After a long search for the best electric vehicle for my needs in Hawaii, I decided to buy a Chevy Bolt.
This is my second full battery-electric vehicle; my first was a Fiat 500e (which I wrote about here back in late 2014). My car before that was a Prius C, and before that there were two different models of the normal Prius. I’ve had a long history now with highly fuel-efficient cars.
The Fiat, my first all-electric, was a great little car. But it wasn’t a full-function car because it only had about 80 miles of range, tiny back seats and only two doors. The Bolt is a 4-door with an advertised 238 miles of range per charge. So this is a “real” car, albeit small, and is intended to be a full replacement for a normal internal combustion engine vehicle like a small sedan or hatchback.
Here’s a quick summary of my feelings about the Bolt after owning it for a month and having driven over 1,000 miles: It’s a great little car, with a ton of power and speed, excellent range under most conditions, highly fuel-efficient (even for an EV), good passenger room, decent styling, limited stow space (it’s a hatchback after all), and some nice bells and whistles.
Is it worth the cost? I paid about $30,000 after the tax credit and calculated that this provides a great value over time due to the fuel cost savings — while also emitting a very small amount of greenhouse gases.
Now, let’s dive into the details.
Waiting for the Model 3
I’m a Tesla fanboy and really wanted a Tesla Model 3. I made a reservation the first day reservations were made possible in early 2016. But after two and a half years of waiting and still no date set for the arrival of the long-promised $35,000 base model, I couldn’t justify waiting any longer. And nor could I justify paying an extra $10,000 for the $45,000 base Model 3 when compared to the Bolt or Leaf.
I crunched some numbers on all of this, of course — I am a numbers geek, after all. Here’s the table that helped me make my final choice. Cost figures don’t include taxes and licensing fees.
I drove and liked the Nissan Leaf (the newer models are much better looking than the funny-looking older models), but I quickly ruled out the Leaf after thinking about how limiting the 151-mile EPA-rated range would be for me if I planned to do any driving around the Big Island where I live. Sure, that kind of range would be fine if I stayed on the Hilo side, but it would basically rule out any trips to Kona or South Point unless I was willing to spend significant time charging before I returned.
My local utility offers a $3,000 rebate through Nissan for the Leaf, but even with that extra sum to sweeten the pot, the Leaf didn’t make sense. And now that the 2019 Leaf+ has been announced with about 230 miles of range, I would have indeed felt foolish if I’d bought the older model.
So it came down to the Bolt and the Model 3, the only semi-affordable EV sedans with over 200 miles of range. I calculated the full additional cost to me, after factoring in fuel savings from not driving my old Infiniti SUV any more (about $280 a month) and the hefty tax credit (about $279 for the $45,000 base Model 3, versus about $124 for the 2018 Bolt) that was being offered at a discount by my local dealer.
After looking at the numbers, I just couldn’t justify to myself paying that much extra for the Model 3, particularly because it rains a lot where I live, it's hot, and some of the roads are unpaved. I figured the Model 3 would probably be chewed up before long.
After test-driving the Bolt, getting really tired of paying $75 per tank for my Infiniti, and growing increasingly guilty about my polluting emissions from my old vehicle, I decided to buy the Chevy.
I don’t regret it. But I still have Tesla envy.
One of the main advantages of any full EV is the pronounced fuel efficiency over a regular gas vehicle. Average fuel efficiency for an ICE light-duty vehicle is about 27 miles per gallon. A good small sedan or hatchback is about 35 MPG. The best hybrid vehicles get about 55 MPG. Far better is the 110+ MPG equivalent for all electrics like the Bolt. MPGe is a metric that compares the gas efficiency (about 37 kilowatt-hour gallon of gas) of a gas engine to the electric efficiency of an EV.
The Model 3, for example, is supposed to offer about 3.5 miles per kilowatt-hour, equivalent to 123 MPGe. The Bolt promises 4 miles per kilowatt-hour. But here’s a pleasant surprise: So far I’ve averaged 4.7 miles per kilowatt-hour in my Bolt, bringing my MPGe to about 140 MPGe (based on the 119 MPGe in the figure below).
My Bolt’s Fuel Efficiency After About 1,300 Miles
I think my increased efficiency is a result of using almost no power for air conditioning. I haven’t been particularly trying to drive “green,” in terms of going slow or accelerating slowly at all times, so it seems that savings on air conditioning must be the reason for my significant efficiency over the advertised figure.
Hawaii is a warm place, even in the winter, so I never need heat in the car during normal operation (except the one time the useless heat-seating feature came in handy when we drove up to 9,000 feet on Mauna Kea to see an astronomy show). I also use very little power for cooling by cracking windows when it’s a bit hot, or just turning on the fans without AC.
This might not work come summertime since it can get pretty hot here. Still, a 17.5 percent increase in fuel efficiency over the EPA rating is a great boost. This means that rather than the rated 238 miles per charge, I’ve been getting more like 280 miles, as the photo shows. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Comparing Official Fuel Economy for Three Long-Range All-Electrics
Another feature I really like that improves fuel efficiency is the “L” mode (below the D for drive), which allows for one-foot driving in most situations. This is possible because the brake battery regeneration feature can be light (D) or heavy (L).
In L mode, when you take your foot off the accelerator pedal, the regen automatically kicks in pretty aggressively, allowing this feature to function as an effective brake in most situations. This feature increases your fuel efficiency by using all momentum possible for battery regen. In addition, it saves your brakes and further reduces maintenance costs. There are no oil changes ever needed, of course, and this analysis calculates literally only $150 for maintenance for the first 150,000 miles of driving the Bolt.
Despite my nice surprise on fuel efficiency (about 280 miles of range per charge, instead of the advertised 238), I’ve still had some range issues. As mentioned, I live on the Big Island of Hawaii, and we have some big mountains. To get from Hilo to Kona the shortest route is over Saddle Road that goes between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, both over 13,600 feet. Saddle Road goes to about 6,000 feet, and this uses a ton of battery to get up and over.
Shortly after I bought the car, we took a weekend trip to the Kona side to test out the charging options on that side of the island. We took the coastal route to Kona and had no surprises in terms of range and remaining battery life. But we took the Saddle Road route back over and despite having over 120 miles of range left (half a charge) when we left Kona, by the time we got to the top of Saddle Road the car was yelling at us to charge. This was only about 50 miles driven, so the 6,000 foot climb, unsurprisingly, killed our range.
We might have made it back to Hilo even without charging, because once you start going downhill again the regeneration built into the car quickly charges up the battery. The trip to 9,000 feet on Mauna Kea that I mentioned previously took the battery down very low, but it pretty quickly built back up as we coasted downhill for 30 miles.
Coming back from Kona, however, we didn’t feel like risking running out of charge entirely. We pulled over at Mauna Kea State Park and looked for an outlet.
Propulsion Power Is Reduced When the Battery Gets Very Low
Luckily, we found a 110-volt outlet that we could access and charge a little using the handy-dandy charger that came with the car. We charged for an hour, getting about five miles of range (that’s normal for 110-volt Level 1 charging), and took off toward Hilo again.
We made it home (wipes brow), but we had called my towing and charging service before leaving to make sure they could help us, just in case we did run out of juice.
Charging Rogue at the State Park
A key aspect of range, and learning “range confidence” rather than the dreaded “range anxiety,” is knowing where you can charge and what it will cost you. I’ve paid very little for charging so far, even though electricity rates in Hawaii are the highest in the country. That's because there are a number of free chargers available in my area — officially free, rather than the going-rogue free and charging at the state park I just mentioned.
Most big-box stores have one or more chargers (they’re required by state law to have at least one), and most of these allow at least a couple of hours of free charging at Level 2 speeds. So when I go to Home Depot or Target or Walmart, I charge for free. My dealer also offers free charging for the duration of my ownership.
There are also a number of fast chargers on the island, owned by Greenlots (which is now owned by Shell), and these are all new in the last few years. Unfortunately, they’re super-expensive: The lowest cost for charging is 51 cents per kilowatt-hour (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), compared to about half that in California, where I used to live.
There has been remarkable growth in installed chargers in the last five years, with around 24,676 Level 2 or higher chargers installed around the U.S. and Canada as of January 2019. PlugShare is a great phone app for finding chargers anywhere you are in the country.
That said, I still see a need for many more chargers, particularly as EV popularity ramps up. There are usually only a couple of charger ports and parking spots where I charge, and I’ve been lucky so far in not having to wait for others to charge before I can get in.
The obvious solution for insufficient charging opportunities, and range anxiety too, is to charge at home, timing your charging to coincide with the cheapest utility prices. I will do this soon, after I install solar at my house (I just moved, after my last house was destroyed by lava eruptions). I don’t want to charge on my utility rates because they’re also sky-high, and if I charge much at home, my fuel savings from switching from a gas-guzzling SUV to a little EV would all but disappear.
The “PV4EV” solution is the real winner, and my feeling is that EV owners who are also homeowners will increasingly opt for this solution since it makes so much sense financially and environmentally.
Bells and whistles
The Bolt has some nice electronic features. I have the LT model, which is the middle trim package, and it comes with backup camera, heated seats, nice stereo and some other features. The stereo sounds amazing and the Bluetooth connection is usually fast and effective. It also comes with Apple CarPlay, but for some bizarre reason you have to connect with USB to use CarPlay. The electronic interface on the dash and the middle screen are both well done and attractive.
The Bluetooth phone features are really good. I can take calls even at highway speeds and speak in a normal tone of voice and have great conversations. I call it my mobile office for good reason, since I’m on the road a fair amount around the island.
The backup camera is decent but poorly designed for wet climates like the one where I live, since water droplets frequently obscure the view. I’ve also been surprised to find that when it’s raining (which is pretty frequent in Hawaii), the roof drips water into the car when I open the doors. That’s a design flaw, Chevy.
Backup Camera Could Use Some Improvement
Summing up, I really like my Bolt. I feel great driving it because I’m not spewing pollution into the atmosphere (which will be even better once I get my solar panels on my house). It has great power in any situation, has a convenient one-foot drive option, and because it’s generally super-easy to take calls or listen to music or audiobooks.
It’s no Tesla, but it’s not a bad second-best.
Tam Hunt is a lawyer and owner of Community Renewable Solutions LLC, a renewable energy project development and policy advocacy firm based in Santa Barbara, California and Hilo, Hawaii.