All-electric Chevy Bolt drives best in small doses
New model has a range of up to 417 km when fully charged, but the impact of several factors - including climate controls and driving over hills - on its battery efficiency make it a poor choice for long-distance driving
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, October 18, 2019 – Print Edition, Page D8

PORTLAND, ORE. -- General Motors is very proud of the 2020 Chevrolet Bolt. This latest model has an extra 34 kilometres of range in its already large battery, which means the all-electric car claims to drive up to 417 km on a full charge.

That's basically the only difference for this coming year, aside from the various on-board cameras being upgraded to high-definition and a couple of new paint colours. The front grille now has a ripple effect to it, which aside from the new paint is the only way to tell that it's not a 2019.

That's okay - for battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) these days, it's all about the driving range and the cost. Nothing else really matters. And for 2020, the Bolt has the same $44,800 starting MSRP as of last year (plus $1,895 freight and A/C, less the $5,000 federal rebate and additional rebates in Quebec and British Columbia). If you do find a 2019 on a dealer lot, though, you'll get a better financing deal for it.

My previous experience in the 2019 Bolt was not encouraging, because I was driving in the coldest days of winter in Toronto, when the temperature was close to -20 C. That makes a huge difference to the efficiency of both the batteries and the charging stations.

The Bolt travelled far less distance than claimed for its optimal range and it took far longer to charge when it was plugged i nto a fast charger.

This month, here in the U.S.

Northwest, the temperature reached a cool but pleasant 12 C, and GM suggested a drive route from Tacoma, Wash., to Portland, Ore., that clocked in at 390 km. This should be possible with a single charge, theoretically, but the planners were taking no chances and directed the route past a fastcharging station along the way, just in case. "It's cooler today, so that's not in our favour," the GM guy said. Apparently, the best temperature for a BEV's battery is around 21 C. Tell that to the Canadian weather gods.

The battery on the 2020 is now a 66-kilowatt-hour unit, while the previous car used a 60-kWh battery. The engineers say they found a chemical way to store additional power in the same size cells, which now weigh slightly more, but take up no additional room.

When the new Bolt was fully charged, it showed a probable range on the driver's instrumentation of 373 km. That's the distance it would expect to travel under normal driving given the cooler weather. It also showed a maximum range of 440 km and a minimum range of 268 km. My time with the 2019 Bolt had shown that these estimations are quite accurate. The longer range is likely possible if I drive below the speed limit, feather the throttle and stick to the city, where there'll be plenty of regenerative braking in traffic. The shorter range is a worst-case scenario, ripping along like a madman on the open highway.

There are extra tricks for extending the range, too, aside from just careful driving. If the car's single-speed transmission is placed in L (low) instead of D, it will operate like a golf cart with "one-pedal operation." Press the throttle and it goes faster, take the pressure off the throttle and it slows rapidly, almost as though the brakes are applied. In fact, the brake lights will go on to warn drivers behind. This takes the energy created from the slowing down and "regenerates" it into stored power in the battery.

If you're not in L, you can also pull on a small finger-paddle on the left side of the steering wheel, which activates the motor's heavier braking and helps avoid using the brake pedal itself.

Most electric cars now allow this, and owners save a considerable amount on brake pads and discs as a result.

For the first hour, I drove as suggested with the transmission set to L, which allows additional regenerative braking. My right foot began to cramp up, so I set the cruise control for some relief, but otherwise drove at the pace of traffic, mostly on multilane highway. When I stopped for coffee after 110 km, my likely range showed as 211 km - a drop of 162 km. Clearly, I was driving like a madman, although I'd not noticed it. Clearly, also, I'd not make the final distance without a charge along the way.

The Bolt's display screen shows how much of your energy was used by just driving the car, compared with running the climate control and all the various accessories. There was frost on the ground and I'd had the seat heater on, and the heated steering wheel, and did not intend to be cold. Apparently, 15 per cent of my energy was used by the climate controls. I could have driven an extra 23 km if I'd switched them all off.

Resigned to recharging along the way, I drove in D instead and the road became a normal, slower highway. This time, when I stopped for lunch after an additional 127 km, I was down to a likely remaining range of 104 km.

The day had warmed up, so my climate controls only added an extra 6 km to my wasted range.

It's like this when you drive an electric car over any kind of distance - you're constantly doing math, or at least, the car's readout is doing the math and you're constantly monitoring it.

During lunch, the GM planners took the Bolt away for a quick boost at a nearby Level 2 charger, which added just 6 km to the likely range. This time, I put the car into Sport and cared not a jot for efficiency, passing Subarus and Priuses on the hilly highway to the fast charger. The car was more worried than me - it warned me to stop for a charge and then it told me "propulsion power is reduced." I was down to 5 per cent of battery power when I finally pulled in for the fast charge, after a total of 321 km.

How come I'd lost all this range? The Bolt's readout said I'd have found an extra 29 km if I'd not used any climate controls, and an extra 15 km if I'd not driven up so many hills, and an extra 13 km if the day had been a balmy 21 C, and an extra 24 km if I'd driven more responsibly. That comes out to 402 km.

It's probably best to think of that extra range as a gift, since much of it is out of the driver's control. However, if you work at it, you can likely get much of the range back, if not more. In practice, though, it probably doesn't matter - most people don't need to routinely drive a BEV such a distance, and if you do, it's probably not for you.

The Bolt now has the largest official distance of any compact BEV - a couple of kilometres longer than the Hyundai Kona, and at least 30 km longer than the Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus, the Kia Niro Electric and the Nissan Leaf Plus. Those other cars are all 2019s, though - don't expect the Bolt's lead to last for long.

Associated Graphic

There are some tricks to extend the range of the 2020 Chevrolet Bolt, such as placing the car's single-speed transmission in low.


The car's display screen shows how much of the car's energy is used just by driving, compared with running the climate controls and other accessories.

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