First Sight: Chevrolet Bolt

16 December 2016 | by Karl Smith

The production Chevrolet Bolt was revealed recently at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and the first ones have already gone on sale. There were few surprises at the reveal as GM has been showing and driving prototypes for some time now, but it was good to review a production model, both inside and out. And it begs some bigger questions, which we'll get to in a moment. But first, the car itself.

A walk around the Bolt reveals its essential character almost immediately; a relatively nondescript monoform in the European or Japanese mini-MPV mold. Some interesting (some say awkward) surfacing and graphics animate the form.

Bolt5

It’s difficult to assess the true size of the Bolt on first glance – you know it is a compact car, but you need to get out your measuring tape to get a sense of its dimensions. The Bolt is a bit larger than the Honda Fit (Jazz in Europe), and almost exactly the same size (within an inch in every direction) as the Kia Soul, although its form is rounder than Kia’s little boxcar.

Bolt1

In the interior, four persons can sit in relative comfort.  There is plenty of headroom for all on board. The cockpit feels narrow, the seats especially so. As for the décor and ambience, Wired magazine perhaps best summed up the situation: “Being inside the Bolt feels a bit like flying economy class on a brand-new, state-of-the-art plane.”

Bolt3

The interior is plasticky to say the least. Even the upscale trim version with leather seating has a minimal quality feel, although all of this is to be expected at its $30K price point. Your big investment in this car is the battery pack.

The Bolt’s entire reason for being is to bring electric cars to the masses at a reasonable price. This means range, power, and ease of operation to allow anyone of driving age to take one home and embrace the future of the car.

GM has said that the Bolt is the natural evolution of the Volt (Ampera in Europe), which was the product of enormous amounts of research. It is also the product of the extensive knowledge of LGChem, GM’s battery partner, which brought a superior depth of battery knowledge essential to the success of the Bolt. And by all accounts, those efforts have been a success. Tests by GM and others have proven the liquid cooled battery pack and 60 KW motor to be powerful, with plenty of torque and snappy acceleration. The driving range, absolutely critical to the success of the project, has been rated by the EPA at 238 miles, a rating that has been tested and found accurate by a number of independent publications and rating agencies.

General Motors is quiet about anticipated sales figures for the Bolt, especially after missing badly on sales figures for its big brother, the Volt. But GM also wants to include the Bolt in its planned ventures with Lyft, Uber, and its own car sharing service Maven. Additionally, GM plans to upgrade the Bolt to autonomous operation, probably in conjunction with the services listed above. It’s clear that Bolt is a platform for the future of GM’s automotive fleet. It certainly ticks all the boxes – electric power, range, affordability, basic utility, and so on.

Bolt2

But we can’t help feeling something is missing. The Bolt is no doubt a capable car, but is it …desirable? There just seems to be no ‘wow factor’. The car seems utterly generic; a nondescript, shareable transportation appliance – useful, but not one you desire to own.

General Motors and Chevrolet representatives speak about the Bolt as the future of cars. So shouldn’t such a car have a more distinctive, futuristic design, one that has a high degree of desirability?

Consider another type of car which, some time ago, launched a new era in automotive design and packaging, one that we still have today – the original Ford Mustang. It was woefully underpowered, had a cramped back seat, a small trunk, and was basically a tarted up Ford Falcon. But who remembers that? What is remembered is a car that was sporty, fun, and destined to become an iconic symbol of eternal automotive youth.

Can we see the Bolt accomplishing that?

The original Mustang could certainly become a model for the development of a sporty electric car. Think also of the Karmann Ghia and the BMW 2002 – sporty coupes with a lighthearted spirit, a simple design, and a performance character.

1966 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Coupe Front

And if you want to draw on Chevrolet’s own history, a look at the Corvair is helpful. Yes, we know: The Corvair is forever tainted by scandal and safety issues. But these were corrected early in the lifespan of the nameplate, and the sporty Corvair Monza sold well, convincing Lee Iacocca that a fun, youth-oriented car would be a success – hence his development of the Mustang.

The Bolt could have been the Mustang or Corvair Monza of our era. It had the potential to be an affordable, sporty car that spoke of the future and the fun of driving, or an autonomous car that could be a cool ride, not just a transportation appliance.

Make no mistake, GM deserves high praise for the effort to bring electric car mobility to the everyday driver. And the Bolt has already been rewarded with Car of the Year accolades from an American magazine, and a Green Car of the Year award.

But we’re left with the feeling that an opportunity for Chevrolet to put yet another icon on the American road – another Corvette or Camaro or Bel Air – has been missed. What a shame.