Looking Beyond the Chevy Bolt’s Impressive 238 Miles of Range

By · September 16, 2016

The media this week heaped much-deserved praise on General Motors for achieving two major feats with its new Chevy Bolt EV. First, the car was rated by the US Environmental Protection Agency for 238 miles of driving range on a single charge—handily surpassing GM’s long-held target of 200 miles. And second, it kept the Bolt on schedule, holding firm to starting sales before the end of 2016. Based on the immediate response, it appears the 238-mile Bolt could indeed be the first affordable EV wth mass appeal—mostly as a result of breaking a psychological barrier that makes everyday consumers comfortable with electric driving range. The Bolt will sell for $37,500, a price that will drop to the high-$20,000s after incentives available in many parts of the country.

“There’s a ton of data that says a 200-mile range is the point at which there’s a big change in the number of people to switch to an electric vehicle,” said Josh Tavel, the Bolt’s chief engineers, in an interview with USA Today.

The Bolt’s 238-mile range “is a potential milestone for EVs,” said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News—gushing that the mix of long range, affordability and zippy ride could spark “a revolution.” The Los Angeles Times echoed the sentiment: “As the first mid-priced, long-range electric vehicle to hit the market, the Bolt could be the most convincing argument yet for mainstream acceptance of an electric vehicle.”

What’s striking about the coverage of the Bolt’s official 238-mile range is that most reports emphasized positive attributes of the small EV that had little to do with it being an all-electric car. For the small EV to gain true mainstream acceptance, it will have to be a good car as well as a capable long-range electric vehicle.

“If you ignored the electric powertrain, there would still be plenty of favorable things to say about the Bolt,” wrote AutoEvolution. The website praised the Bolt as roomy, with enough interior space for five adults to travel and comfort, and offering enough power to make it “quite fun to drive.”

Praise for the Bolt’s interior is noteworthy because the car is a subcompact measuring just 164 inches—nearly a foot shorter than the Nissan LEAF. Wired Magazine said, despite its modest exterior dimensions, that “the car is remarkably spacious.” It explained that the wheels were placed at the corners to maximize space, and that the front seats were made half as thick as conventional seats to improve rear-passenger space without sacrificing comfort.

Yeah But...

Not everybody is convinced that the Bolt will be a “game changer,” the overused term that's casually applied to many cars and technologies, few of which truly alter the course of things. Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com, reminded readers that green cars “are not getting much traction” these days. “It’s an uphill battle,” she told The Los Angeles Times, adding that the Bolt’s “small rounded body” was designed for practicality, not for great looks—and that Chevy lacks the cachet of Tesla.

Other outlets identified obstacles standing in the Bolt’s way. The $30,000-ish Bolt is not a great car for road trips, not just because it's small. While 238 miles of range breaks through to a new level of EV range for commuters, highway-based quick charging for the Chevy EV is not widely available. Even when you can find a suitable Quick Charge station, it will only add about 90 miles of additional range during 30 minutes of charging. That could certainly extend the distance of some electric road trips to a few hundred miles, but does not make for truly convenient long-distance hauls.

Perhaps more significant is lack of training and enthusiasm from Chevy dealers—you know, the folks that will need to close the deal on selling lots of Bolts. A reporter from The Verge, who was covering the Bolt, reported that a Chevy dealer he visited was “largely clueless” about the Volt plug-in hybrid, despite the model being on the market for more than five years. Yet, he said Chevrolet is aware of the problem and that it was working hard to revamp training programs for dealers, which are required to become training-certified before selling the Bolt. At last, car dealers have a compelling long-range EV to sell to mainstream customers. Now, they will need to execute.

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