How the Chevy Bolt Breaks New Ground for Electric Cars

By · February 08, 2017

2017 Chevrolet Bolt

The first deliveries of the 2017 Chevy Bolt were in mid-December. Since then, General Motors has sold about 2,000 of its small 238-mile all-electric car. For now, sales are only in California and Oregon—but will roll out nationally over this year. While it’s still early for consistent reports from owners about issues such as real-world range, the first drivers (and media outlets that have given the Bolt a spin) are revealing how the affordable long-range EV changes everything about the technology.

In an interview with Motor Trend, GM engineers said that the low end of driving range for the Bolt is about 160 miles on a full charge. That’s how many miles you might expect if you put the pedal to the floor and push the Bolt to its 93-mph top speed for an entire trip. Obviously, this is not a real-world scenario—and the outside temperature and the use of auxiliary energy-draining functions (like heat) were not provided—but the 160-mile stat is still impressive.

As a point of comparison, Car and Driver drove the Bolt with the cruise control set to 75 mph and the climate system set to 72 degrees. The magazine's reviewers drove the battery to exhaustion in 190 miles.

The Bolt’s low-end range dropping to as low as 160 miles (from the EPA rating of 238 miles) is about twice the range of the first-generation Nissan LEAF when fully charged and driven with caution. The 2017 Bolt and first-gen LEAF carried about the same sticker price, yet the Chevy EV represents a huge leap in range—and therefore practicality for everyday drivers.

Rewind to just a few years ago: Drivers of first-gen models like the LEAF and Mitsubishi i-MiEV, when driving at common highway speeds, saw their range drop to an uncomfortable 60 or so miles. That scared off a lot of potential EV buyers. Sure, the Bolt’s official estimated range of 238 miles earned a lot of headlines, but the more useful metric to EV drivers is arguably the low-end number. In other words, the Bolt is an affordable and practical electric car that provides a driving range that mainstream buyers will find acceptable.

The Chevy Bolt's 238-mile range makes its optional quick-charging function less critical.

The Chevy Bolt’s longer range is not only a matter of using a bigger battery. It’s also an issue of using that battery to a greater capacity. When the first-generation Volt (with a V) came out, it famously only tapped into about half of its 16-kWh pack. Engineers usually prevent the battery pack from being fully utilized, because deep cycling of a battery will degrade the pack over time. GM engineers told last year that nearly all of the Bolt’s 60-kWh pack is utilized. We’ve come a long way in a short time.

Perhaps the decision to use more of the battery’s capacity is due to the Bolt battery’s substantial size. The vast majority of drivers only clock about 40 miles a day. So the Bolt’s 238-mile pack will rarely get fully charged, fully discharged and then fully charged again. As a result, why not grant use of nearly all of the 60-kWh pack for those occasions when it’s needed?

Another sign of meaningful advances in EV technology is the Bolt’s more sophisticated use of energy regeneration. For the first-generation low-range electric cars, product planners were roughly split into two camps: those who wanted EVs to have a “driving feel” exactly like gas cars and others who wanted to take advantage of an electric car’s unique qualities. This came down to how aggressively the brakes brought the car to a stop and used the braking energy to charge the battery. EV purists wanted very strong regen and for the car not to automatically creep forward from a standstill.

While the Bolt is not the first EV to allow the driver to select regen settings, it’s clear that GM engineers put a lot of thought into how regeneration works. For example, the Bolt comes with a so-called “smart shifter,” which automatically puts the car into Park if you happen to exit the car (or unlatch the seat belt) while still in the high-regen no-creep mode. And regardless of whether you’re in standard driving mode or a no-creep one-pedal mode, you can increase that amount of brake regeneration on the fly.

Drivers always have the option to slow down the car using the Bolt’s “regen on demand” hand-brake feature, positioned on the left side of the steering wheel. The Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive uses paddle shifters to do a similar “regen by hand” trick.

The point here is not to compare the features of specific models to determine if Chevy, Mercedes or Tesla have the best implementation of big-battery technology or EV braking regeneration. The big development is how the entire field of electric cars is offering sophisticated useful features—resulting in long-range electric vehicles at an affordable price. EV leadership changes hands over time, but at this stage, the Chevy Bolt is the best example of how these trends are coming together and add up to a breakthrough in EV technology.

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