Tesla and Chevrolet are locked in a fierce battle for consumers who've never considered an electric vehicle before. Previous generations of EVs lacked range and performance, but both companies say their forthcoming vehicles will be capable of going more than 200 miles on a single charge. Even though EVs account for 1 percent or less of new vehicle sales, automakers like Tesla and Chevy are hoping the arrival of a car that can go toe-to-toe with gas guzzlers will change that equation.
I had an opportunity to test-drive the Chevy Bolt on Tuesday. Chevrolet this week confirmed the price of the Bolt at $37,495 — officially making it one of the most affordable electric cars around in a nod to the mainstream consumer. As we glided through the morning rush hour in Washington, one thing immediately became clear: Chevy has taken everything it has learned in its 104-year-old history and carefully broken with a few of the industry's long-standing conventions. (Its rival, the Model 3, isn't yet available, so its performance remains a mystery for now.)
Unlike traditional cars, electric vehicles lack internal combustion engines and all of their supporting machinery. That's partly what enables engineers to make different choices, such as Tesla's decision to put an additional trunk under the front hood to complement the one in the rear.
Chevy's reimagining of the automobile doesn't go quite that far, but it does make some notable changes. For example, conventional cars often have a bump — often called the transmission hump — in the floor that divides one backseat passenger from another, keeping each person's feet separated and making life difficult for anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting in the middle. But the Bolt's mechanical simplicity means its floor can be built completely flat, creating extra space that leaves the car feeling roomier on the inside. This feeling is only enhanced by the larger, taller windows that give the driver a wider field of view.
The company has also taken the opportunity to install what some users will find a novel — and possibly confusing — feature: one-pedal driving. This doesn't mean the Bolt comes with only one pedal. It means that with a downward tap on the shifter, drivers can engage a separate driving mode in which they can use the accelerator both to speed up and to slow down.
One-pedal driving means that as soon as you lift your foot off the accelerator, the car immediately begins to decelerate, using regenerative braking to send energy back into the battery. During the process, it's the motor that's doing the braking. Your brake pads will thank you. The amount you lift your foot off the pedal determines how aggressively the braking occurs. There's also a paddle on the steering wheel that can be used as an extra brake to slow you down even further and save even more electricity. And, of course, if you really need to slam on the brakes, you can still use the brake pedal.
Officials from Chevy's parent company, General Motors, said one-pedal driving stands to make commuting less of a chore. I'm open to the idea, but for many people, the technique may take a lot of getting used to. At one point during our ride, I took my foot completely off the accelerator, expecting to coast. Instead, we got some extremely minor, mostly embarrassing whiplash as the car's braking threw everyone forward in their seats. Sorry, guys.
Other aspects of the car may strike people as equally counterintuitive. Where you'd ordinarily see a speedometer and tachometer on a typical car, Chevy has placed a range meter showing how many miles you can still travel on what's left in the battery. But instead of a single number, the company gives you three. These represent not only your "official" maximum range, but also how far you can go if you drive conservatively and, alternatively, if you ask more from the vehicle. For people who've never driven an electric car, all these figures may prove more confusing than informative.
A separate meter on the instrument cluster showed how much electricity I was using — or putting back — at any given moment. While it was entertaining to look at, I lacked a frame of reference that allowed me to put those numbers in perspective. It was only after GM told me that the regenerative braking can recoup 95 percent of the energy used to accelerate the car that I really got a sense for what the meter was telling me.
Performance-wise, the Bolt is about as peppy and responsive as any car you've probably driven, if not more. That's thanks to the nature of electric driving: Unlike conventional engines that need to rev up, electric motors can apply maximum torque instantly. The Bolt can accelerate from 0 to 60 in 6.9 seconds, according to GM. That's comparable to the 2016 Honda Civic 1.5-liter turbo, which accomplishes the task in 6.8 seconds.
Of course, using the car this way will probably deplete your battery more quickly, which is why the Bolt's infotainment display comes with a screen that shows you a breakdown of how your energy is being used. During our ride, roughly half of the battery consumption went to driving and half went to the air conditioning.
Finding a place to charge the car was relatively straightforward, although it was disappointing to learn that you won't be able to search for charging stations right from the car's built-in tablet, at least at first. Googling for a charger led us a few blocks north to a local parking garage, where we pulled up to an empty spot and plugged in. For reference, a 120-volt home power outlet is capable of adding about four miles of driving range for every hour the car is plugged in. Plugging into higher-voltage outlets, such as a 240-volt charger that you will be able to buy at the dealership, can speed up the charging process. With that kind of charger, you'd be adding 25 miles to your range every hour.
It's still unclear whether many consumers will warm to the Chevy Bolt. But it will have some lead time on its competitor, the Tesla Model 3, allowing Chevrolet to make an early first impression. And while the Bolt makes some clear departures from other, more traditional cars, Chevy seems to be hoping that it will seem familiar enough for people to consider adopting it.