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Chevy Bolt
credit: car&driver.com

Let’s take a few minutes, gentle readers, to drop in on the state of the art in electric vehicles, and try to answer a fundamental question: are EV’s ready for prime time? Have they advanced to the point they are viable replacements for conventionally powered vehicles?

The suggested MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) of the Chevy Bolt is $37,495 dollars. That’s for a subcompact car, and that does not include the kinds of options many people consider essential in any vehicle costing more than $30,000. On the other hand, Chevy is claiming the tiny Bolt has a 238 mile “estimated” range–the EPA comes up with that number, and they’d never fudge numbers in favor of greenie sensibilities, would they?–but more about that later. For now, Joel Stocksdale at autoblog.com reports on a road trip with the Bolt:

Electric cars are steadily reaching the point where they could be a true replacement for an internal combustion car, and few exemplify this potential more than the Chevy Bolt EV. Its 238-mile estimated range means that you’ll probably never worry about range on trips in-town or to the next town over, and its price tag of around $30,000 with a tax credit makes it attainable for a lot of people. But to really be a replacement for a gasoline-powered car, an EV needs to be able to handle long-distance trips, too. To determine the Bolt EV’s long-distance capabilities, I took our short-term Bolt EV on a 540-mile round trip. I made it, but it wasn’t trivial.

Already, we’re getting into “yes, but…” territory. “Around $30,000 with the tax credit is optimistic, at best. One would be better off adding another 2-4 thousand to that. And remember, the Bolt is a tiny car. Virtually all of the publicity photos I could find to accompany this article are shot at angles that make the vehicle look longer than it is, and there are no other vehicles or common items in the photos to give away the actual size of the vehicle.

Stocksdale set out on a weekend trip of 270 miles one way. He explains charging issues:

…there are three basic levels of electric charger the Chevrolet Bolt EV can use. The first, called Level 1, is your run-of-the-mill 120-volt wall outlet. This is borderline useless, and exists primarily for emergencies. According to Chevrolet’s website, it will only provide about four miles of range per hour of charging.

This would take just under 60 hours for a full capacity charge, if the battery would charge to full capacity, which isn’t guaranteed by any means.

credit: motortrend.com

The second type, aptly named Level 2, is a 240-volt charger. This will provide about 25 miles of charge per hour, and we have one at our office. Chevrolet or a third party will also sell you one of these chargers for your home.

That’s about 9.5 hours for a full charge, and the same caveat applies.

The third and final charger is the one I was looking for, the DC fast charger. These can add up to 90 miles of range in 30 minutes, according to Chevrolet. That was exactly what I needed to do the trip in one evening. As I looked at the Chevy Bolt EV owners’ page, which shows where charging stations are, and what level they are, I discovered that DC fast chargers are very few and far between at the moment.

That would take in the area of a bit less than 90 minutes, keeping in mind the caveat, and the “up to.” The problem, of course, is level 2 chargers are few and far between, and level 3 chargers are even more rare. However, Stocksdale was traveling in Michigan and Ohio, and by mere chance, a level 3 charger was on the route he was planning to take, or:

Without that charger, my trip would have been over before it began.

And that wasn’t the only charging issue he had to face:

There was one other charging solution I needed to sort out before I could set off with any confidence. I needed to find at least a Level 2 charger in Richmond so I could return to Michigan at the end of the weekend. Interestingly, the only place in the entire city with such a charger was Premier Toyota and Nissan, the local Toyota and Nissan dealer. With that sorted, I was ready to take off.

Apparently, the Bolt is pleasant to drive, though Stocksdale did his best to minimize less than pleasing features, such as an unusually high back seat–the battery pack is in the floorboards under the seats.

credit: motortrend.com

For the most part, the Bolt felt like a normal car, and a good one at that. There were some differences. The near silence of the motor and the instant torque delivery make the Bolt fun around town, and going up highway ramps. The inclusion of a paddle for maximum regenerative braking also provided a fun challenge: one-pedal driving. It’s strong enough that when timed properly, you almost never have to touch the brakes. Even the Bolt’s ‘low’ shift mode increases regeneration enough to keep your foot off the brake pedal most of the time. I found this combination so enjoyable that I drove the car almost exclusively this way the whole time I had it.

Aside from the powertrain, the Bolt EV also had fairly entertaining handling. The low center of gravity created by the battery pack in the floorboards helped keep the very tall Bolt from leaning much in corners. Its quick steering made it feel nimble and eager, as well. The interior, though slathered in cheap, hard plastics, at least featured a nice assortment of textures to break things up. The driving position in the airy cockpit was quite good, and it was easy to get comfortable. This was despite the relatively thin cushions on the seats.

Stocksdale’s first charging stop, 90 minutes into his trip was at a University of Toledo Parking garage, where he found only a single charging port on the charger. Had anybody else been there, he would have been in for a very long wait. In addition, there was nothing around–restaurants, shopping, etc.–to pass the time. He charged for an hour, noting the charger didn’t actually live up to its 90- mile promise.

The Bolt EV provides three range estimates when using the instrument panel in the “enhanced” configuration. On the left side of the screen are three numbers. At the top is an estimate if you drive particularly economically, at the bottom is one if you don’t, and the middle, which in this case was 200 miles, was the estimate if you drive somewhere in-between.

Some of the primary issues with EVs are “normal” driving and conveniences, such as air conditioning, hearing, lights and anything that draws electricity, has a dramatic effect on range:

I started the second portion of the trip driving the same way I drive a normal car: I stuck to the speed limit and kept up with traffic. I kept the climate control off as much as I could, though, since anytime I touched the button, my displayed range dropped 5 or 6 miles. As I was making progress toward Richmond that windy, rainy night, I noticed that the remaining miles to my destination weren’t decreasing as quickly as my range. The yellow bar that extends down to the low estimate when driving poorly was full, too. This was likely a result of constantly applying power, and never having areas where I could let off the throttle and let the car regenerate some energy. I realized that there was no way I was going to make it home driving that way.

Two additional significant issues are weight and terrain. Stocksdale carried only himself and a dog. Carrying an additional passenger, or more than one, is an enormous battery drain, as is maintaining consistent highway speeds, particularly if frequent hill climbing or ascending in altitude are involved. Heavy headwinds are likewise a limiting factor.

For about two-thirds of that second leg, I kept my speed below the limit. I did what I could to match the distance left in my phone’s navigation and the electric range. I started to go 65 mph in the 70 zones. Then dropped down to 60 mph, later. For the first time ever, I was thankful to enter 55-mph construction zones.

When he arrived, he had just 9 indicated miles of range left. It was likely even less. The car spent the next day at the local Nissan dealer getting a level 2 charge, which did not manage to charge it to its supposed full potential.

So as to the question of whether the Bolt EV is capable of doing long road trips, the answer is: sort of.

The “sort of[s]” to which Stocksdale refers are many and varied. One must also consider whether the Bolt, or any similar vehicle, could entirely replace a conventionally powered vehicle. If the vehicle has to carry two people at most, they aren’t large people, and if they had a toddler or two, it might suffice, but only for local driving, and only in predominantly warm environments. Genuinely cold portions of the country are hell on EVs. Not only does the cold greatly diminish their range, their heaters are notoriously weak, and absent a heated garage, charging efficiency is likewise greatly diminished.

credi: pierrechevy.com

Stocksdale honestly mentioned the fact that his two primary, and vital, charging locations were conveniently–by happenstance–located, but took a very great deal of time for less than a complete charge in both locations. In addition, neither place provided a pleasant environment to watch and wait as the EV gradually charged. One imagines it’s rather like watching paint dry, but without the heady fumes to provide a mildly entertaining buzz.

By way of comparison, consider the Ford Fiesta I owned. Roughly the same size as the Bolt, it too would have been hard pressed to carry four adults or even four teenagers, for any distance greater than a trip to the local cinema. But it was a good handling, comfortable and fun vehicle with a heater and air conditioner that worked well. Its 10-gallon fuel tank yielded an honest 40-MPG on the highway, regardless of terrain or driving style, for a 400 mile range, and a refill took no longer than 10 minutes at any filling station. There was, of course, no range anxiety, and no difficulty finding filling stations, and it cost a great deal less than a Bolt, even factoring in the Bolt’s federal subsidy. Stocksdale closed with this:

We are getting closer to a future where EVs are a true replacement for internal combustion, though. With slightly more range and more fast-charging stations, it wouldn’t be hard to cover long distances in a Bolt EV. We’re just not quite there yet.

Well, yes, if one can get by with a tiny car, and lives in a predominantly warm part of the country with sufficient level 2 or three chargers conveniently located wherever one wished to drive, assuming one has the necessary time to wait as the vehicle charges, and one is willing to pay more for a tiny EV when much more spacious and versatile conventional vehicles are available for less, and…you get the picture, gentle readers.

EVs can get greater mileage one of four primary ways: less weight, better aerodynamics, greater battery efficiency and greater mechanical efficiency. For the time being, the Bolt is about as light and aerodynamic as an EV is going to get. Its battery is as efficient as contemporary science can make it, and any mechanical improvements are going to be incremental at best. Absent amazing and unforeseeable leaps in technology, EVs are going to be in the “sort of” category for a long time.

Oh yes, remove the federal subsidy of $7500 dollars, which we’re all paying for every EV, and the EV market would dry up overnight, but hey, it’s other people’s money. That’s always easy to spend.