I drove a $44,000 Chevy Bolt for a weekend and saw just how far electric cars have come — but I also discovered a huge problem

Mark Matousek / Business InsiderThe 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV Premier.
  • I drove a 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV for a weekend at the end of July.
  • The version I drove cost $US43,905. The base price for the Bolt’s standard trim is $US37,495.
  • It was the first time I’d driven an electric vehicle in real-world conditions for more than an hour.
  • I was impressed with the Bolt’s ride quality, acceleration, handling, and driver-assistance features.
  • But when I tried to charge the vehicle, I realised the limitations of current charging infrastructure.

When General Motors’ Chevrolet Bolt EV was released in late 2016, it was billed as the car that would take electric vehicles mainstream.

One of the biggest obstacles to widespread electric-vehicle adoption has been range anxiety. If an electric car can’t handle a commute to work and a couple of errands without approaching an empty battery, it’s difficult for people to rely on it as an everyday vehicle. With a $US37,495 price tag (before a $US7,500 tax credit) and a 238-mile range, the Bolt was the first non-luxury electric vehicle to allow for over 200 miles of driving per charge, beating Tesla’s Model 3 to market by seven months (though Tesla has yet to deliver the $US35,000 base version of the vehicle).

But the Bolt was more than a public-relations stunt. Car reviewers praised the vehicle, with Business Insider’s Matthew DeBord calling it a “masterpiece” and Motor Trend naming it the best car of 2017.

Read more: 32 electric cars you’ll see on the road by 2025

I spent a weekend with the 2018 Bolt in July – my first experience driving an electric vehicle in real-world conditions for more than an hour – and understood the hype.

But it quickly became clear that range is not the final challenge that electric vehicles face before they can begin to take a significant share of the auto market. (Electric vehicles currently account for about 1% of global auto sales.) Unless you have the ability to charge an electric vehicle at your home, apartment, or workplace, using one as your primary vehicle can create significant challenges. And even if you do have frequent, convenient access to a charger, taking a road trip presents serious logistical headaches – particularly if you don’t own a Tesla.

Here’s what I thought about my first extended trial with an electric vehicle.

I drove a 2018 Chevy Bolt Premier outfitted with a little over $US2,000 worth of extra options.

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The Premier is the Bolt’s premium trim, adding roof rails, heated seats, and several driver-assistance features to the standard version. The Bolt I drove also had fast-charging capability and extra tech features like wireless charging, a premium Bose speaker system, and USB ports in the back seat.

The version I drove cost $US43,905. The base price for the Bolt’s standard trim is $US37,495.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

Unlike a Tesla, a premium Bolt doesn’t have more range than the base version. Both have an Environmental Protection Agency-tested range of 238 miles.

When I first got in the Bolt, it estimated I would have about 260 miles of range. When I returned the vehicle, I had driven 198 miles and had an estimated 55 miles of range left.

Unlike GM’s first fully electric vehicle, the EV-1, the Bolt has an exterior resembling that of a gas-powered car.

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The EV-1, introduced in 1996, featured a small roof that gave it a triangle-shaped profile. Additionally, the back wheel wells were covered – an unconventional design choice that heightened the asymmetry between the car’s front and back halves.

The Bolt, by contrast, resembles gas-powered subcompact hatchbacks like the Honda Fit and the Ford Fiesta, but with a shorter hood and more pronounced contour lines. It also avoids any unusual exterior design features that would clearly mark it as an electric vehicle.

I had driven the Bolt for a few hours on an autocross track in June, but this was my first time driving the Bolt — or any EV — for an extended period in real-world conditions.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

When I drove the Bolt on the autocross track, I was impressed by how it handled sharp turns and frequent changes in speed. I noted that the car’s regenerative-braking feature – which captures some of the energy typically lost when the brakes are applied and uses it to recharge the battery – would be better suited for everyday driving. That turned out to be the case.

Regenerative braking had several surprising advantages.

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The Bolt’s regenerative braking is different depending on what driving setting you use. In “drive” mode, when you take your foot off the pedal, the Bolt slows at a rate similar to what you’d expect from a gas-powered car. In “low” mode, the Bolt slows down more aggressively when you take your foot off the pedal. The latter mode allows for “one-pedal driving,” in which you can control all necessary acceleration and braking functions by pressing down on or easing off the accelerator pedal.

I preferred “low” mode but was surprised that I came to like using it more on highways than on urban or suburban roads. I thought it would be better suited to roads with frequent stop signs or lights, but since speed changes tend to be less frequent and more gradual when driving on the highway, I didn’t have to be as precise with the amount of force I removed from the accelerator when braking.

You can also use a paddle on the left side of the steering wheel to access regenerative braking on demand, similar to how you’d use the brake pedal. The paddle was useful on highways or uncluttered streets, but in heavy traffic it didn’t provide enough force to keep a comfortable distance from the car ahead of mine, even at very low speeds.

The Bolt doesn’t have blazing speed, but it has more than enough for highway driving.

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I spent much of my first day with the Bolt driving on highways and found that it had no trouble catching and passing other cars. The Bolt has 200 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque.

And as I expected, the Bolt’s handling was responsive on highways and on urban and suburban roads.

Electric motors are much quieter than gas-powered engines — a characteristic that made a small but noticeable difference.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

Overall, the lack of engine noise made my driving experience a little more relaxing than I’ve experienced in gas-powered cars, though it had a small downside: Sometimes it took me a few seconds to realise how fast I was driving since I didn’t have the usual sonic cues to indicate how quickly the Bolt was accelerating. That spoke well to the Bolt’s ability to minimise wind or tire noise.

The Bolt Premier has machine-painted wheels.

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The interior offers a raised seating position that provided excellent visibility.

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The Bolt’s driver-assistance features weren’t flashy, but they were subtle and effective.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

The Bolt Premier I drove came with front and rear cameras, as well as features that alerted me when I came too close to a car in front of me, when a car was in either of my blind spots, when pedestrians were walking behind me, and when I was drifting too far to one side in my lane.

The Bolt marked my first exposure to many of those features, even though they have become common in many cars by now, and I realised how big of a difference even subtle alerts can have in making a driver more aware of a car’s surroundings.

The lane-keep-assist feature, which consists of a small icon on the instrument panel that changes its colour from green to orange when the car isn’t centered in its lane, was particularly effective. I quickly learned that I tended to drive too close to the inside of a lane on the highway. In eight years of driving, I had never been made aware of that tendency.

The blind-spot warning was also useful. While the warning lights on each side mirror are small, they’re placed so that they draw your eye when you’re considering changing lanes.

Here’s what the rear camera looks like.

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I find digital instrument panels to be much more precise and intuitive than analogue ones.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

Knowing my exact speed and range was reassuring.

Here’s a look under the hood.

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The gearshift was one of the Bolt’s weaknesses.

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While I adjusted to many of the Bolt’s features within a few hours, the gearshift never felt natural. Between my two experiences with the Bolt, it took me nearly 10 hours to figure out how to shift from “low” mode to “drive” mode without putting the car in neutral.

The seat-side compartment behind the gearshift was also difficult to use. Opening it requires you to push down and back simultaneously, a process that wasn’t always immediately responsive. I got the sense that the compartment could cause distractions even for longtime owners.

The Bolt’s touchscreen doesn’t have Tesla-like capabilities, but it benefits from a simple layout and bright colours.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

The Bolt’s interior settings are controlled through a combination of knobs and a touchscreen.

The vehicle doesn’t come with an advanced cruise-control system (like Tesla’s Autopilot) or built-in navigation.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

To access the latter, you have to use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

You can view a breakdown of your energy usage on this screen.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

I liked the contrasting colours on the seats and dashboard, but the materials felt and looked a little cheap, even though my Bolt had leather on some parts of the seats and steering wheel.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

Minor complaints aside, after driving the Bolt for a day and a half, I understood the hype framing it as a potential catalyst for mainstream electric-vehicle adoption.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

But that changed once I tried to charge it.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

During my second day with the Bolt, I drove around New Jersey to avoid the traffic in Manhattan. I used Apple CarPlay to find nearby charging stations, and it appeared I had a decent number of options. But things went downhill from there.

Four of the five charging stations I navigated to weren’t visible from the street. I wasn’t able to find the first two. The third, pictured above, was down for maintenance, and the fourth was occupied.

It took about two hours to find a charging station that worked and had an opening. That’s enough time to disrupt a road trip and raise serious questions about the convenience and reliability of US charging infrastructure, particularly if you don’t own a Tesla. (Tesla has over 1,300 charging stations in the US, available only to Tesla vehicles.)

Once I finally found a station, operated by ChargePoint, the charging process was relatively simple.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

I held my ChargePoint card to the charging console …

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… and plugged in.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

But while initiating a charge is simple, charging an electric vehicle takes far longer than filling it with gas does.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

The station I used was able to add about 25 miles of range each hour. I would have had to wait at least three hours to add a significant amount of range and nine hours for a full charge.

That charging rate would make a long road trip nearly impossible – though a ChargePoint fast-charging stations can add 90 miles of range in 30 minutes, which would be less convenient than a gas station but wouldn’t completely inhibit long-distance driving.

The one upside to the charging station was its price, which was a little over $US1 an hour. But given the opportunity cost of the extra time you spend charging, the overall value of a charge is most likely closer to a fill-up at a gas station, unless you can let the car charge overnight.

I came away impressed with the Bolt, but my experience with it illustrated the biggest remaining hurdle to mass EV ownership.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

When it comes to features that affect the driving experience – ride quality, handling, acceleration, driver-assistance features – the Bolt excels. But without a comprehensive, easily accessible network of charging stations that can fill most of a long-range battery in close to the amount of time it takes to fill a non-electric car with gas, the commercial potential for the Bolt and other electric vehicles is still limited to those with reliable access to a charger at home or work.

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