Test-driving the Bolt, the Prius Prime and the Camry Hybrid

The Thinker by Rodin

Introduction

It’s rare for me to buy a car. The last time I bought one was in 2004. My 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid is still moving me around, just not as nicely as it used to. Moving to Massachusetts has challenged it. Here the roads are bumpy and this time of year the potholes are plentiful and dangerous. I recently took it in to replace its rear struts, but driving around is still a bumpy and noisy experience. While I could probably drive it another ten years, it’s past its prime. It’s time for new car.

Back in 2004, hybrids were a new technology. Today they are old news. As I noted, electric cars are where it’s at these days, or at least where the hype is. Not all of us though can afford a Tesla Model S.

Our friend Mary came to visit us in her Tesla Model S recently, a car so large that it barely fit into our garage and only because its mirrors could retract fully inside the car. The Model S is currently something of a gold standard for electric cars. But even with the many Tesla superchargers between you and your destination, it’s hardly convenient. At best, a pit stop takes 45 minutes or so for an 80% charge. This time of the year when temperatures are cold, all electric cars lose range. Her trip that might have taken 8-9 hours in a car with a gasoline engine extended to 11-12 hours in her Tesla, which included two recharging stops.

While I like the idea of an electric car, it remains an iffy proposition as a touring car. Still, I wanted to get an idea if I even wanted one, which is why I ended up at our local Chevy dealership to test drive the Chevrolet Bolt Premium.

Chevy Bolt test drive

Back in 2004, I noted that driving the Prius seemed so futuristic. The technology certainly has changed since then, since the Prius’s dashboard now seems sort of sedate. The Chevy Bolt has an electronic dashboard behind the wheel and a separate monitor between seats for most of the other stuff. Screens change dynamically with the press of a button. These days even ordinary cars have this stuff, but to me it’s all new. I like simple displays for minimal distractions.

With the Bolt’s theoretical range of about 240 miles fully charged, during our cold weather test drive the predicted range was about a third less than that. This makes the Bolt impractical as a touring car. It can’t use Tesla’s superchargers. In the best situation you will have to wait about an hour for an 80% charge. This assumes there is no line at the charging station and a warm battery. But if you are looking for a commuting car, it’s a good choice, since most of the time you will charge it at home. But so are arguably electric cars with less range like the now-discontinued Volt.

Driving the Bolt otherwise surprised me. You expect it to be quiet and it was. Electric motors make little noise compared to pistons pounding inside an engine. It can achieve 60mph in less than seven seconds, so it’s Bolt name is particularly apt. Its high stance made it easy for me to get in and out. It feels more like a mini-SUV than a hatchback. The seats go way back and the steering wheel telescopes. It feels narrow but it’s no narrower than my Honda Civic. It doesn’t absorb bumps particularly well and perhaps due to its high stance it feels a bit hard to control at times. And the seats are not very ergonomic.

But at about a third of the price of a Model S, the Bolt feels something close to a bargain. Of course, it doesn’t pollute, unless you charge it from non-green sources. We have solar panels and get our remainder from wind power, so that’s not an issue. It would go a huge way toward making us carbon neutral. And arguably because it is all-electric, it is less complex. I could expect to save 50% or more on maintenance costs, and the cost per mile to drive an electric car will almost certainly save us 50% or more off the cost of gasoline. While there are other electric cars out there, at the moment it’s really the only practical electric car out there for the masses.

Toyota Prius Prime test drive

We also test-drove the Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid that can drive about fifty miles on electricity, but only if you don’t go too fast. It averages 50mpg in hybrid mode. It was reasonably easy to get in and out of but it helped to elevate the seat, which can only be done manually. The Prius Prime felt extremely solid with great steering control, and reasonably quiet too. Like the Bolt, it doubles as a hatchback. However its rear window with the line in the middle takes some getting used to and is arguably annoying.

Toyota Camry Hybrid test drive

We used to own a Toyota Camry. Today’s hybrid version averages 47mpg and packs a lot more technology into a fairly compact space. Driving it was quiet and comfortable. It too can drive some miles at lower speeds in pure electric mode, but its battery uses electricity that comes from the engine or regenerative braking. It’s not a hatchback, which is something of a drawback but does have a huge trunk and second row seats that fold back that allow you to transport some larger objects. The Camry remains an affordable car with a premium feel to it. You feel comfortable and kind of pampered, which contrasts with the practical Prius Prime. Its displays though feel a bit too packed with information and there are many little switches that can be hard to finger. Its monitor in the center is a bit small but functional. It’s got all the lumbar support you could want with motors to easily elevate or change the position of the seats. It is quite quiet and handles bumpy roads quite nicely.

Decisions, decisions…

There are other factors nudging us. There are sizable federal and some state tax credits available. The full $7500 federal tax credit for the Bolt expires at the end of the month. With that and a $1500 Massachusetts rebate, we can effectively get a Chevy Bolt Premium with all the convenience packages and the fast charging option for $26,565. It does mean that for long distance driving beyond 200 miles or so we’ll be driving my wife’s Subaru with its annoying manual stick. If we were to buy it, we’d also want to invest in a 240-volt car charger, probably with dual outlets on the assumption my wife would eventually have an electric car too.

All this amounts to a good dilemma, but still a dilemma. Dilemmas indicate who you really are. Am I the eco-green person I think I am? I that case I should buy the Bolt. Am I the practical guy that wants great efficiency in a car but still want to tour in it? Then I should get the Prius Prime. Do I want pretty good mileage car but a bit of pampering? Then I should get the Toyota Camry Hybrid, or some others in this market like the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, a large car which a remarkable 42mpg and one of the highest scores I’ve seen in Consumer Reports magazine: 98 out of 100 points.

I do need to either decide soon or risk some federal tax credits expiring.

Driving the Hybrids

The Thinker by Rodin

There are two hybrid cars in my driveway at the moment. There’s my new 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid but there is also my Dad’s 2005 Toyota Prius. The latter sits in our garage until he gets back from California where he is visiting his sister. I’ve driven both cars and I can tell you that driving a hybrid takes some getting used to.

In many ways my Honda Civic Hybrid seems more conventional. The Toyota Prius feels really out of this world. For example, at least in my Dad’s version of the car, there is no place to insert a key to turn on the engine. Want to turn it on? It’s pretty simple, just not intuitive. First, put your foot on the brake. Second, press the Power button. No key needed!

To get in the car you normally use the remote control. The car assumes that anyone who can get inside it should be okay to drive it. According to my Dad you have to have the remote control with you to actually start the car. I guess the car detects its presence through some sort of wireless signal, and will only start it if it detects it.

Many of the controls are not where you would expect it. If you are looking for the speedometer over your steering wheel, forget about it. You have to glance to your right and up a bit at look at the little monitor that tells you the current status of your car. Need to go into reverse? Don’t look for a lever between the front row seats. Instead, look for an odd lever built into the dashboard itself and look at the monitor to verify you are actually in the gear you think you are.

Backing out of the garage with the Prius does not necessarily mean starting the engine. Battery power will usually kick in to push it out of the garage. The motor seems to come on transparently when you need it. It is very quiet so it’s hard to know it is there sometimes.

In short what Toyota has done to the interior of the Prius is a little like what VW did when they introduced the Beetle. It’s like “What the heck is this?” It would deter, or certainly slow down most car thieves. I feel sorry for valet parking attendants for the next couple years. It’s going to be confusing for them.

My Dad has ridden in both hybrids. Even he noticed that the Honda Civic Hybrid coveys less road noise. It also rides a lot smoother. But having driven them both it is clear to me that the Prius is the cleaner car, simply because it seems to use the engine less. On the Honda Civic Hybrid the engine always kicks on when I start the car.

The Honda Civic Hybrid though feels much more like a “normal” car. There’s a lever to put the automatic transmission into drive or reverse, and it’s right there where it should be: between the passenger seats. I don’t have to hunt for the speedometer. It’s in my face above the steering wheel as I expect, however it’s an electronic display. There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason on when the engine will kick off. I get a feeling that in the morning the car waits until it is hot enough before the engine will kick off at stoplights. Releasing my foot from the brake kicks on the engine again instantaneously. The Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system (which indicates how the battery is helping the motor, and visa versa) is impressive. For a four-cylinder car this thing is surprisingly peppy. It does not have the power of a V-8 but the battery adds a larger than expected oomph to the acceleration that to my mind makes it feel more like a V-6.

It’s starting to feel normal to be at a light and have the engine shut off. And this is good. It seems strange that there are so many cars queued up on all sides of me with their engines running while I sit serenely inert through the three minute traffic lights.

I don’t know how many miles per gallon I will get yet. In the two weeks I’ve owned the car I have yet to refill the tank! Yes, my driving needs are modest. I have put about 250 miles on the car and the tank is still about 40% full. It seems likely I will average over 40 miles per gallon.

Some of the features, now standard in most cars, are annoying. I’m already annoyed by the optional security system. I have to use the remote to enter the car and to lock it. If I don’t the security alarm goes off. The car chirps every time I lock or unlock the car. I’m sick of it. There is a way to turn it off. I’ve read the manual but I still can’t figure it out because it refers to a switch that is not in my car. I need a less hassle security system.

And I guess electronic keys are standard now. But they are new to me. I can’t get a new car key cut at the Sears Hardware, that’s for sure. I have to go to my Honda dealer and I better bring in my key code with me.

But so far at least the Honda Civic Hybrid is a neat car. It may be a hybrid but unlike the Prius when you drive it you don’t feel like you are sacrificing much. It’s definitely smaller than the Prius and I wish it were a hatchback. But for a small car it’s quiet and fun.

I look forward to the day when hybrids are mainstream. But hybrids still have to seriously catch on. I would think more people would be interested in them, not just because they care about the environment because you can get a tax credit for buying a new hybrid. It’s disturbing to read reports that hybrid SUVs aren’t selling well. The hybrid technologies certainly seem viable enough to me. I hope more Americans will see their virtues. It won’t solve the global warming or air pollution problem, but it’s a start.