Chevrolet Bolt EV Was Made for Autocrossing
Bolt proves that driving excitement doesn’t have to end with the combustion engine.
For many automotive enthusiasts, the future of transportation looks rather grim. They imagine a world where everyone is self-driven to work in a boring, electric econobox that is completely devoid of character or excitement. But what if these more affordable electric cars could melt some tires? That’s right, electric performance is going mainstream, no longer reserved for expensive cars like the Telsa Model S. Chevrolet is out to prove that their all-electric Bolt is an affordable and clean method of transportation that still lets you have a little fun behind the wheel.
To demonstrate the more exciting qualities of the car, Chevy invited us to test the Bolt’s performance on an autocross course. For those that aren’t familiar, autocrossing typically involves a tight course that is laid out with orange cones in a parking lot. Instead of racing wheel-to-wheel with other vehicles, participants run against the clock and try to navigate the course as quickly as possible. A typical course design features sharp turns with very little room to get your vehicle back up to speed. The perfect car for the sport requires nimble handling and enough low-end grunt to get out of the corners and back on the power. Thankfully, the Bolt has both of these things in spades.
There are a few key characteristics of an electric vehicle that make it favorable on a shorter autocross course. First, the weight of the car’s battery typically sits low in the body and helps center the weight balance. This allows for confident handling characteristics and less body roll than a typical car. Prior to our time on the track, Mike Burns, Vehicle Performance Engineer for the Bolt EV, explained that the car’s battery sits in a lightweight steel frame that is actually integrated into the body structure. This integration resulted in a 28% increase in structural rigidity over early designs. Additionally, the front of the Bolt EV features an independent MacPherson strut suspension design that is tuned to take advantage of the low center of gravity.
The second major advantage of an electric motor is that it provides near-instant torque. With 266 lb-ft of instant torque on tap, the Bolt can accelerate out of sharp corners faster than an equivalent gasoline-powered car. Due to the hyper-responsive acceleration input, the engineering team at Chevrolet had to also fine-tune the car’s computer to keep the tires on the pavement. The traction control system is designed in such a way that it allows some spirited acceleration while still monitoring the wheels for any slipping, only cutting power when absolutely needed.
During our afternoon on the autocross course, we had three variations of vehicles to drive. There were two flavors of the Bolt EV. Bolts painted in the striking Orange Burst Metallic paint had the grippier summer tires, while two others were equipped with all-weather tires. For comparison sake, a 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI was also on hand to test, with a rather-comparable 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Each of these different vehicles gave us a feel for the importance of different tires and, more importantly, how an electric vehicle fares against a popular gasoline-powered hatchback.
As we headed out for our first runs on the track in the Bolt, its engineering benefits are instantly noticeable. Even as we followed the instructor to get a feel for the track layout, you get the impression that the Bolt wants to sprint across the tarmac. The acceleration is powerful and sudden, like the surprising shock you’d get from shuffling around the carpet and touching a door handle. The first few runs of the day involved a fair bit of smoked tires and kicking up dirt off the starting line. You quickly learn to ease into the accelerator pedal and only provide small, calculated inputs to the steering, brakes, and throttle. As our track instructor would explain, “Smooth is fast.” Squealing tires may be a ton of fun, but it doesn’t lead to fast lap times.
Early laps were done with the grippier summer tires and the Bolt proved to be well-planted, despite its rather tall body. The asphalt on this particular track was rather uneven in parts with a fair bit of gravel, leading to a loss of traction at times. But our little Chevy flew through the course with ease as the various computers helped keep traction and allow us to dip into the power when needed. Racing around in an EV does require some driving adjustments. We had to learn to ease into the throttle out of a sharp corner to avoid spinning the tires and sliding way off of our line on the loose gravel. The sheer excitement and adrenaline rush in the first few laps also found us a bit “cone blind,” driving in circles around the track, trying to locate the proper route we should have followed.
Switching to the other Bolt EVs that were equipped with the all-weather tires provided a noticeably different experience with regards to both handling and grip. Each dip in the pavement or dirt-covered corner, which wasn’t much of an issue with the summer tires, would prove challenging as the tires struggled to dig in. We also tested the Bolt’s Low transmission mode that would increase regenerative braking. At times, this seemed to be helpful as the car would immediately slow down as you let off the throttle in a corner. Despite testing the Low and standard Drive mode on various laps, the Sport mode proved to be the obvious and most effective choice. This mode increases the response time of the accelerator pedal, and allowed for neck-jerking power through the course. The Bolt EV’s Sport mode and the summer tires combined for the fastest laps of the day for the entire group.
Hopping behind the wheel of the Golf GTI, we begin to have torque withdrawals. The Golf’s turbocharged motor took several moments to build up power and would struggle to get you up and moving after braking in the corners. The steering and handling of the compact Volkswagen are legendary in their own right, but the GTI struggled to have the confidence and balance of the Chevy Bolt. We may have had better luck balancing the power with a manual transmission but in automatic form, the sporty GTI’s lap times fell several seconds behind the best runs in Chevy’s compact electric.
After a day full of hot laps and some smile-inducing wheel spin, we can see why the Chevrolet Bolt EV is one of the most popular electric vehicles in the market. With over 30,000 sales so far and a recent production increase from GM, we believe that the market will continue to embrace this new powertrain technology. Those who may be skeptical of boring EVs should take a Bolt out for a spin and really experience the instant torque and driving excitement that the car provides. Heck, we imagine a future where an all-electric autocross racing series exists. Even the most die-hard gasoline junky would have a hard time passing that up.