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The Chevrolet Bolt EV and Tesla Model S are the only battery-electric cars in existence with more than 200 miles of range on a charge. Both the Bolt EV and Model S 60 have 60-kW-hr batteries, and have the patriotic bonus of being made in the U.S.A. So, which one is better, given that you could have two Bolts (after federal tax credits) for the price of one Model S 60? Is the Tesla is actually worth the extra 30 large?
A quick side note: This Bolt versus Model S 60 comparison is the exhibition before a more appropriate title fight—Bolt versus Elon Musk’s $35,000 Tesla Model 3. Set to arrive in late 2017 with a price much closer to the Bolt’s, the compact Model 3 currently has more than 400,000 reservation holders, promises to go at least 215 miles on a charge, and will be available with all the Tesla tech and mystique the company’s fans love.
Until then, however, the only proper comparison to the just-arrived Bolt is the Model S 60, which was discontinued in 2015 and brought back temporarily in June to upsell Model 3 reservation holders who could possibly swing payments on a $66,000 luxury sedan.
Over two weeks of testing the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt Premier and Tesla Model S 60 back to back, things got a lot more complicated than expected.
With 238 miles of EPA-rated range and 210 miles of range, respectively, the Bolt EV and Model S 60 are the first EVs that could conceivably function as a family’s lone car.
Despite the differences in price ($41,780 for the Bolt and $71,200 for the Model S 60, as equipped), size (compact vs. large), and overall shape (hatchback vs. sedan), a peek at the specs reveals just how similar the two cars are even if they aren’t exactly direct competitors. Both the Bolt and Model S are built around their lithium-ion battery packs, the chassis essentially a battery pack skateboard forming the car’s deck with the bodies built on top of them. Body-on-battery, if you will.
The battery in our rear-drive single-motor Tesla Model S, nominally a 60-kW-hr battery with an EPA-rated range of 210 miles, is actually a 75-kW-hr battery limited to 60 kW-hr of charge. Model S 60 buyers can go online and plop down their Amex (in this scenario we imagine all Tesla owners are Platinum Card holders), and a $9,000 over-the-air update later, their Model S 60 has turned into a Model S 75 with 234 miles of range. We actually did the 75-kW-hr update to “our” Model S 60 after the majority of this comparison test was executed just to see if it works as advertised. (It did.)
In the past most GM-built electric vehicles, including the EV1 and the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, have their batteries in a T-shape inside the cabin. Building on lessons learned with the Chevy Spark EV, where the battery pack was underneath the rear seats and cargo floor, the Bolt is GM’s first EV where the car actually rides on top of the battery pack. The benefits of building an electric car like this, as Tesla learned between Roadster and Model S, are numerous. Putting the battery underneath the body allows for better interior packaging, a bigger battery, a lower center of gravity, and impressive structural rigidity. (The battery pack is good for 28 percent of the Bolt’s structural rigidity.)
The Bolt’s battery is the most energy-dense GM has ever put in an electric vehicle; it’s rated for 60 kW-hr,. Built in South Korea by LG Chem, the Bolt’s battery is, as Chevy puts it, of “nickel-rich lithium-ion chemistry.” This allows the battery to operate at a more optimal higher temperature, and it gives the Bolt an impressive 238 miles of EPA-rated range.
Where the Bolt and Model S 60 differ mechanically is where each mounts its single electric motor—even if the principles behind the two are the same. Like the high-priced German luxury sedans it challenges, the Tesla opts for rear-drive, the power coming by way of a single rear-mounted AC-induction motor paired with a one-speed automatic. The ultra-efficient motor is good for 315 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque. All-wheel drive dual-motor versions are also available.
Like most other compact EVs, the Chevy Bolt goes with front-wheel drive. The Bolt’s front-mounted motor is mated to a single-speed automatic, and it’s good for 200 hp and 266 lb-ft of twist.
Despite the differences in the driven wheels, the driving experience of the Bolt and Tesla is remarkably similar.
The Tesla Model S 60 drives much like its higher-powered and longer-range brethren. It may not brutally assault your senses like a Ludicrous-enhanced Model S P90D will, but stomp on the accelerator from a standstill, and the Model S 60 hooks up and rockets forward like only an electric car can. Accelerating from 0 to 60 mph takes this Model S 5.0 seconds, the quarter mile falling in 13.6 seconds at 103.5 mph. Aided by regenerative braking and arguably the best-feeling brakes ever fit to an electric car, the Model S comes to a standstill from 60 mph in 121 feet. The Model S 60 may be slower than Tesla’s high-performance models, but it can still hang on the figure eight, lapping the course in 26.5 seconds while averaging 0.70 g.
The Bolt is slower, but not by much. It’ll do 0 to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, and the Chevy will motor through the quarter mile in 14.9 seconds at 93.1 mph. Those are serious “hot hatch” numbers, on par with the VW GTI or Ford Focus ST. The Bolt does need more real estate than the Tesla to stop, with the 60–0-mph test taking 132 feet. Limited by low-rolling-resistance tires, the Bolt’s figure-eight time is 27.6 seconds at a 0.64 g average.
With their test numbers in the books, we devised a 62-mile drive loop in the California high desert to test the Bolt and Model S to see if there’d be some separation in how they perform in the real world. The loop was a roughly 50–25–25 split between highway driving (where EVs are traditionally at their worst), urban driving (where EVs are at their best), and rural back roads (because all cars, electric or otherwise, should be fun). In the interest of fairness, the cars would be driven as near identically as possible over the 84-degree day. Cruise control would be set to the same speed on the highway, air-conditioning would be run at 72 degrees, and the speed limit wasn’t to be exceeded by more than 5 mph.
Shockingly enough, the Bolt and Model S perform similarly in the real world. The Tesla is a known quantity by now, but it continues to impress, especially on the highway. On the interstate, the Model S quickly zips up to speed, the wind noise and passing scenery the only real indicators you’re on the move. The Tesla’s cabin is serene on the highway; it’s a place you can happily spend some time as you leapfrog from Supercharger to Supercharger. The semi-autonomous Autopilot system, which has gotten its share of bad press lately, is still a technological marvel, reducing the driver’s workload by an order of magnitude and making the driving experience a stress-free affair while on a well-marked highway. Tesla drivers clearly aren’t only buying into the electric car. They’re buying into the technology, as well.
Off the freeway and in town, the Model S drives with the authority of a big luxury car as it silently stalks traffic. The Tesla’s deceleration is particularly noteworthy—ease off the Tesla’s throttle, and the Model S’ regenerative brakes progressively kick in, meaning you can both in theory and in practice drive with just the accelerator pedal. Tapping the brake pedal nets you old-school mechanical braking if you need it.
The Model S 60 is pretty decent around corners, but the chassis is certainly missing the air suspension and stickier tires found on the higher-trim Model S. Without the air suspension—a $2,500 option—the Model S’ body rolls far more in corners, and our tester’s 19-inch wheels shod in hard all-season tires struggle a bit for grip. Despite the steel suspension and four-season rubber, the Model S still sports good steering feel and elegant ride quality over the poor pavement on the rural sections of the drive loop.
As for the Chevrolet Bolt, there are effectively two ways you can drive it: like a traditional gas-powered car or like an EV. Knowing its budget-friendly sticker price would have the Bolt seeing more EV converts than ever before, GM baked two distinct driving modes into the Bolt’s one-speed transmission.
“Drive” is designed to ease the owner’s transition from piloting a gas vehicle to an electric one. This mode has the Bolt essentially mimicking the sensation of a car powered by an internal combustion engine—creeping forward from a stop with your foot off the brake and with a slight slowing when off the throttle when coasting at speed, mimicking the feeling one would get from a gasoline car. Drive isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to drive an electric car, but it does help convert from carbons to electrons; it also makes for a nice highway setting, allowing the driver to coast with the flow of traffic. “Low” mode will feel immediately familiar to any driver with previous EV experience. Put the Bolt’s transmission into Low, and you get all the heavy regenerative effects the Tesla has. Regeneration can be ramped up further by pulling the On Demand paddle on the left side of the steering wheel—modulating the throttle and pulling the paddle are generally enough to bring the Bolt to a complete stop while maximizing your energy savings without ever tapping the brake pedal. The Bolt engineers I’ve spoken to expect that most owners will spend the majority of their time in Low, so that’s what I did.
The experience behind the wheel of the Bolt is shockingly zippy—when one might expect cheap econobox performance, given its size. The Bolt is a happy little scamp around town. Its small dimensions, torquey motor, and quick steering rack allow the Chevy to bolt (sorry) off the line and quickly plug holes in traffic. That fun-to-drive character really comes into its own when tearing down backcountry roads. Steering is progressive and linear with surprisingly good grip from the eco-oriented front tires, and there’s little body roll to speak of. The Bolt feels more like a hot hatch than eco-friendly electric car. The Chevy is solid on the highway, too, which is a surprise considering its darty, back road–friendly nature. Merge onto on-ramps, and the Bolt accelerates quickly and has plenty of passing power on the move. Tire noise in the Bolt is pretty well controlled, but there is without a doubt a bit more wind noise in the Chevy than in the Tesla—chalk that one up to the Bolt’s 0.31 coefficient of drag.
Whereas Tesla has conditioned many EV drivers to expect advanced semi-autonomous driving systems in their cars, the Bolt is currently lacking in that department. It has old-school cruise control paired with a lane keep assist system that’ll ping-pong you between lane markers if it hasn’t already given up. With autonomous Bolts currently running around San Francisco and Silicon Valley, GM has an Autopilot-rivaling self-driving suite in the works. But as the car sits today, the Bolt’s system is severely lacking.
Nuts and Bolts
There’s a good reason for that inefficient drag coefficient: packaging. For better or worse, the Bolt’s form follows its function as a people-moving city runabout. Whereas other eco-friendly cars such as the fourth-gen Toyota Prius feature aerodynamically-clean designs and drag coefficients to match (0.24 cD for the latest Prius), the Bolt’s side gig as a future flagship of sorts for ride-sharing service Lyft dictate that it has to be capable of comfortably seating four adults, five in a pinch. Despite its subcompact size (it’s about the size of a Honda Fit), putting the battery beneath the floor and pushing out the wheels to all four corners have allowed Chevy engineers to build a small hatchback with an impressive 95 cubic feet of passenger volume, 1 cubic foot more than the two-row Tesla, which is 32 inches longer. That number translates to a spacious back seat with plenty of room for a 6-foot passenger to sit behind a 6-foot driver. Although the middle seat is hard and flat, the seats do at least fold, offering up a flat load floor, with additional storage available via the trunk’s tiered setup. The only major con in the Bolt’s back seat is the surprisingly low roof rail—likely the lone concession to aerodynamics—which is just low enough that even our 5-foot-4 Detroit editor smacked her head getting into the back seat.
Aside from that minor quibble, the rest of the Bolt package is well thought out. Materials are all price-appropriate and look pulled straight from the cool pages of the Ikea catalog. The ultra-thin front seats are nonetheless comfortable and supportive. The driver gets a reconfigurable high-res 8.0-inch digital instrument cluster, which does a good job at giving the driver only the information needed, such as speed, battery state of charge, range, and power usage, without overwhelming with extraneous information—like what exactly the powertrain is doing at any given moment. All that extra nice-to-know info is found in a separate 10.2-inch touchscreen on the center stack. Unique to the Bolt, the upgraded MyLink infotainment system includes data on current energy usage, charge time, and more while also functioning as a Wi-Fi hot spot and handling Apple CarPlay duties.
The Tesla’s cabin has aged rather well considering it hasn’t really changed much since it made its debut in 2013—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Hop into the Tesla’s front seats, and it’s pretty easy to see that Chevy took a lot of inspiration from the Model S, with the Tesla’s big 17.0-inch iPad-like display mounted front and center and a big digital instrument cluster mounted in front of the driver. The instrument cluster might have a bit more of a learning curve to it than the Chevy’s equivalent, but the Tesla’s infotainment screen still remains among the best in the auto industry. The Model S’ cabin is well appointed, although with the scratchy base black cloth seats and black wood trim, it doesn’t feel as luxurious as moderately equipped Teslas. The Tesla’s back seat package is quite good considering its rakish roofline; the seat cushion is low, so your knees are high, but there’s plenty of legroom. Headroom is a bit tight, but that’s the price one pays for the massive sunroof. Although the Tesla’s passenger cabin is ever so slightly smaller than the Bolt’s, its front and rear trunks do give it a 9-cubic-foot advantage in cargo capacity.
Our drive loop sought to answer the two biggest questions potential electric cars buyers have: “How far can I go, and how long does it take to charge?” We hoped to figure out how much energy both the Bolt and Model S used when driven exactly the same way in the same conditions and to see which vehicle used up less of its precious range. Our testers would deplete each car’s battery to empty and plug them in to see how long it would take to charge. It wouldn’t be a perfect science, but it would be a good anecdotal guideline to keep in mind before handing the keys over to our Real MPG team.
EPA-rated at 210 miles, the Tesla showed a dash readout of 212 miles’ estimated range when I set off on the 62-mile loop. When I got back, the same readout indicated that I’d used 78 miles of that range and 21.5 of the battery’s 60 kW-hr over the loop. It had 134 miles of range left. After a few hours spent running the Model S’ battery down, we rolled into our local Supercharger—Tesla’s bespoke 120 kW-hr fast-charger—with just 9 miles of range remaining, and we plugged in. Most Tesla owners will tell you they only charge up enough to get them to the next Supercharger, but sometimes that requires a full charge. How long did that take? One hour and six minutes. Not bad. According to the EPA, our Model S as equipped will fully charge in 10 hours from a 240-volt home charger or three hours and 45 minutes with the optional $1,500 charger upgrade.
This type of (anecdotal) test is a bit tough on the Bolt because the range meter gives you three readouts: your optimal range (think tree-hugging hypermiling), your likely range (drive like a normal person), and your worst-case scenario range (drive like Jason Cammisa). We’re going with the likely range for our purposes, with the Bolt reading 198 miles of range when we set off. When we got back to base, there were 138 miles of range remaining, indicating we’d used 60 miles of range and used 18.4 kW-hr of the battery’s 60 available kW-hr. After draining the Bolt’s battery, we plugged it into the fastest available Bolt-compatible charger, a 50 kW-hr Level 3 DC Fast Charger, with 6 miles of range left. Compared to the Tesla, the Bolt took a painfully slow two hours and 34 minutes to be good to go. On a slower 240-volt home charger, the EPA says the Bolt will take nine hours and 20 minutes to charge from empty.
Although it was demonstrative, it isn’t scientific to trust the Bolt’s and Model S’ in-car displays to tell me how efficient the two cars were. So we had in-house EV expert (and testing director) Kim Reynolds and the Emissions Analytics team to take the next step. You can (and should) read Kim’s excellent breakdown, but here’s the rundown: The Bolt scores 118 mpg-e combined on the Real MPG cycle in Drive mode (1 mpg shy of the EPA figure) and 121 mpg-e in Low. Emissions Analytics estimates the Bolt’s range to be 210 miles in Drive and 222 miles in Low; the former converts to 238 miles on the more liberal EPA cycle and the latter 246 miles. The Model S scores 101 mpg-e combined on the Real MPG cycle (2 better than the EPA figure), good for 200 miles of range.
Ultimately the Bolt and Model S 60 quite close in performance and function. The Model S remains a technical tour de force three years after its release, with Tesla appearing to have no intention of letting its flagship car wither on the vine. If semi-self-driving technology and a proven quick-charging capability with worldwide infrastructure for long-distance travel is what you’re after, there’s really no choice but the Tesla.
Is that capability worth the $30,000 premium over the Bolt? Well, if you have to travel long distances regularly, then possibly. But if simple fuel-free driving is what you’re after, the Bolt’s stellar real-world range can cover a week’s worth of commuting plus errands for the average American without charging. Its 238 miles of range also easily enable intercity—but not interstate—travel. Toss the Bolt’s puppy-dog driving dynamics into the mix with its stellar efficiency and family-friendly packaging, and the choice becomes pretty clear: the Chevrolet Bolt EV wins. More than any EV that’s come before it, the Bolt makes emissions-free, environmentally friendly transportation a realistic proposition for millions of Americans. It has made the current crop of pricey, short-range electric cars from BMW, Nissan, and others utterly irrelevant.
Not that GM can rest on its laurels. The Model 3 will be here soon enough, and the rest of the auto industry is catching up quickly. For now, however, the Chevrolet Bolt EV earns the plaudit of being the first mover in affordable, long-distance electric mobility.
Tesla, GM, and the Mainstreaming of EVs
Early consumer EVs such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV were little more than golf carts with doors. They couldn’t go very far (the little Mitsu got 62 miles on a charge) and took forever to recharge.
Tesla was the first automaker to challenge that status quo. The Silicon Valley start-up’s master plan, as detailed by Musk, was to first develop an expensive niche sports car, use that car to finance a more affordable sedan, and then use the second car to fund an even more affordable sedan.
Musk has mostly stuck to that plan.
Tesla’s first car, the Roadster, hit streets in 2006. The electrified Lotus Elise–based drop-top could hit 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and travel up to 240 miles on a charge, all for a $130,450 sticker price. The Roadster lived up to its promise of making enough dough for Tesla to afford the in-house design and engineering of the Model S sedan. We’ve written many thousands of words on the Model S ever since it won our 2013 Car of the Year award, but the CliffsNotes are easy: up to 310 miles of range, 0–60 mph as quick as 2.6 seconds, semi-autonomous driving capability, and access to a vast international bespoke quick electric charger network enabling long-distance travel. As European bureau chief Angus MacKenzie wrote back in 2013, “The Tesla Model S is a damned good car that you happen to plug in to refuel.”
The Model S spurred the development of the Model X SUV. Together, the two models combined are helping to pave the way for the upcoming Model 3 sedan. Currently slated to hit the streets in late 2017, the Model 3 will be Tesla’s first-ever car designed to be affordable to the average American. Musk promises the Model 3 will start at $35,000 before incentives and will offer up at least 215 miles of range. In other words, Tesla’s got the little Chevy Bolt in its crosshairs.
Speaking of, General Motors is no stranger to electric vehicles, either, but its history is far rockier. Its GMC division built nine different electric-powered trucks from 1912 to 1917 before they were discontinued because they couldn’t compete with the power or range of internal combustion–powered rigs.
Aside from a handful of technology demonstrators, GM didn’t make another serious investment into electric cars until 1996 when it launched the infamous GM EV1. Until the Tesla Model S came out a decade and a half later, the EV1 was arguably the most technologically advanced electric production car in the world. The EV1 mixed advanced lightweight technologies with rather primitive (and heavy) lead-acid batteries for a real-world range of up to 90 miles. Available for lease only in the Southwest, the EV1 was beloved by its drivers, many of whom to this day hold a grudge with GM for confiscating “their” cars and crushing most of them. In the day and age when gas was $1.23 per gallon, GM, it appears, didn’t think there was a viable market for electric cars.
After paying lip service to electrified vehicles with mild hybrids over the next decade, GM finally reinvested in electric vehicles in 2011 with the launch of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. The Volt’s development spurred on the surprisingly good Chevrolet Spark EV. With the lessons learned now on two generations of the Volt and the Spark, the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV is GM’s first since EV1 to actually provide a viable alternative to internal combustion cars. It’s EV2, if you will.
|2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV (Premier)||2016 Tesla Model S 60|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Rear-motor, RWD|
|MOTOR TYPE||Permanent magnet AC synchronous electric||Three-phase four-pole AC-induction electric motor with copper rotor|
|POWER (SAE NET)||200 hp||315 hp @ 5,000 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||266 lb-ft||325 lb-ft @ 0 rpm|
|REDLINE||N/A||Not indicated (14,700 rpm)|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||17.7 lb/hp||14.1 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||1-speed automatic||1-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||10.9-in vented disc; 10.4-in disc, ABS||14.0-in vented disc; 14.4-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||6.5 x 17-in cast aluminum||8.0 x 19-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||215/50R17 91H (M+S) Michelin Energy Saver A/S||245/45R19 98W (M+S) Goodyear Eagle Touring|
|WHEELBASE||102.4 in||116.5 in|
|TRACK, F/R||59.1/59.1 in||65.4/66.9 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||164.0 x 69.5 x 62.8 in||196.0 x 77.3 x 56.5 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||35.4 ft||37.0 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,548 lb||4,434 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||56/44%||47/53%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||39.7/37.9 in||38.8/35.3 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.6/36.5 in||42.7/35.4 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||54.6/52.8 in||57.7/55.0 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||56.6/16.9 cu ft||5.3 (fr), 26.3-58.1 (rr) cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.7 sec||2.2 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||2.9||2.2|
|QUARTER MILE||14.9 sec @ 93.1 mph||13.6 sec @ 103.5 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||132 ft||121 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.77 g (avg)||0.86 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.6 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)||26.5 sec @ 0.70 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||5,800 rpm||7,350 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$41,780*||$71,200*|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||8 yrs/100,000 miles||8 yrs/Unlimited miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||8 yrs/100,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||60 kWh||Lithium-ion battery pack, 60 kWh|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||28.6/26.3/27.8 kW-hrs/100 miles||35.7/30.3/33.3 kW-hrs/100-miles|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||128/110/119 mpg-e||97/100/98 mpg-e|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||26/31 kW-hrs/100 miles||34/33 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.00 lb/mile (at vehicle)||0.00 lb/mi (at vehicle)|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||110-volt, 220-volt electricity||110-volt, 220-volt electricity|
|*Before applicable tax rebates|