2016 Tata Bolt BEV review, test drive
10th Dec 2016 8:00 am
The Bolt BEV is not a car you can buy. It’s a sneak peek into Tata Motors’ EV future. Hormazd Sorabjee finds out how advanced it is.
It’s a nice coincidence that Tata Motors’ first electric vehicle is the very electric-sounding Bolt. Launched at the 2014 Auto Expo, it wasn’t with electrification in mind that the Tata Bolt was christened so. Today, however, it is proving to be a good platform to showcase the carmaker’s EV technology.
The Bolt BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle) as it is called is a one-off prototype that looks like any regular production Bolt which doesn’t deserve a second glance. The only reason I would look at it twice is because it is as rare here in the UK as a Bristol back home in India. Tata doesn’t sell the Bolt in the UK, which is a shame, because it’s just the kind of hatchback that would slip comfortably into the budget end of the UK market. Now with an electric powertrain, it makes an even better case for itself.
Designed and developed by the Tata Motors European Technical Centre (TMETC) headquartered in Coventry, the Bolt BEV isn’t a purpose-built electric car and that’s the point. TMETC didn’t want to compromise the practicality of the spacious Bolt and used the car’s existing packaging to slot in the battery pack, electric motor and controllers.
From the outside, the only giveaway is the subtle EV badge on the tailgate and, if you look closely, you can tell the tyres are bigger, shod on smart-looking 15-inch alloys, and nicely fill the Bolt’s wheel arches. But it’s not for aesthetics that TMETC has changed the rubber specs. The 185/65 R15 tyres are low rolling resistance versions, which are de rigueur in EVs because they play a critical role in extending the all-important range. Also crucial is the weight and it’s commendable that at 1,195 kg, the Bolt BEV is just 35kg heavier than a top-spec diesel Bolt. No doubt, removing the heavy lump of a diesel engine and replacing it with a lighter electric motor helps. But the battery pack, which is always the heaviest item in any electric car, negates the advantage.
Low-rolling resistance tyres help range.
The Bolt BEV uses a compact 16kWh lithium-ion battery pack, which replaces the fuel tank and extends into the spare wheel well area. This leaves no space for a spare tyre. Run flats? Not on an EV because they are bad for all-important rolling resistance and hence, a puncture repair kit is the best option. The lack of a spare is one of the few compromises you have to live with.
Pop open the ‘fuel’ lid and the nozzle filler has been neatly replaced with a multi-pin socket which when connected to a standard 240V line takes eight hours to top-up. Using fast chargers cuts the time by half or a good four hours.
Inside, the Bolt BEV is again just like the regular Bolt – the only big difference is that a rotary controller has replaced the gear lever. The tachometer gives way to a power meter that tells you how much power the driver is using, and the recharging effectiveness of the regenerative braking. Remember that since this is a prototype that hasn’t gone through the validations for commercial production yet; there’s a red safety cut-off switch that shuts off the high-voltage electrics if required.
A 109hp electric motor drives the Bolt BEV via a single-speed transmission. It’s not as powerful or light as the Revotron turbo-petrol, but judging an electric car by its power-to-weight ratio can be quite misleading. TMETC claims, the Bolt BEV is the most exciting Tata car to drive and, for the first 100 metres that I drove, I couldn’t agree more.
109hp motor fits comfortably in the engine bay and delivers a smooth drive.
An EV’s best trick is the instant response it has from the get-go. Press down on the accelerator and the Bolt lives up to its name and literally bolts forward. That it does it so silently and effortlessly makes it hard to believe I’m driving a Bolt. There’s no turbo-lag, no diesel drone, no rubbery gearshift to contend with, nothing. All the things we complained about in the regular Bolt are gone in a flash and have been replaced by a quiet, strong and linear thrust of electrical power.
The beauty about electrical motors is that they dish out max power and torque from the instant you prod the accelerator pedal. It’s the immediate max torque – 160Nm – from the first rpm that gives the Bolt ample pace to smartly dart into roundabouts or accelerate from a red light without you wishing for more power.
The instant torque makes electric vehicles shine in dense stop-start traffic conditions. But even on country roads around TMETC, the Bolt didn’t feel outside its comfort zone. On British A-roads and motorways, it gamely kept pace with the flow of traffic with refreshing ease. The effortlessness with which the Bolt BEV glides through the English countryside is accentuated by the silence of the powertrain. All you hear is the faint hum from the motor and a bit of road noise.
The Bolt’s ride and handling have always impressed us. The BEV version felt even better, thanks to a front end that doesn’t feel as nose-heavy (because of the lighter motor), coupled with a superbly calibrated electrically assisted steering. The BEV feels distinctly better balanced and more planted over crests, undulations and corners, despite being heavier than the regular Bolt. The ride, however, is a bit firm and the Bolt has lost a bit of its supple edge with the move to lower profile tyres and a stiffer rear suspension.
Top-end performance isn’t an electric car’s strength – after the initial burst to around 100kph in under-12 seconds, the Bolt BEV struggles to gather pace. On switching to Eco mode from Sport, which cuts the power by a substantial 38 percent to 68hp, the Bolt feels proportionately slower, much slower. It’s not the mode you want to drive in but it may well be the mode that gets you home. The Bolt BEV’s declared range of 120km is achieved in Eco mode, but in real-world conditions, that drops to just 80km. It’s not a particularly great range by today’s EV standards, but it’s good enough for the average round trip from home to office.
Fuel filler replaced with charging socket.
The thorny issues of range, charging infrastructure and battery costs are still big hurdles for EVs. In fact, the cost of the lithium-ion battery pack alone for the Bolt BEV is upwards of Rs 12 lakh, which pushes the price of the car to over Rs 20 lakh! Not even the most zealous of eco-warriors will pay that much for what looks like a standard Bolt. This rules out any chance of the Bolt BEV making it into showrooms and, for now, it’s just a demonstration of Tata Motors’ EV technology.
The company wants to be future-ready for the ‘tipping point’, or when electric cars will outsell those with internal combustion. With the barrage of tech breakthroughs in the EV world, that day is not too far away.