that GM will get it, and that the company will successfully pull off the transition to pure electric cars. I want GM to continue.
Not everyone thinks the company will, though. It’s so easy to write GM off. Everyone needs someone to hate (hate being the integral counterpart to love in the duality-based reality we exist in), and GM fills the bill on several levels. But is GM really as hateable as some think? Well, if we’re going to perform a high-level fly over of GM in the context of the electric car, we first need to do one of my favorite things … which is to roll back the pages of history a chapter or two and bring to light a few facts that may add perspective to our contemporary view of the world.
This ground was covered in an EV Archeology post a couple of years ago, but it’s still worth noting that until the electric torch was passed to Tesla in the mid 2000s, it was GM that had done most of the heavy lifting in the latter part of the 20th century to get the electric car off the drawing table and onto the road. The company did more than Ford and Chrysler. More than the Germans, the Europeans, or the Japanese. GM woke up and smelled the electricity back in the ’60s when the automaker saw the handwriting on the wall, which read that a successful revival of the electric car would draw in consumers concerned about the ever-growing problem of air pollution in cities. This was not as much an altruistic endeavor as it was GM thinking that being first to market with a non-polluting vehicle would allow the automaker to reinforce and extend its domination of the automotive segment.
Most of us know that the effort culminated in the late ’90s with the introduction of the EV1. And, most of us know too that GM pulled the EV1 from the market four years after it was released and committed unspeakable acts to the cars after recalling the entire fleet. Aside from the early enthusiasts and the lessees who had the pleasure of driving the EV1, many of us had our view of the car colored in by forward thinker and documentarian Chris Paine, when he produced the eye-opening film Who Killed the Electric Car?
Who Killed … was a great documentary but Chris left out half the story. In short, he left out the part about how it was costing GM $150,000 to $250,000 to build every single $35,000 EV1. That’s right. Although the car could only be leased, GM set the sticker price at $35,000 (sound like a familiar number?), but alas, the monumental billion-dollar effort GM put forth to bring down the cost of the battery pack fell short of the mark. Way short. GM grabbed for the brass ring and missed by a mile (the saga of GM’s journey to bring the EV1 to market was brilliantly recorded by journalist Michael Shnayerson in The Car That Could).
So, why didn’t Paine tell us about that part in Who Killed the Electric Car?
Maybe it was because GM screwed him in the petunia patch. When you read the book Car Wars by John Fialka, you learn that Chris had leased an EV1. Fialka recounts a story about how a few months before Paine’s EV1 lease was due to terminate he brought the car into the dealer for a bulb replacement. When he later came in to pick up the car, the dealer refused to give it back to him. GM kept Chris’s EV1! Paine was offered a different car to drive until the lease on the EV1 ran out, but the dealer steadfastly refused to let him have his beloved EV1 to drive until lease end. Nice move, GM! You pushed Chris Paine over to Tesla, where he bought himself one of the first Roadsters.
Now couple that fun fact with the way GM handled the discontinuation of the EV1. From a bean counter’s perspective, it can be argued that the company made all the right moves. The car was a HUGE money loser, so GM stopped production as soon as the California mandate to sell a given number of zero-pollution cars in the state was kiboshed by the courts. Smart financial move. GM then gathered up all the EV1s, and in order to avoid subsequent litigation over the many possible manifestations of trouble due to customers not being able to procure replacement battery packs and spare parts for the discontinued vehicle (like lawsuits forcing GM to make the part, or litigation regarding crashes due to the cars becoming unsafe because of a lack of spare parts), the automaker crushed nearly every single EV1 in existence. Smart financial move. Ask any accountant or attorney. From a risk management point of view, GM did the right thing.
Of course, bean counters don’t account for the human factor. It’s not their job. It’s the job of someone further up the food chain who supposedly is in charge of seeing the BIG PICTURE. Whoever that someone was failed miserably. This is where we get down to the real problem at GM, which could be termed: Greed, Arrogance, and Stupidity. Or GAS for short. GAS is often unavoidable in large, successful, entrenched enterprises like General Motors. You think FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) is a problem? FUD pales in comparison to GAS. FUD is a weed that can be identified and removed. GAS leeches below the surface, infecting the entire root structure of the organism.
When GM got wind of the wave of protest being instigated by EV1 drivers, it could have flown some of its top brass out to California to explain the company’s point of view. They could have rented a hall and sponsored a catered lunch with a Q&A session. GM could have let the crowd vent their anguish, then explained the raw truth that it was just a bit too early for a viable electric car. Who knows, maybe GM could even have cooked up a foolproof contract that released it of liability for EV1 lessees who wanted to keep their cars. Maybe.
But no. Instead, GM, effectively at the threat of gunpoint, wrenched the EV1s out of the hands of lessees and pulverized them. Mistake. The recall and crushing of all those adorable looking EV1s is arguably the greatest marketing blunder since the Coca-Cola Bottling company hired Bill Cosby to tell us that the “New Coke” was better than the old Coke (circa 1985).
I have come to praise the Bolt … not to bury it
Now let’s focus on the development of the Bolt. The failure of the EV1 is directly reflected in the approach GM took to the Bolt. Whereas the EV1 was designed from the ground up, the Bolt was derived from an existing production car. Although early renderings of the Bolt flaunted a unique and futuristic automobile, in the end, GM removed a rib from the narrowish, front wheel drive, $16,000 subcompact Chevy Sonic and used the substrate of that existing car to breathe life into the Bolt.
The result is a less than optimal electric car. The Sonic is a front-wheel drive vehicle. Having a powerful electric motor driving the wheels that steer the vehicle is problematic. When the driver punches it, the dramatic twisting force momentarily causes one wheel to turn quicker than the other, which in effect causes the car to pull to one side. It’s called torque steer. When you romp on it in a Bolt, you’d better have a firm grip on the steering wheel, because the car will pull to one side. Conversely, the designed-from-the-ground-up Tesla Model 3 is free from torque steer. If you take even the dual-motor performance version of the Model 3 over to the nearest freeway onramp and floor it, the car steers a dead straight line. You don’t even have to have your hands on the wheel (Yes, I tried it. Research, folks. All done in the name of research.) That’s a splendid example of why Tesla is thought of as an engineering-driven company.
A frequent observation about the Bolt is how narrow the seats are. The Bolt uses the same basic frame as the Sonic, and although the body was highly modified to adapt the vehicle to an electric powertrain, the existing width of the Sonic was carried over. If you are coming from another subcompact like the Ford Fiesta or the Kia Rio you might not notice. On the other hand, if you are coming out of a Toyota Prius (like me) or, say, a Honda Civic, the narrowish 16” seats and the narrowish center console on the Bolt may feel a bit … constrained.
So, yeah, GM’s first serious foray back into the pure electric car market after nearly two decades has been a carefully measured compromise (we’re not counting the sub-100 mile Spark EV due to its lack of range and basically role as a company testing vehicle). As to whether the Bolt is profitable for the giant automaker is a matter for debate. Regardless, we are a lot closer to the so-called affordable, profitable, long-range electric car than we were 20 years ago (using the generally accepted definition of $35,000 being affordable). Even Tesla has yet to grab the brass ring at this point. If we go by the leaked company email from last November, we have the $35,000 Model 3 at a 9% negative margin. Tesla, therefore, is $10,000 away from its goal of a 20% positive margin on the car (although, the recent Q4 investor letter has the company claiming a further 20% cut in labor-hours to produce the car in Q4).
Rumors of the Bolt’s inferiority are greatly exaggerated
But for all the compromises, and all the accusations that the Bolt is simply a “compliance car,” the Bolt is actually a pretty sweet ride. It’s not a Model 3 by any stretch of the imagination, but on balance, GM put together a solid, reliable offering that after two years on the road is by and large free of mass battery degradation issues and is in fact holding up well all around.
In fact, I’ll go further. I love this car. I may even be in love with my Bolt. I think about it when not driving it. I find myself parting the drapes to peer at it parked in the driveway. I like its looks, and even though detractors are turned off by what could be characterized as a pregnant roller skate motif, you really have to see the car up close. It’s an appealing vehicle. As with the BMW i3, the Bolt looks better in person than the photographs portend. [Editor’s note: I agree on both fronts.]
The size of the car from the outside is deceptive. Inside, front seats notwithstanding, there is ample room. Not one of the many passengers I’ve given rides to have complained about comfort. One back seat passenger actually uttered the word “spacious.” I think the ample legroom and headroom help. I also like that the so-called crossover label that Chevy attaches to the Bolt is actually earned in the fact that the car sits up off the ground. Ingress and egress are notably easier than my 2016 Prius, and the Bolt is not constantly scrapping driveways like the Prius.
Being an EV, the Bolt is of course fun to drive. Fortunately, most every other aspect of the car adds to that core experience. It’s a solid vehicle that feels tight and precise to drive. And if you don’t totally floor it the torque steer is not very apparent and the tires don’t break loose from the pavement. In spite of some budget materials, the interior does not feel cheap or plasticy. And talk about power. Forget about those 0-60 times for a second. When you get into trouble in traffic in a Bolt just smash down on the pedal and trouble shifts to the rearview mirror. Quite simply, the Bolt has more than enough power for day-to-day driving.
As a person who actually likes physical buttons and dials, I prefer the user interface of the Bolt over the Model 3. I like being able to blindly reach for the radio knob in order to turn the music up. I like having the wiper controls on a stalk that’s an easy reach from the steering wheel.
While in inevitable comparison mode, especially since these items are not typically covered in the video reviews, there’s a couple of other standouts in favor of the Bolt. The car has a redundant parking brake system and a triple redundant entry system. As with the Model 3, the Bolt has an electronically activated parking brake facility that squeezes the brake pads against the brake rotors. This brake is controlled by the driver via a switch on the console, but also activates automatically when the car senses the wheels need to stop turning PDQ, like if someone pushes the Park button on the shifter before the car has quite come to a full stop, or when the vehicle is powered down on a hill. But unlike the Model 3, the Bolt also has a more traditional parking mechanism that locks the gearbox. An actual pawl drops down, literally freezing the gears in position (although both the Bolt and the Model 3 forego a legacy transmission, both cars contain a single-speed gearbox packed with several gears).
For entry, the Bolt has a traditional key FOB, as well as entry via an app. But, as with my Prius, there is also a traditional physical key embedded in the FOB that can be retrieved and inserted into a hidden keyhole on the driver side door. That is important to me. It means I can remove the physical key from the spare fob and store it in my wallet. When my phone dies and I drop the FOB down a commode — assuming I haven’t been mugged as well — I have a way back into the car where I can retrieve the spare FOB. Life is good, even for the paranoid.
Please don’t get me wrong on these Model 3 comparisons. The Model 3 is the coolest, most advanced car on the planet. I still badly want one. But the Bolt is a highly effective electric car. It seems paradoxical, but both the Model 3 and the Bolt work. There really isn’t any need to hate one if you love the other.
Thorns in the rose garden
Design compromises aside, it’s not all a rose garden with the Bolt EV in other respects. As with most any car, it has had a smattering of problems. Chevy provides an app that gives you a limited ability to control the car and gather telemetry, such as the state of charge of the battery. It would be nice if the app did more than it is currently programmed to do, but that doesn’t matter because for many owners, the app does nothing. The pairing process of a smartphone to the car often fails. It failed on me, despite a few hours of searching for and trying various tips and workarounds. This is a known problem that Chevy has had three years to fix, but hasn’t.
There are also little unexpected shortcomings on the Bolt. My 2016 Prius had one-touch up/down switches for all four windows. You know, you press or pull the window button past the first detent and the window continues rolling up or down on its own. The Bolt, in retro fashion, only has that feature for the driver’s window. How much could those switches cost?
The biggest downside I’ve experienced with my car, however, are the rather large blind spots, especially on the C pillars (the unviewable area between the rear passenger windows and the back window). In one instance, I tried craning my neck and sliding around in the driver’s seat a bit to see the full view of what was off my right-rear quadrant, but the blind spots are so wide I couldn’t see everything. I would, therefore, recommend that anyone purchasing a Bolt check out the optional packages that provide additional telemetry regarding what’s going on around the car.
Speaking of options, knowing what I know now, I would consider the optional synthetic leather seats. I’m not in love with leather, but the 2-tone gray cloth seats my car came with look highly prone to staining. I now appreciate the “cloth” seats in my Prius, which seem to be made from a synthetic vinyl-like material. (Maybe?) The fabric was comfortable, cleaned up easily, and never suffered a stain in 3 years of ownership. I had to order seat covers for my Bolt to insure the dealer won’t nick me for more than I want to pay when the car is returned with stained seats.
Prius stain resistant “cloth” seats Bolt stain-prone cloth seats
The Bolt has had few recalls for either the 2017 or 2018 model years. But there have been a few battery “failures” resulting in the car shutting down. Chevrolet initiated a recall in order to perform a software update that provides early warning of such “failures” before the car might shut down at an inopportune time. But other than an issue related to several models having to do with the brake caliper pistons, the car is fairing quite well in the recall department.
The Bolt may be free of the gasoline engine but it is not necessarily free of GAS.
Design compromises aside … minor implementation niggles aside … an argument for a need for options packages aside … and even discounting an acknowledgement that the Bolt EV is a stop-gap solution to the fully thought out iterations of the EV models still to come from GM, the Bolt in some respects reflects an automaker that still may not fully get it. There are some aspects of the Bolt that really make one stop and wonder.
Case in point: I almost didn’t purchase the car. There was one show-stopper that caused me to have to compromise my principals in order to sign ze papers at the dealer. I have sworn for years that I would never buy another American car … for one reason: You exit the grocery store and head toward your car in the parking lot. Somewhere along the way to your car, a driver has just parked their car, got out, and locked the doors. The car suddenly emits a loud, obnoxious, distracting I’m-trying-to-warn-everyone-around-me-of-a-pending-traffic-condition-that-demands-your-instant-attention type sound.
The car’s horn has gone off. Once you have squelched your fight-or-flight reflex, you look over at the offending car. What kind of car is it? It’s an AMERICAN car. Every single time this has happened over the years … every single time I look, it’s an AMERICAN car making that noise. Wasn’t it the Japanese who years ago discovered that minor notifications from the car could be annunciated in a manner gentler than using the emergency signaling device? Take, for example, the Prius. It silently flashes the lights when I lock it. If I happen to exit the car with the FOB still inside, the car politely but pointedly beeps at me when I go to lock it. Thank you for that. I appreciate you gently warning me not to leave the FOB behind. I further appreciate you telling me in a way whereby the entire community hasn’t stopped what they’re doing to see what idiot is honking their horn unnecessarily.
GM hasn’t figure this out. At some point during the test drive, I stepped out of the car to charge it and left the FOB sitting in the console. I didn’t even try to lock the car. All I was doing was walking a few feet over to the DC fast charger. Suddenly, the horn went off three times in succession. GM put a really good horn on the Bolt. A+ on that part. But being in such close proximity to the car, I nearly jumped out my skin. The sound penetrated to the core of my being. Damn it! I had forgotten my rule about never buying American. But now it was too late. I was in love with the car. I had been seduced by the electric side. I’m clean. I’m green. Hey, everybody, look at me! There was no way out now. My ego was stroked and my soul was joyful. So, I found a loophole in my own policy. If I never take the FOB out of my pocket, then maybe the car will never yell at me like that again. And if it does, I swear to the almighty, I will rip that horn right off its moorings and drive over it until it is dead dead dead. By the way, I’m not alone.
Note: My experience as to what models sound their horn is subjective. After drafting this article, I encountered a Nissan and a Mazda that both sounded their horns when the doors locked. So it’s not just us silly Americans asleep at the wheel. And I fully expect comments from American car owners claiming their car doesn’t sound the horn when locking. Good!
But how can GM not get it? Someone built a better mousetrap. There’s no patent infringement if GM installs a tiny annunciator on their vehicles for tiny incidences. It’s not costly to do so. Are GM customers clamoring for ear-shattering notifications from theirs cars? I ran into another Bolt owner at a charging station, and when his car sounded off at the prospect of the FOB being left in the console (he was just trying to charge too), the owner acknowledged that he too hates the noise. Why can’t GM wake up and smell the consumer preferences?
Note: In fairness, I found a way to disable two or three triggers that cause the horn to sound, including when you are about to leave the fob home alone. But that means no notifications at all, when in fact I want to know if the fob is about to be left behind, I just don’t want to be yelled at.
Another example: GM is stingy with software updates. A few small but welcome software changes were made to the 2019 Bolt. For instance, past year models only gave the driver two choices for how much to charge the car — Full charge, and “Hilltop mode,” which charges the pack to only 90%. Some owners want to charge the battery to, say, 80% in order to maximize battery life. So, for 2019, Chevy introduced a sliding scale feature that lets the owner set the charge level to any %. Owners of 2017 and 2018 Bolts want those refinements pushed to their cars and have started a petition to make it so. Chevrolet isn’t going along. But why? Tesla is showing the way toward strengthening brand loyalty by improving its cars on the fly with software updates. This is not a strategy GM needs to test. It works. Assuming the 2019 hardware hasn’t changed, can this be anything other than a GAS attack, especially when you consider that, as in the past, GM is not particularly forthcoming with its reasoning as to why the 2019 updates are not available for the older cars. [Editor’s note: According to a CleanTechnica exclusive from a Q&A with geohot, the issue seems to be computer power — the Bolt doesn’t have nearly the computing capability of a Tesla — unless I understood that incorrectly.]
Another mystery is color choices. Although the body style may be given leeway under the compromise clause, Chevrolet hasn’t bowled people over with the color palette it offers for the Bolt. No sexy colors. The Model 3 has sexy colors that make you want the car. The Bolt has a somewhat limper sexy quotient. Let me put it this way: I ran into a couple at a fast charger who were on their first road trip. They had the same metallic gray paint job as my car (which I selected mostly for ease of maintenance). When I queried the wife as to why they picked the gray, her response was, “It was the least ugly color.”
Okay. Horns, updates, and color choices may be considered trivial items, but if GM doesn’t get it at the micro level, how can they get it at the macro level?
Some will say the warts on the Bolt are simply because GM has no wish to sell many of them. But that argument only holds so much water. If true, why did GM expand sales beyond the ZEV states, and in fact to all 50 US states, and to overseas markets, if it wished to throttle sales? Why does GM discount the sticker price if it doesn’t wish to sell many Bolts? From an economies-of-scale perspective, given that GM chose to bring the Bolt to market, the more Bolts it sells, the better the margins. So, no, I don’t think the Bolt’s weak spots are simply due to GM and its Chevrolet dealers being loathe to sell the Bolt. I will back that statement up by sharing that I’ve talked to many, many Chevy dealers and not one of then, including where I leased my Bolt, tried to up-sell me.
Who mourns for the Volt?
Which brings us to the Volt. The Chevy Volt. The successful hybrid that customers speak of with Prius-like reverence. GM has chosen to stop production of that model. CEO Mary Berra tells us that this move lets GM focus more resources on development of pure electric vehicles. Is that true? We’d like to believe it is. Certainly, the Model 3 has begun cannibalizing Volt sales, but is it wise to yank the car off the market at this stage? Should the Volt’s end of life not have coincided with the introduction of a pure EV to replace it? Not that the Bolt wouldn’t do for some, but the PR value of announcing a Volt replacement, rather than just driving a stake through the heart of the car, would seem priceless. If the company had gone the replacement route, then the buying public would not have to guess as to what GM’s intentions are. GM would be putting its money where its mouth is.
I want to have faith that the company knows what it’s doing, but these kinds of moves, taken in totality, make you wonder if the EV1 bean counter mentality still has the last word. Is it likely that the death of the Volt will earn a place in the hall of marketing blunder fame up there with the EV1 and New Coke? Time will tell if GM has brought the BIG PICTURE into focus. In the not too distant future, we will know if GM is going to figure out a way to either evolve … or go the way of the dinosaurs. I want so much to believe it will evolve. America needs a healthy auto industry.
On a personal note, I didn’t realize until after I bought my Bolt of the linkage that existed to a GM car I owned 15 years ago. During a time of tight finances, I made a decision to dump my unreliable jalopy for a brand new –and thus, reliable — automobile. I did a search for the least expensive car sold in the US, and up popped a Chevy Aveo. To make a long story short, the Aveo turned out to be unreliable. The car wouldn’t start half the time. The dealer bent over backwards to fix the problem, but after many attempts, I had to return the car under the California Lemon Law (with GM fighting me the entire time and giving in only after I hired a lemon law attorney — more GAS). What’s interesting, though, is that the Aveo morphed into the Sonic, which was later transformed into the Bolt EV. Many ways to characterize this happenstance, but I’m taking it as the karma gods gifting me a “proper Aveo” for all the grief caused by the first incarnation of what is now a very fine automobile.
My next article will be a review of Chris Paine’s new documentary, Who Killed the Chevrolet Volt? Kidding. I’m kidding.
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