- The Tesla Model 3 and the Chevy Bolt are your two main choices if you’re in the market for an all-electric vehicle with a range of at least 200 miles.
- The base price of the Model 3 is $US35,000, while it’s $US37,500 for the Bolt. There’s a $US7,500 federal tax credit available for both.
- We found that, head-to-head, two very different cars surprisingly wound up in a dead heat.
We haven’t yet properly reviewed the TeslaModel 3, but we will later this year. In the meantime, we thought it might be worth it see how the two vehicles stack up against each other. Read on to find out what we thought.
Let’s start with the Chevy Bolt, in “summit white.”
The base Bolt is $US37,495, meaning that a $US7,500 federal tax credit drops the price to just under $US30,000.
Our tester was the Premier trim, which starts at $US40,905.
Once some options were added, we were looking at about $US43,000.
The production version of the Bolt made a stunning debut in 2016.
OK, so it’s not the coolest-looking car on the planet …
… but it’s far from a design disaster. The vehicle, developed by GM’s South Korea arm, is aimed at buyers who appreciate a functional, versatile vehicle that also happens to be all-electric.
Because it was engineered around its large 60-kWh LG battery pack, which provides structural integrity, the Bolt is distinctive within GM’s global lineup.
That said, it does have that compact-crossover-hatchback look.
It’s got that classic hatchback rear end.
To be honest, while the Bolt has adequate cargo capacity, the lack of a front trunk — or “frunk” — where a gas motor would be means it isn’t a remarkable hauler of stuff.
GM has said that the next iteration of the Bolt family could be a compact crossover with more capacity for people and cargo.
The Bolt offers several charging options.
An included cable will enable you to plug into Level 1 charging, which is a wall outlet. GM tells me it could take more than 24 hours to fully charge the battery this way, but it would be useful for topping off.
The Bolt will default to 120-volt charging in this mode, but if you plug into 220-volt appliance power, you can override it and charge a bit faster.
Beyond Level 1 at 120/220 volts, you have Level 2 and Level 3.
Level 2 is widely served up by third-party providers such as ChargePoint, where you sign up for the service and link a payment method. GM can also assist you in installing a 240-volt/32-amp charging station at your home through a partnership with AeroVironment.
Level 2 charging gets you about 25 miles of charge per hour, so you can get back to fully juiced overnight. We used this method, plugging the Bolt into a Level 2 ChargePoint station near my house. It worked well, but we had to leave the Bolt parked for long stretches; many owners will want to explore the home setup.
Level 3 is DC fast charging, serving up about 90 miles per 30 minutes of charging.
Tesla owners are familiar with this level because they can use the company’s Supercharger network for longer journeys. But right now, widespread Level 3 charging is a missing link for the Bolt and other long-range EVs. The expectation is that consumer demand will encourage bringing more Level 3 stations online.
The Bolt uses GM’s state-of-the-art and completely awful electronic toggle-y, joystick-y shifter. I’m accustomed to it from other GM vehicles, but I hate it (though it is safe — you can’t accidentally leave the car in neutral or shift to the wrong gear).
If you use the “L” option, one toggle below drive, you’re in one-pedal regeneration mode and can pour power back into the battery seemingly out of thin air.
The Bolt has one gear and can access all 266 pound-feet of its torque at exactly one revolution per minute, and when you step on the “gas” – well, it doesn’t have the same pickup as a Tesla in Ludicrous Mode. But it is plenty quick, going zero to 60 mph in less than seven seconds.
Our Bolt test car’s interior was called “dark galvanised grey,” two-tone. GM vehicles at this level used to have a parts-bin vibe, but the Bolt felt more premium.
Behind the heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel is an all-digital, customisable instrument panel that provides basic information and delivers the all-important range calculation on the left.
The range is determined by an algorithm that figures how much charge remains in the battery and correlates it with your driving style and how much burden is on the drivetrain.
For example, because the Bolt uses regenerative braking, tooling around town gives you an estimated 128 MPGe, as braking helps recharge the battery. But if you’re zooming along the highway, that drops to 110.
EVs are the opposite of gas-powered cars, which are more efficient at higher speeds. In the Bolt, you suck power at a faster rate on the freeway, and because you aren’t braking, you get nothing back.
The Bolt’s electronic brain calculates a range within the range: a minimum, a maximum, and what you can expect.
If you put the car in sport mode, the range will decline. If you use one-pedal operation, relying on engine braking and a brake paddle behind the steering wheel except when you absolutely have to stop (it’s easier than it sounds), you can see your range increase.
The MyLink infotainment setup runs on a central touchscreen.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available, and there is no native GPS navigation system! Instead, you use either system via a USB connection.
You can also stay connected with the OnStar 4G LTE WiFi so you don’t use up all your wireless data.
Bluetooth pairing was a snap, and Apple CarPlay in the Bolt is a beautiful thing, liberating Siri and turning it into the best voice-recognition system in the car business. There are AUX/USB ports – you can get two for the back seat as an option – as well as 12-volt charging.
A six-speaker Bose audio system is an option and sounds pretty good, especially given how quiet the Bolt is.
GM has also outfitted the Bolt with a host of driver-assist and safety features, including a lane-keeping assist, a forward-collision alert, a blind-spot alert, and a cross-traffic alert. You’re surrounded by airbags, and the Bolt’s stability control makes for a secure ride. It gives up nothing on this front – and if anything does go wrong, you have OnStar to summon backup.
Building the Bolt has been relatively hitchless. It’s assembled at GM’s factory in Orion, Michigan, and the carmaker recently announced that because of demand, it would increase production.
In many ways, the Bolt is GM’s post-bankruptcy masterpiece – a real feather in the cap of CEO Mary Barra and her executive team, who took what the company had achieved with its ill-fated EV-1 in the 1990s and turned it up to 11.
I also flat-out loved driving it. I blasted in and out of New York City twice, rocketed around the streets of Gotham, darted through traffic, and cruised along the highways of New Jersey. I enjoyed just driving it around the quiet streets of the suburb where I live.
The steering is quick and responsive, and the handling is sharp enough to provide the confidence you need when surfing that sweet EV torque.
The single-pedal mode is also very cool – I dug not using the brakes at all for extended excursions in my town. After a bit of practice, you get into a kind of Zen state with it.
The Bolt emits not one ounce of tailpipe greenhouse gas. Chevy says it will save you $US4,250 on gas over five years while costing $US550 a year to keep charged. That comes out to about $US45 a month in electricity, but if you aren’t using the Bolt for daily commuting, you could spend less than that. In fact, that’s where I think some real game-changing potential comes into play.
The vehicle has also been selling surprisingly well for GM, with over 20,000 units moved between its limited launch in 2016 and the end of last year.
On to the Model 3. That’s some fetching red right there!
The Model 3 made its stunning debut in 2016.
It’s a sharp set of wheels.
The Model 3 is sleek and shapely. It embodies and extends the philosophy of Tesla’s design chief, Franz von Holzhausen, which is elegant and conservative without being boring.
You could draw a line from the headlight to the tail light along the Model 3’s beltline – and it would be a clean yet expressive line that gives the car a core shape and provides a basis for the smoothly curved roof and the crisp kink of the rear window trim.
Our test car came out to about $US57,500.
It obviously looks great in red. Tesla has always made design a core value. CEO Elon Musk believes it doesn’t cost anything extra to make products beautiful — and with the fastback four-door layout of the Model 3, he’s right.
The proportions are pretty good – better than those of the Model S, which now looks, well, big – but they aren’t perfect.
The hood and front fenders, as well as the rear haunches, are stunted, so the middle of the Model 3 appears chunkier in profile than from a three-quarters perspective.
And I hate to say it, but viewed from the rear versus from the front, the Model 3 seems out of balance. The hood doesn’t adequately counterbalance the hatch. Fastbacks are groovy, but they can make a car appear back-heavy. I’d almost rather have an old-school trunk lid back there.
In the final analysis, I think the Model 3 is the best-looking Tesla: sportier than the Model S, but less spaceship-like than the Model X.
There isn’t much debate about who’s winning the battle of the back end.
Nor is there any doubt about who wins the speed battle.
The Model 3 isn’t as fast off the line as the Model S or the Model X, but it’s plenty fast.
The sprint from zero to 60 mph sprint is accomplished in just over five seconds. That’s speedy enough for anybody, and the quality of that speed is very Tesla – and very EV. Electric cars have 100% of their available torque at 1 rpm, meaning potentially neck-snapping velocity.
A Model S P100D in Ludicrous Mode can do zero to 60 mph in under 2.3 seconds. That’s jarring acceleration. The Model 3 is calmer – but not too calm. You are rewarded when you punch it.
On the highway, the Model taps out once you’re up around the legal speed limit. It has plenty of passing power, but compared with, say, a Model X P100D SUV, it can’t rocket away from traffic like a spaceship spooling up its warp drive.
We found the Model 3’s cargo capacity commendable, even though it isn’t a hatchback. The addition of a frunk up front means more space for a suitcase or a duffle bag.
The Model 3 has no key! Instead, you use a Tesla smartphone app or this valet key card. This sounds awesome, but it’s slightly annoying in practice.
The card has to be positioned precisely near the Model 3’s armrest. But it provides backup if the app fails or your smartphone runs out of juice.
The app worked perfectly. It can unlock and start the Model 3 and provide information about the vehicle.
The Model 3’s minimalist, Scandinavian-techno interior has garnered much commentary. I thought it was lovely and would likely be very influential for future interior vehicle design.
The signature features are a strip of open-grain wood trim and that large, horizontal touchscreen.
There’s just one button in the whole vehicle, for the hazards. On the steering wheel, two small trackballs can be assigned various functions.
There are no visible air vents. Our test car’s back synthetic-leather upholstery was broken up only by some modest stitching here and there and some brushed metallic trim.
The windshield sweeps up as a nearly continuous pane of glass, across the roof and down to the rear hatch.
The glass roof is absolutely stunning.
Now, about that touchscreen …
It’s a totally Tesla infotainment experience.
There are some drawbacks, as well as multiple learning curves to confront.
Tesla wants Model 3 customers to think differently about their car. I’m used to the big touchscreen on the Model S and the Model X. But new Tesla owners will have to spend some time getting up to speed navigating among the various menus.
The GPS navigation worked the way it was supposed to. The touchscreen didn’t lag or freeze, and Bluetooth pairing was easy. There are enough USB ports, front and rear, to keep several devices charged.
Tesla’s in-house audio system also sounds very good.
You’d think that having the speedometer and other instruments on the left-hand side of the touchscreen would make matters difficult, but I got used to it quickly.
What about charging?
We managed to chop about 100 miles off a full charge in three hours of driving, but we weren’t holding back.
For many Tesla fans and EV enthusiasts, the Model 3 has the range to be a perfect daily driver, especially if the owner can plug into 220-volt Level 2 charging at home overnight. (The Model 3 can access Tesla’s Supercharger network, but unlike for owners of the Model S and the Model X, fast charging for Model 3 owners isn’t free.)
There’s no way around it: Tesla makes charging easier. Chevy doesn’t have anything to match the Supercharger network.
The Model 3’s rollout has been anything but hitchless. Assembled at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, the Model 3 has been behind schedule since last fall and isn’t expected to catch up to full-production targets until the middle of this year.
Tesla has sold about 10,000 Model 3s since it launched the car last year.
While that level of sales might make it look as if the Bolt is beating the pants off the Model 3, don’t forget that the Model 3 has something like 400,000 preorders. So the major challenge for Tesla now is ramping up production to meet that demand.
So you’re going to want to clobber me for this, but as groovy as the Model 3 is …
… the Bolt holds its own. So the verdict is that it’s a tie!
While the Model 3 has buzz and flash and sizzle and the full weight of Musk’s charisma behind it, the Bolt is a car that you could drive home from your local Chevy dealership on the same day.
The Bolt has numerous disadvantages relative to the Model 3, but the Tesla has problems relative to the Chevy. In the end, they aren’t really even in the same segment. The Model 3 is more of a luxury compact-to-midsize sedan, while the Bolt is a utilitarian compact hatchback.
But the Bolt punches well above its weight, while the Model 3 should be better for how much its costs at the upper end of its specifications.
Pricing is also an issue. Right now, you can have any Model 3 you preordered after a long wait – as long as it starts at $US42,000. (Tesla isn’t manufacturing the $US35,000 base vehicle.) If you want the base Bolt, Chevy will gladly sell it to you for $US37,500.
So if you want to get technical, the only true mass-market all-electric vehicle in the market is the Bolt.
Both cars are fun to drive, in their own ways. The Model S is stable, sporty, and fast off the line, but the Bolt, hardly a slug, affords a kind of video-game-like driving experience, especially when zipping around a city like New York.
As for self-driving, Tesla’s Autopilot is an impressive advanced cruise-control feature – just don’t ever take your hands off the wheel – but GM is using the Bolt as a platform for its Cruise fully-self-driving technology, and some of that might trickle down into consumer versions of the vehicle. (Cruise is using Bolts only in a fleet capacity right now.)
And not for nothing, the Bolt hit the market a year ahead of the Model 3, demonstrating that big slow GM could, to a certain extent, beat Tesla at its own game and deliver a less expensive long-range EV, at least initially.
Because there are few all-electric long-range vehicles in the market, if you’re shopping today, you’re basically looking at these two cars. And while the Model 3 is in many ways an objectively more impressive machine and carries with it that special Tesla something, the Chevy Bolt is far easier to obtain and wins on price, even without dealer discounts.
So I have to call it a dead heat. But remember to check back later this year after we get a chance to really put the Model 3 through its paces.
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