Yes, You Can Autocross a Chevrolet Bolt
Squealing tires amidst the silence
Chevy doesn't think anyone who buys a new Bolt EV is doing it to rack up autocross trophies, but the development clearly has a lot of confidence in the Bolt's dynamic capabilities—or at least enough trust that it won't fall on its face when it comes time to put up or shut up. To see if the Bolt can double as both cone junkie and zero-emission eco friend, we accepted Chevy's challenge to destroy some front tires and race against the clock.
Just to dial things up a notch, Chevy also brought along to the party a long-dominant autocross benchmark—the Volkswagen GTI Sport. I couldn't figure out if that was a brave, cocky, or foolish move when I saw the cherry-red hatchback staged among its taller, battery-toting competitors, but it sure piqued my curiosity.
Bolt chief engineer Mike Lelli came right out of the gate, admitting that Chevy new EV was by no means designed for autocross competition. He's just as quick to point, however, out that the Bolt was designed for driving enjoyment just as much as it was for range and charging speed. On paper, the Bolt does score some points, one being its low center gravity—a consequence of having its battery mounted low below the floor and bolted to the chassis. Plus, all of that juicy, immediate 266 lb-ft of electric torque shoots the Bolt to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, and the car's lively chassis tuning proved well-mated to the electric powertrain. Enough so that we named it a 2017 All-Star.
On the downside, the Bolt's eco-minded low-rolling-resistance tires don't do it any favors out on the autocross (especially with the intermittent sprinkles of rain we sustained). In acknowledgement of that fact, alongside the stock Michelin Energy Saver A/S Selfseal fitment, Chevrolet also supplied a Bolt shod with Michelin Primacy 3 summer tires-available in Europe, but not in the U.S. The conceit being, of course, that a fun autocross experience in a Bolt is just a set of good tires away. (The GTI came on stock Pirelli Cinturato P7 all-season rubber.)
So, has Chevrolet been drinking too much of its own Kool-Aid? Far from it, I'd say. While the Bolt is certainly not going to be lining up against the likes of the Ford Focus ST and Subaru WRX anytime soon at your local SCCA autocross, it was far from out of its depth out there.
For one, the zip of the 200-hp electric drive system is its own source of capability and entertainment. Hit the throttle just right and you'll launch forward with impressive force, but don't give it smooth inputs and you'll just spin the front tires. Yessir, with all-season tires and a little wet pavement, you can do a fairly respectable burnout in an affordable EV. The future may not be as dim as we fear.
The Bolt was impressively composed and tossable for a high-riding hatchback that weights north of 3,500 pounds, especially when wearing the summer tires. There's some body roll, but nothing egregious, and it was easy enough to place the car where I needed it tight turns. During one long, sweeping left-hander, the Bolt was still responding consistently to my small throttle and steering adjustments without upsetting the car's balance under heavy load. And although I didn't try this strategy, it's possible to utilize the Bolt's regenerative braking capabilities as an advantage in situations where you want to decelerate without shifting the whole vehicle's weight forward with the brakes. That's according to Corvette racer Tommy Milner, who was there with us and, fortunately for him, demolished all of the journalists' best times.
As for the GTI, I don't think it's worried about the Bolt. While the Chevy EV is capable of getting the job done, the GTI is quite a bit more controllable when it comes to carrying speed into corners. The brakes have more bite. The steering has infinitely more feel, quickness, and accuracy. Powering out of corners is also a lot easier, thanks to the GTI Sport's electronically controlled limited-slip differential. In general the GTI feels a lot more like you're really in tune with it, rather than whipping it around and trying to keep up, like you are in the Bolt.
That said, my best time in the summer-tire-equipped Bolt was just 0.41 seconds off the pace of my best run in the GTI.
Driver confidence goes a long way in autocross, and the GTI just gave me way more of it. But Chevy was not overconfident in their gamble that I'd be impressed with the Bolt, even with the VW there as the benchmark. The Bolt is a genuinely enjoyable and satisfying car to drive, and if someone is brave enough to buy a set of summer tires and silently stalk the hot-hatches and NA Miatas in the autocross paddock, that crazed soul will have a fun time of it, indeed.
2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV Specifications
|ENGINE||Permanent magnet drive motor/200 hp, 266 lb-ft|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-motor, FWD wagon|
|EPA MILEAGE||128/110 mpge (city/hwy); 238-mile total range|
|L x W x H||164 x 69.5 x 62.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.5 sec|
|TOP SPEED||92 mph|