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Can you stomp on the gas in an electric car? Metaphorically, yes – and boy, do you get results 

  • The engine in the front of a Chevy Bolt includes coolant to keep the battery temperature stable – and a normal 12-volt battery for some electronics, so you can still jump start a gasoline car. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A Chevy Bolt at Banks Chevrolet in Concord prepares for a test drive on May 18, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mike Vaillancourt of Banks Chevrolet holds a fast charger at the storage lot on Airport Road. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

I first noticed something different about the car I was taking for a test drive last week when the salesman commented that he wanted to make sure the car has been cooled down “while it is still plugged in to shore power.”

I did a double take at this nautical term. Were we entering an amphibious sedan preparing to unhook from dock and zip across Penacook Lake?

“No, that’s what it’s called – shore power,” said Mike Vaillancourt of Banks Chevrolet in Concord, giving a slightly embarrassed shrug as we prepared to get into the all-electric Chevy Bolt. I guess new technologies don’t always lead to cool terminology.

With electric vehicles, I learned, the phrase refers to powering components such as air conditioning via the plugged-in cable for as long as possible, saving the car battery to extend your range after hitting the road.

This is among the habits you’ll need to learn if you switch to a mode of transportation that isn’t directly powered by blowing up drops of carcinogenic liquid. Other new habits include knowing when it’s best to charge at 8 amps and when to charge at 12 amps (um – what’s an amp, exactly?) and learning to finesse the “regen paddle” like your teenage self finessed the downshift on an accelerating turn.

All well and geeky, but what really came across in my half-hour test drive of a Bolt is the lack of a serious learning curve. If you choose not to use the battery-regeneration effect, which operates like a brake without using the brake, then it’s just a nice, small hatchback, not a science experiment – although a hatchback with startlingly good acceleration, thanks to the always-maximum-torque aspect of an electric motor.

Lack of a learning curve is a good thing for electric cars if you’re Chevrolet, which hopes that the Bolt’s price ($40,000-ish) and range (200 miles-ish) will move it out of the early adopter corral and give GM an advantage in the transition to electric vehicles. In other words, they hope to sell a lot of them.

Let’s hope they’re right, because accelerating a shift to EVs would be a good thing.

Yes, electric cars draw power from the grid, which often burns fossil fuels, and yes, their batteries are made with foreign-sourced metals and toxic materials rather than magic pixie dust, and yes, it is possible to create scenarios in which lifestyle analysis shows that efficient gas cars do less damage to the environment.

But any analysis worth its salt says that solving climate change requires electrifying almost everything, including industrial and thermal processes as well as transportation, because electricity is the only major power source that can be de-carbonized.

So when an established major company bets big on an electric car, and beats Tesla to the market with a model fit for normal pocketbooks and driving habits, I think it’s significant. Hence my test drive.

It was brutally hot when Vallaincourt accompanied me, as reflected in the dashboard data chart when we finished. My 30.3 miles used 12.5 kilowatt-hours, and a whopping 21 percent of that was needed to power the climate control inside the car.

This reflects the complication of creating electric vehicles, which have less overall energy to play with than fossil-fuel cars.

“In (gasoline) cars you didn’t worry about that: They have more heat, more electricity, than they can use,” said Timothy Sattler, a product specialist at Banks Chevrolet. Electric vehicles, on the other hand, required people to “learn how to make the A.C. compressor run, how to heat the cabin without an engine producing heat, how to have headlights use less electricity when we have daytime running lights.”

Driving the Bolt was fun. Electric motors are capable of more instantaneous oomph than gas engines, so the car really leaps ahead if you stomp on the gas. (Even Vaillancourt called it a gas pedal – “stomping on the power pedal” doesn’t sound as good.)

The Bolt is a nice car, with good headroom and legroom and a modern interior, which these days means a big video screen providing power usage information and features like maps, smartphone connections, radio and the like. It has all the electronic bells and whistles – sensors and cameras, actually – you’d expect with a modern car, including back-up sonar and a computer animation depicting your surroundings, plus “drive-by-wire” controls that allow variable steering which becomes stiffer as you go faster.

As I mentioned, the major driving difference in an EV involves regeneration, in which energy is recouped from the slowing of the vehicle and is sent back to the battery.

This is old hat for us owners of hybrid cars, which do “regen” whenever we put on the brake, but the Bolt and other electric cars have stepped up the game. The Bolt has a regeneration-causing paddle on the steering wheel that acts like a brake (it even turns on the brake lights) and allows single-pedal driving – instead of coasting, taking your foot off the “gas” slows you down.

This increases the efficiency of regeneration and extends your range, and also reduces wear of brake pads.

That latter is an important point for electric vehicles. Lifetime repair costs will be much, much less than for gasoline cars because they have no transmission to speak of, no oil changes are necessary, and there are no fuel lines to foul or exhaust systems to rust. Combined with a lower cost of fuel even here in high-power-rate New Hampshire, you’ll save money owning one, although it’s uncertain whether you’ll save enough to make up for the higher purchase price.

You certainly will, however, get to avoid gas stations, which to me is a major selling point. I hate going out of my way to fill up the car, which invariably needs to be done at the most inconvenient time. The prospect of “filling up the tank” at home and ignoring all gas stations is very appealing.

On the flip side, of course, it would be hard to take the Bolt to see my Dad in Washington, D.C., because of a shortage of charging stations along the way.

Tesla owners, spoiled by Supercharger stations like the one near the Hooksett tolls, are snickering right now. GM has not copied Tesla and spent millions building high-speed charging stations. Further, the Bolt’s battery input is limited to 50 kilowatts compared to 120 kilowatts for Teslas, so even if you do get access to a fast charging station, it takes longer to fill up the Chevy.

All of this means that while the Bolt is a breakthrough in technology and pricing, it’s far from The Final Answer to electrifying transportation. I’m sure we will be seeing more cars like this, and better than this, in the future, from Chevy and from lots of other others.

At the very least, however, the Bolt is a very neat vehicle – which helps explain why one of the two cars that Banks Chevrolet had sold in the first week went to a guy in Orono, Maine, who couldn’t wait for Bolts to arrive in the Pine Tree State.

“He texted me when he got home,” Vaillancourt said. “He made it back and still had 45 miles of range left.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)