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Behind the wheel of GM's 238-mile range electric car

The hatchback that’s taking on Tesla’s Model 3
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Chevy's new Bolt shows up in San Francisco's SOMA district at the height of rush hour. It comes around the corner evading cars, buses and wandering Giants fans on their way to the game a few blocks away. It's urban chaos and it's the exact environment the long-range EV will encounter when new customers drive it out of showrooms sometime before the end of the year.

Gallery: Chevy Bolt | 26 Photos

I drove a pre-pre-production Chevy Bolt way back in January at CES. At the time it was difficult to get a true feel for the car, just driving in circles over and over again. Today's excursion was a bit more telling. I drove the EV through San Francisco's Potrero Hill and Mission Bay districts with a quick jaunt onto the freeway. And of course, the aforementioned traffic in SOMA.

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Unsurprisingly, this version feels more polished than the model I drove in a parking lot near the Vegas Strip. Not least because it's no longer wrapped in weird black stripes. Rather, the final design of the vehicle is much more like what you'd expect from a compact hatchback. It's not flashy, and it doesn't stick out like Chevy's plug-in hybrid the Volt does. Instead the Bolt blends into traffic with classic lines accented by a few flourishes like the chrome that runs above the doors. Basically, it looks normal.

Looks aside, though, the Bolt is anything but normal. It's born out a desire to offer an electric car that doesn't break the bank, but is worthy of road trips. With a range of 238 miles, it bests the Tesla Model 3 (with a range of 215 miles), which is expected to start shipping late next year. Josh Tavel, the Bolt's chief engineer, told Engadget that during its research the company found that once an EV's range went above 200 miles, the amount of people who wanted one doubled. If the car was under $30,000, that number doubled again. The Bolt is actually expected to cost below $37,500 at launch -- but with federal tax credits will land just on or below that $30,000 sweet spot.

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To pull off this combination of range and price, GM had to start from scratch. The automaker couldn't use one of its existing vehicle systems. "It's got to be a new dedicated vehicle platform to allow us to truly make a cost effective high mileage vehicle," Tavel said. While the hatchback borrows a few regenerative braking features from the Volt, it's otherwise completely unique in the GM lineup. Or it will be, once it's finally ready for market.

The nearly finished car I'm driving (Kelly says it's above 90 percent production) is a solid mixture of traditional compact car with the subdued whir of an EV. While it's not going to be winning any drag races, the zero to 60 time of just under seven seconds is about on par with a Honda Civic. The Bolt has the expected electric torque when you hit the accelerator, but it quickly gives way to the realities of a hatchback.

As for the ride, it's about on par with most compacts. The suspension is stiffer than the car I drove in Las Vegas. Of course, this time around I didn't get a chance to drive on a track or mountain roads, but I noted a slightly "sporty" feel without sacrificing comfort.

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That comfort factor extends to the interior, which is surprisingly stylish. The dash, for example, has a white accent that runs back into the doors -- I caught myself rubbing my fingers on it to feel its texture. The center console is a 10.5-inch touchscreen that has the usual information about how much energy you're using, complete with a scorecard of your driving. However, I was happy to see that the climate controls have good ole physical buttons. As you'd hope for a 2016 EV, the Bolt supports both CarPlay and Android Auto via USB ports and a not-so-handy phone holder that sits under the console. Chances are you'll just use the cupholder for your phone.

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The dash cluster (aka where the speedometer lives) is easy to read, with every bar and accent tinted green. Probably to remind you that you're saving the planet in your electric car. More importantly, while it shares information about how you're using the battery, it doesn't feel cluttered.

This being a hatchback, it's important to note that at first glance the trunk doesn't seem that large. But you can remove the floor to reveal a giant hiding space for your gear. Also, the back seats fold down flat so it's great for hauling all your stuff around town.

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Of course, getting around means charging. GM says with an 80kWh quick charger you can add 90 miles in 30 minutes. With the 120-volt outlet in the average home, the car can be fully charged in 18 hours. A 240-volt outlet will halve that time. For comparison, the BMW i3 takes 20 hours to charge its 81-mile range battery with an 120-volt outlet. Fortunately, the Bolt's extended range means you should be fine with the average commute and overnight charging. But it's always a good idea to research how many public charging stations are available in your area.

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What GM built with the new Bolt is an impressive hatchback that happens to be an electric vehicle with an incredibly impressive 238-mile range. Not only will it make EV ownership more accessible, it gives the automaker a $30,000 (after federal tax credits) jump start into a market that's been dominated by Tesla's pricey Models S and X. It might not have Falcon Wing doors or semi-autonomous features but it does something those cars don't posses: the likelihood of being purchased by an average person.

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