The Great Electric Road Trip

Chevy's new Bolt EV is an all-electric vehicle that is ready to roam in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
Chevy's new Bolt EV is an all-electric vehicle that is ready to roam in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. Barry Staver
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I never tire of the spectacular mountain views along Colorado’s Peak to Peak Highway. The snowy summits of familiar mountains—old friends, really—reach into a blazing, clear cobalt sky, skirted by a legion of deep green conifers. The 13,138-foot Ogalalla Peak stands as the highest summit in the nearby basin. Looming higher still in the distance is the tell-tale, square summit block of 14,255-foot Longs Peak. This magical ribbon of road reaches a highpoint at just over 9,300 feet before descending into Rocky Mountain National Park. Even the mightiest SUVs tend to lose power at these high elevations, but here I am zipping along without a hint of hesitation.

It’s worth noting at this point I’m completely out of gas.

On most road trips, a lack of petrol is a total bummer. But on this adventure, I’m driving Chevrolet’s new all-electric vehicle (EV for short), the Chevy Bolt. The thought of taking an EV into Colorado’s mountains seemed like a bold dare on Chevy’s part—without the safety net of a hybrid gasoline engine, drained batteries could mean I’d be stranded in a mountain paradise (OK, so maybe it wouldn’t be that bad).

Fred Ligouri, assistant manager for Chevrolet Electric Car Communications, was confident the Bolt was up to the task. My mission was to take the Bolt from City Park in Denver for an overnight excursion in Rocky Mountain National Park, then back to the Mile-High City on a single charge. Upping the ante, Ligouri insisted on taking the scenic route rather than the most direct line to RMNP. One-way, that would add up to 92.8 miles and more than 6,000 vertical feet of climbing up Boulder Canyon, through the town of Nederland, and along Peak to Peak Highway. Much to my surprise, I wasn’t going to be charging the car at the campsite at Glacier Basin—it was going to make the round trip of roughly 180 miles on a single charge. I knew EVs were great little vehicles for running around town, getting groceries, driving to the gym, but taking one on a road trip? In Colorado?

Well, I thought, at least I’ll have my camping gear with me.

EVs: Evolving Beyond Novelty

The Bolt in Orange Burst is a sharp-looking vehicle. 
    Barry Staver
The Bolt in Orange Burst is a sharp-looking vehicle. Barry Staver

Had Colonel Edwin L. Drake not struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, the biography of the EV might have been written much sooner. Inventors had successfully created battery-powered vehicles as early as the 1830s—and possibly even earlier than that! PBS has a nice timeline that chronicles the birth, dormancy, and return of EVs up until 2009. Even as late as 1912, electric vehicles were running neck and neck with steam power for the primary automotive market share before petroleum-based internal combustion engines put the pedal down on progress, leaving both steam and electric vehicles in the dust.

Various manufacturers tinkered with EV systems but they simply couldn’t match gasoline for horsepower, range, and reliability. A brief surge in EV technology in the 1990s fizzled out for most major automobile manufacturers, with the exception of the gas-electric hybrid Prius, introduced by Toyota in 1997. EVs by GM, Honda, Ford, Chevy, and Nissan were relegated to the back burner as the transitional technology of hybrids became a better business model.

Tesla made the first earnest steps towards a practical EV when it released the Tesla Roadster in 2008. The sleek-looking, zippy roadster kept EVs in the novelty category, thanks to its nearly $100,000 price tag. In 2009 however, oil’s inevitable weakness—its finite supply—manifested itself in a price surge that pushed U.S. costs well over $4 a gallon. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was signed into law by President Obama and set aside $2 billion for EV technology along with $400 million earmarked by the Department of Energy to create recharging stations and other EV-based infrastructure.

The upshot in 2017 is that EVs are starting to make their long-awaited comeback, with automakers from Kia to BMW producing all-electric vehicles. At the time of this writing, however, only two manufacturers have turned the trick to create EVs with a range over 200 miles: Tesla (The Model X, $85,000, 237-mile range and Model S, $68,000, 249-mile range) and Chevy (Bolt, $37,000, 238-mile range). Nearly all other EVs hover in the 80 - 120 mile, making the Bolt an impressive and economically feasible game-changer—if it delivers on its promises.

Test Driving the Bolt

The author with the fleet of Bolts that made the road trip. 
    Barry Staver
The author with the fleet of Bolts that made the road trip. Barry Staver

Having driven the Prius Hybrid and Nissan’s Leaf EV, I must confess I set my expectations low. My experiences with electric technology left me with a warm, satisfied feeling that I was helping the environment but a secret craving for more power and zip. I figured if I was going to creep up mountain roads at 40 mph, I could at least take solace I was doing so in a zero-emissions vehicle. I didn’t doubt Chevy’s range claim but I was worried I’d be covering those miles in slow motion.

The first time I blew by an Audi in the Bolt while driving up steep, twisty Boulder Canyon—with plenty of power to spare—I realized EV technology had stepped up its game big-time.

Before diving into mechanical engineering, let’s start at first impressions. The Bolt is a sharp looking vehicle, definitely more sporty than the somewhat docile bodies EVs are known for (Tesla’s sleek roadsters excepted). Rounded contours blend into a low profile, 4-door sedan, and the Bolt looks especially sharp in Orange Burst and Kinetic Blue.

There is nothing cramped about the interior, which came as a welcome surprise. Technically, you could fit five people as comfortably as you could in any other passenger car. Both driver and passenger seat areas are roomy, dare I say comfortable, and I could easily see my typical road trip configuration of two humans and two border collies working out without any issues. Trunk space was generous thanks to the fact there’s no accommodation for a gas tank. My overnight camping equipment (a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, backpack, food, drinks, and camp chair) all fit in the lower trunk compartment without having to place any of it in the main trunk area.

Finally, the dashboard is easy to read and features a 10.2-inch screen that runs the show, from climate control to energy-efficiency statistics. There are USB charging ports as well as a wireless charging station in the console. Rear camera video can be viewed on the 10.2-inch screen or in the rear view mirror itself (a rather nifty bit of technology).

On the Road Performance

The Bolt EV was right at home in the Rocky Mountains. 
    Barry Staver
The Bolt EV was right at home in the Rocky Mountains. Barry Staver

Finally, the moment of truth: time to hit the road. Would the Bolt turn out to be a zestful dynamo or souped-up golf cart? More importantly: is it road-trip worthy? As I zoomed out of Denver, the question of power was instantly answered.

The 60 kWh battery pack powers a 150 kWh electric motor that can produce the equivalent of 200hp (or roughly the same power as a large displacement V6 engine). The electric motor was peppy and responsive—Chevy’s claim of 0 - 60 mph in 6.5 seconds seems spot-on. At no time did I feel like I was driving an underpowered novelty car. When I got to the bottom of Boulder Canyon, the Bolt really began to show off. Climbing from 5,200’ to 9,000’, there was never a hint of lag. It struck me that unlike my beloved 1998 4Runner, I wasn’t going to lose power at elevation—there’s no gas/fuel mixture to consider. As I cruised on the highest part of the Peak to Peak Highway, there was no shortage of pickup and the Bolt was a blast to drive.

There is also a big advantage to using the Bolt in a place like Colorado—we have a lot of big hills! Like other EV batteries, the Bolt can regain charge via regenerative braking, wherein the energy generated by slowing down is transferred back into the battery. The dashboard has a real-time meter that monitors whether the driver is draining or charging the battery. The Bolt has two drive modes: "Drive"and “L”. L, somewhat illogically stands for “low”, though this driving mode does not function like typical low gears in vehicles.

In Drive Mode, the Bolt handles like any other vehicle, specifically by coasting when you let off the gas. In L Mode, any time you let off the gas, the car slows down (akin to being geared down in a manual transmission). When it slows, it increases the charge to the battery without manually braking. An optional-use paddle on the steering wheel acts as a booster for this regenerative system, further increasing the power put back into the battery. This mode also means you could potentially drive without ever applying the brakes (though, of course, they still work just fine in any driving mode). It was a very easy system to get used to.

Trunk space includes a inset compartment that easily held enough gear for a Colorado camping trip. 
     Barry Staver
Trunk space includes a inset compartment that easily held enough gear for a Colorado camping trip. Barry Staver

As I descended into Estes Park, the range of my vehicle actually increased. At the top of Peak to Peak I had a range of 130 miles. By the time I pulled into camp, I had boosted my range to 164 miles. The Bolt displays a maximum and minimum range on the "fuel gauge", so drivers can learn to estimate mileage depending on their terrain. Using the L mode and paddle-brake can really make the Bolt more efficient.

After a fun (and windy) night of camping, I drove the car to several trailheads, back into town, and back to Denver. Like other EVs, excessive use of climate control, radio, headlights, and other accessories will impact performance. I had my AC on most of the time and the Bolt reported it only used up 1 percent of my available energy. Ligouri says that in tests in cold-weather Detroit, range with heat/wipers/lights can be impacted up to ⅓ of max range—but doing the math, that still puts a winter ski day in Colorado with a max range of roughly 200 miles round-trip (for reference, Denver to Vail is about 90 miles). If there are charging stations at your destination and you are skilled at regenerating the battery power, this makes even winter use in Colorado a reality. The front-wheel drive Bolt can be outfitted with 17” winter tires for maximum traction in colder months.

The Verdict? Let’s Go Camping!

Setting up camp at Glacier Basin Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park. 
    Barry Staver
Setting up camp at Glacier Basin Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park. Barry Staver

The most impressive part of my Bolt experience came when I got back to Denver. I left Rocky Mountain National Park with 161 miles of range and after finishing the 70 mile drive back to Denver (via the most direct route), I had 128 miles of range left, thanks to regenerative braking. There is a charging station for EVs on the 3rd level of the Natural History Museum in Denver, so that’s where my journey came to an end.

As the grandson of a mechanic, I’m tough on cars. I was skeptical about the Bolt’s range and power but came away thoroughly impressed. This all-electric vehicle made its impact felt beyond the local chores most EVs are tasked with. Perhaps the highest compliment one can bestow on such a vehicle is this: it felt like I was in a regular car. For a round trip of 180 miles, I still had nearly 130 miles in range left (from an initial charge of 240 miles). Not only was it a capable road trip vehicle, the Bolt was a lot of fun to drive.

There are a few features I hope eventually get added in the future. The first is a faster charging system, along with some on-board information on where the closest charging stations are. If EV charging stations were as ubiquitous as gas stations, the next level of road tripping would finally be a reality—the fabled cross-country trek. The fastest DC commercial charging stations can power up the battery for an additional 90 miles in about 30-40 minutes. A 220-volt home charging station can produce a full charge (from 0) in about 9 hours. Also, my Android Bluetooth had a tricky time connecting with the on-board computer. Eventually I got it, but it took some patience. This should be easily fixed with software updates.

Mountain cruising was a blast—it was easy to forget the Bolt uses no gasoline. 
    Barry Staver
Mountain cruising was a blast—it was easy to forget the Bolt uses no gasoline. Barry Staver

Overall, the Bolt was an impressive display of cutting-edge all-electric technology. No mere novelty, the max 238-mile range is the first major leap away from urban trappings into a bigger world. The base price of $37,495—and about $43,000 fully loaded—is still a pretty penny, but keep in mind Colorado currently has EV tax incentives that essentially knock anywhere between $5,000 - $6,000 off sticker price. Add in a federal tax incentive of $7,500 and the savings add up to over $12,000, putting the Bolt on par, price-wise, to other mid-level sedans.

Ligouri adds, "Local utilities and municipalities may also offer incentives for purchasers of an EV in the form of reduced rates, credits for charger installations, etc. It's a good idea for customers to check with these groups. Pricing for the vehicle begins at $37,495 (MSRP) and customers can check with local Bolt EV/authorized Chevy dealers to see if there are manufacturer incentives available."

Thanks to increased range and improved power, EVs are making a strong case to explore the open road. 
    Barry Staver
Thanks to increased range and improved power, EVs are making a strong case to explore the open road. Barry Staver

Factor in the low-maintenance of an electric engine (few moving parts, no oil, no complex internal combustion issues, and, of course, no gasoline to buy) and the long-term savings begin to really make sense. Oh, and your well-deserved sense of entitlement by taking a step away from oil dependency and producing zero emissions will earn you a round of applause from Mother Nature.

Chevy has raised the bar for EV technology in the Bolt. On a green note, the low environmental impact is always welcome in a place like Colorado, where the wealth of natural beauty is our greatest treasure. A vehicle that can take you to the mountains—and home again—is on the cutting edge of the great electric road trip. As EV charging infrastructure continues to improve, the possibility of hitting the open road from coast-to-coast may not be that far off. And in Colorado, the Bolt can take you away for a camping weekend or bagging a 14er—much more adventurous than merely picking up a loaf of bread at the store. EVs are changing the way we travel and the Bolt is a bold step in the right direction.

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