Can a Chevrolet Bolt EV Electrify on Track? We Autocross One to Find Out

It’s 8 a.m. and I’m standing in a parking lot looking at a sea of cones and listening to a lecture about the rules for the day. It sounds like the start of a typical autocross day. Only this time, I’m not in my usual autocross car. I’m looking at something a little newer, a lot more silent, and massively more efficient. Waiting to be tossed through the cones is a fleet of Chevrolet Bolt EVs.

That’s right, I’m putting an electric car against the clock in one of the tightest and most unforgiving forms of motorsport. The purpose? The get event is by Chevrolet which wants to show the Bolt is more than just an economical EV. It wants to demonstrate that electric cars can be fun to drive and break past any perceived stereotype of high-tech silent blandmobiles.

“We didn’t want it to be like a golf cart,” said Darin Gesse, Bolt product manager. “We wanted to make it fun to drive.”

You might be reading this with about as much skepticism as I had when I looked at the course and the cars. But then, at the end of the talk about performance and handling, a Volkswagen Golf GTI made a delightfully dramatic roll up beside the Bolts. That earned a raised eyebrow. Does Chevrolet really think that the Bolt can hold its own against a GTI? A GTI with the Sport package? Now Chevy has my attention.

It doesn’t seem like a car with sporting potential, but let’s take a look. First, it’s small. The Bolt is only 69.5-inches wide, with a 102.4-inch wheelbase. It’s also relatively light. Despite having about 960 pounds of batteries, it weighs 3,580 pounds. Only about 460 more than the GTI. Plus that battery is just 4.0-inches off the ground, and it’s bolted to the chassis in a way that increases structural rigidity 28 percent and its in-floor positioning helps drop the center of gravity. Motor-wise, it has 200 horsepower and 266 pounds-feet of torque. Those are hot-hatch numbers. And, the direct drive with a 7:1 gear ratio for the single speeder means that you’re always in the powerband because the power is everywhere. So while it doesn’t seem like the ideal choice for anything motorsports related, it has more credentials than one might think.

At our manufacturer-spornsored autocross, Chevy has a handful of Bolt EVs waiting with two different configurations. One has the super-low rolling resistance all-season tire, and the rest have a still eco-biased summer tire. Chevrolet wants to demonstrate the extra grip and performance a summer tire can offer, and how it affects fun to drive.

How to up the fun on your hybrid or EV

Step 1: Tires. Tires make a huge difference in cornering. Maybe the most per dollar of any modification. Look at higher-performance models, as well as larger sizes.
Step 2: Springs and shocks. Stiffer springs can improve road feel and cornering grip as well as reduce understeer. Several companies, including Unplugged and Tsportline offer parts for Tesla, Toyota Racing offers kits for the Prius, and while GM doesn’t have anything for the Bolt, GM uses a catalogue of springs, meaning you might be able to find the right parts from another GM car to improve your Bolt.
Step 3: Driver Education. The cheapest modification is to tighten the nut behind the wheel: the driver. Before going overboard on modifications, consider taking high-performance driver education. It can teach you to drive your car faster.

An autocross is a course made up of cones set up in a large parking lot. The courses are set up to be technical, with lots of quick transitions and a mix of tight and sweeping corners. It’s a discipline that encourages quick turn in, firm roll stiffness, and sticky tires. Just the place for an affordable electric hatchback to show off or fall flat on its face.

My first runs are in the all-season tire Bolt, to get the feel of the course. I expected the wallowy body roll and poor turn in that have been a part of small domestic hatchbacks for decades, and maybe with a little bit of rear-axle bump-steer thrown in. But the Bolt corners surprisingly flat. Even in quick transitions, the Bolt makes the left to right crossover smoothly. The tail is firmly planted behind me, but there isn’t much understeer either, unless I really over drive the car into a turn.

Modulating the Bolt’s nose in a corner is straightforward and easy, once you get the hang of the accelerator. Unlike most cars, lifting the pedal here doesn’t result in coasting or light engine braking. It results in hard braking from the regen system. So instead of lifting, you feather the pedal. Lightly adding or taking away power. It’s smooth once you get used to it. And if you want a touch more braking power for just a moment? Grab the regen paddle and transfer weight to the nose.

I do a few more runs in the summer tire equipped Bolts. They’re using Michelin Primacy 3 tires instead of the Michelin Energy Saver all-season. The Primacy is still a low rolling resistance touring tire, not a performance tire, but it offers up more grip and better feel than the Energy. The Primacy lets me start dropping lap times.

With the Primacy tire, I can throw the car harder through the transitions on the course. Unlike the smooth inputs of track-day driving, autocross in a stock car requires sharp, deliberate, and immediate outputs – on the brakes and steering, at least. The Bolt EV lets you turn off traction and stability control -something the GTI won’t let you do – and that makes things more interesting.

I’m tossing the Bolt hard through the slalom. I can feel the rear getting loose, but just enough to help it get around the pylons better. Even when I added a touch of brakes to the equation, in an attempt to really make the Bolt oversteer, the rear end stays in place.

So far, I’m impressed by the Bolt. I expected a slow, tire squealing mess, with the mirrors dragging on the asphalt from body roll. But what I got was a quick, responsive car, with good body control. There’s still lots of tire squeal though.

Now it’s time for a run in the GTI. It’s the Sport model, which means 10 more horsepower for 220 total. It also means a limited slip differential, upgraded brakes, and Pirelli performance tires. The differences between this car and the Bolt are pretty quickly apparent. The tires have more traction, allowing me to accelerate more quickly. The suspension is tuned for much quicker turn-in, which means I can turn later, accelerating or braking longer. The tail is also much happier to rotate. I can swing it around the cones, letting me slow down less. The limited-slip differential means I can put down more power earlier in the turn. So the GTI is sounding faster and more fun, right?

It’s not all sunshine and lap times from the GTI. It dropped low in the RPM range every time I slowed for a corner. Downshifting would help get back in the power band, but shifting takes more time than it saves. So you’re stuck out of boost and out of the fun. And while it had much sharper turn-in, that’s largely due to a more aggressive alignment. Add some toe to the Bolt, and it would get some of that knife-edge turn in. The GTI had more grip in the corners, but it also had tires picked for grip, not range.

Was the Bolt EV more fun? Not quite. But it wasn’t a fair fight. The Bolt and GTI aren’t in the same weight class when it comes to performance. It was close, though. Really close. A few hundred dollars worth of changes to the Bolt makes the difference close. The Bolt was more fun to autocross than my own car, a 1997 BMW 328iS with thousands in modifications to make it handle better. I think that fun would translate to the road. Body control and good damping don’t get worse when you move to the street.

The GTI was faster, but by much less than you’d think. I was 0.63-seconds faster in the GTI than the Bolt on a 40-second course. Give me five minutes with a tire pump, and most of that would have disappeared. Swap the tires, and I believe the Bolt would have run away with the clock. And five of the seven of us in my drive group were actually quicker in the Bolt. The all-season equipped Bolt was 1.8 seconds slower. It was more difficult to drive fast, and slower around corners. That’s the difference tires make.

Electric vehicles are the future of cars. As an enthusiast, I’m OK with that. As long as those electric cars are fun to drive. Sure Tesla offers supercar-like acceleration from the Model S, but it’s an expensive car. What I want is for cheap electrics to be fun – the way cheap gas-powered compacts are fun. The Bolt EV delivers on that. It’ll get you to work on Friday, but can play in the cones – or on a back road – on Saturday morning. It handles much better than I expected, and it’s loads of fun to toss around. Maybe next time, Chevrolet will let us take it on a road course.

Chevrolet brought in a pro driver, Corvette Racing driver Tommy Milner, to offer tips and show us how driving quickly was done. I asked him how he felt about hard driving in a Bolt. He admitted, after some prodding, that he too had been dubious of the Bolt EV’s sporting potential. But after spending the morning throwing one around he was convinced. This is a fun car.

I was worried about the lack of engine noise lessening the experience. When I was actually driving, I didn’t even notice it was missing. And with about 10 people running the three Bolts for several hours, the range gauges were all still well over half way. Impressive. I lapped the Bolt EV until I got tired from the exertion. But I wanted to keep driving. And that’s what fun to drive is all about.

Tires: High Performance or Low Rolling Resitance?

“What would happen if you put real performance tires on an EV? How much more rolling resistance would they have, and what would that do to the range?”

It’s the question I asked a handful of tire companies before I got the chance to autocross a Chevrolet Bolt EV. The consensus was surprise at the question.

A low rolling resistance eco-friendly tire and a high-performance competition tire are about as opposite as you can get when it comes to cars. LRR tires are hard. They’re designed with not just a hard rubber tread compound, but with stiffer sidewalls. Think of the steel wheel on a locomotive.

Actually, it’s more like that train wheel than you might think. If cars didn’t have to turn or stop, that’s almost exactly what we’d get. But cars have to do those things, so there are some concessions made to allow for grip.

Performance tires are designed to be soft in the tread and sidewalls. That lets the rubber conform with and bond to more of the road surface. And, it gives more traction but increases the drag on the tire.

But just how much more drag and friction is there? If you want to corner harder, will you end up walking home looking for an extension cord?

Fortunately, the answer is not much more, and no. You won’t be walking.

I spoke with Chris Welty, a tire education specialist with Bridgestone, and a former performance driving instructor. He’s somebody who knows what enthusiastic driving is about.

 

Bridgestone Ecopia 422 Low Rolling Resistance.

Chris told me that compared to Bridgestone’s baseline tire, a LRR tire like the new Ecopia 422 has 36-percent less rolling resistance. It sounds like a lot, but remember that there are a lot of factors going into range. He said that the 36-percent decrease in rolling resistance would boost range about four percent.

But what about a high-performance tire like Bridgestone’s Potenza RE-71R? That tire is well known to enthusiasts as one of the grippiest autocross and lapping day tires around. But it’s one that is also a great fast street tire.

Chris said that the RE-71R has about 20-percent more rolling resistance than the company’s baseline tire. That’s about a 7-percent hit to economy or range in exchange for a massive increase in grip for cornering, braking, and acceleration. He told me that if he had an EV, it would wear the performance tire.

Bridgestone Potenza RE71R. Note – at issue is presently an exact 215/50-17 original equipment size RE71R is not available. Your options are to look for another performance tire or consider either a wider/shorter tire like the 225/45 or 235/45 or a plus one like the 215/45-18 with a second set of wheels. Squeezing a 215/45-17 on the stock wheel would change the speed and odo adjustment a bit, and is not recommended, though racers have done such things before, even with a second set of wheels so as not to adversely affect daily metrics. Before deciding, we recommend seeking advice from a qualified tire seller to explore options.

And about that 7 percent? Chris suggested that moving from a high-quality LRR tire to an off-brand cheap tire would have a bigger impact with none of the grip. Up to a 15 percent hit to range and mileage. This was an effect I noticed in my own car when changing to a cheap tire.

Now that I’ve driven the Bolt, I would make the same choice as Chris. Extra grip in exchange for around a 20-mile range reduction? That’s the enthusiast’s choice. But if you want something that’s just a little more fun, there is a broad range of tire classes. If the extreme performance category is too sticky and too short-lived for you, there are still several classes of tire between eco and track-ready.

Other automakers seem to feel the same way about performance versus all-out range. The Tesla Model S wears Continental ExtremeContact tires on 21-inch wheels. BMW’s i8 hybrid supercar and 330e both use Bridgestone S001. That tire is also used by Porsche, Aston Martin, and Mercedes-Benz. Those are performance cars, and buyers are expecting a certain level of performance. Vehicles with electric performance deserve rubber that electrifies. Even better, the choice between max-range and max-grip is up to you.


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