September 06, 2017

The Latest Affordable Electric Car Arrives in Orlando

By: Vicki Parsons - IT


The future isn’t easy to see sometimes. My mother, for one, nearly walked right past it after her birthday dinner.

“That’s your electric?” she says as I point out the burgundy Chevy Bolt EV, hiding in plain sight in the restaurant parking lot. “It looks like a Beemer!”

Well, it’s not technically my electric, but otherwise she’s right: Elfin yet tall with a swooping window line, Chevy’s formidable entry into the affordable electric market looks like a slightly sportier BMW compact (high praise in her book). It’s not your grandfather’s compact, nor is it the Jetsons’ spacemobile that will jetpack us all into sustainability.

And yet, here’s the thing about the future: It sneaks up on you. Kind of like the tiny computers we suddenly all found ourselves carrying, or EDM beats showing up in Beyonce songs. Kind of like this car.

Let’s backtrack a bit: I’m test driving the Bolt EV in advance of its August release in Florida. The road trip speaks volumes about the car’s main selling point: 164 miles non-stop, from Miami to the fledgling community of Babcock Ranch on the west coast. Hopes are high that this kind of range (an EPA-estimated 238 miles) in awallet-friendly package will con-vert plenty of electric vehicle first-timers like me when the Bolt is available in the Sunshine State.

I am hoping that my newbie status to the electric car will change once I get my first sit-down in the Bolt. The dash layout feels familiar, intuitive and — despite the iPad-sized central monitor — not at all futuristic. Having already beaten Tesla’s Model 3 to the market in terms of availability, the Bolt has no interest in biting that automaker’s “sexy robot” style.

You might not even know you were driving an electric vehicle, in fact, until you turn it on with a simple push of the button. Just one small example of my future shock: I actually notice the Auto Volume feature, which kicks up the radio decibels gradually as I accelerate from a stop. Not that the feature itself is futuristic — I’ve had it in older cars, where it subtly compensated for the increased engine noise. No such problem with the Bolt, which coasts in silence all the way up to 95 on the highway. As long as you’ve got the windows up, there’s not much need for Auto Volume unless, like me, it makes you feel like you’re in a movie where the soundtrack is foreshadowing a car chase after every green light.

By the time I’ve left the high-rises and construction cranes of downtown Miami behind me, I’ve gotten surprisingly comfortable with one big leap of faith for first-time electric motorists: One-pedal driving. (Though I prefer the nickname: golf cart mode.) In simple terms, it’s driving at its most basic. Shift into “L” and the “gas” pedal functions as both accelerator and brake, speeding up as I press down and decelerating as I ease off — either gradually or swiftly, depending on how quickly I release the pressure and how quickly I’m going. The Chevy folks insist that one-pedal is equally suited for both city and highway driving and despite my initial doubts, they’re right. If you have to use the actual brake to approach a red light, the Bolt seems to say, you might be driving like a jerk.

With not any roadside distractions on Interstate-75 apart from the occasional sandhill crane, I’ve got plenty of time to contemplate the philosophy of a car that — in several subtle ways — really does nudge you to become a better driver. The most significant fringe benefit of one-pedal driving is regenerative braking — a feature that, in a nutshell, diverts the saved kinetic energy from slowing down gradually in “L” gear to trace amounts of electric energy. In tandem with a “Regen on Demand” paddle, Chevy estimates the system can save 5 percent of range. That seems about right, especially when driving in traffic.

Obsessive-compulsive drivers can see that saved energy displayed on the monitor, and much more besides. I’m judging the Bolt during the trip, but it’s also judging me, courtesy of an energy readout that rates my driving skill based on factors such as AC usage, terrain and technique. It’ll also tweak your effective range based on these habits. To old-school drivers, this all might seem a little “Hal 9000,” but let’s face it — I’ve cared about my score on things that don’t matter, like Candy Crush. Why not on something that might save me time and money?

At Babcock Ranch, a solar-powered planned community in Southwest Florida, electric cars are part of the lifestyle. (photo: Mark Elias for Chevrolet)

On this trip, at least, I don’t have to worry. The Bolt cruises into Babcock Ranch (which describes itself as the first solar-powered town) with 44 miles to spare, even with my lead foot and some minor drag from the roof rack. The reward for the marathon drive is much better scenery, for one thing. Much of the downtown area is still under construction, but blue-jean-clad locals mill around in the spacious town square under solar collectors designed to evoke palm trees. The vibe is down-home meets high-tech, framed by a sunset no computer could design.

The Babcock Ranch destination is far from arbitrary. The nascent town is only a small portion of a massive land purchase that preserves 74,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land in Charlotte and Lee counties. The community itself is no less ambitious, with solar-powered homes and a layout that will facilitate the eventual use of a driverless, electric transportation system. Needless to say, there’s no problem finding a charger for the car. If there’s a utopian endgame for the electric car revolution, it might look a lot like Babcock Ranch.

As inviting as it is, a glimpse is all I get. After spending the night, I have to take the Bolt back home to Orlando, on the final leg of its test. While the car might make it on a full charge, I have some detours planned — including a birthday dinner with my mother in Sarasota. All the better to test the charging opportunities out in the “real” world.

Turns out the real world is already a little greener than I thought. Charging stations abound in any mid-sized town and along major highways, findable through PlugShare, ChargePoint or other EV apps. Apart from one decommissioned station in Sarasota, the ones I used were as effective as advertised, which means that charging up still requires a little planning: The Bolt takes about 9 hours to top up from empty at level 2 stations, or a mere 90 minutes at the less-plentiful DC Fast Charge spots. (The latter seem to pop up at a lot of Dunkin’ Donuts locations, whose coffee left me feeling as though I could power the car with my vibrating hands.) Either way, the wait means you’ll be obliged to stop and smell the roses on any extended journey.