To Live And Die In The Arizona Desert In A 2018 Chevy Bolt EV Premier

 

WRITER’S NOTE: This Ride Me vehicle-review column is the first of two parts featuring the 2018 Chevy Bolt EV Premier. So much happened over the week I test drove the electric car that it did not seem fair to pack into a single story my experiences as well as my opinions about the EV. So part one is about my experiences, and my review of the car itself appears as part two next week. 

Blythe, California. If you know nothing about this town along Interstate 10, on the California side of the border with Arizona, you will need a primer to truly appreciate the story that follows. However, I am torn when it comes to honestly describing Blythe because it is so depressed—and so depressing—that I feel as if I would just be piling on the poor saps who: A) struggle with living there and, B) are well aware of what that is like. Surely someone long ago coined “blytht” from “blight.”

Such local knowledge would easily escape Orange Countians who pass through Blythe, just as I had in the past, stopping for gas, coffee or a quick bite before jumping back onto the freeway, bound for Phoenix or Tuscon. If these travelers stuck around longer, they too would be horrified by the magnitude of Blythe’s heartbreaking neglect. When events conspired to make me stay put in Blythe—overnight on a Friday and again for several hours the following Monday—I became mortified over the state of  the town.

Perhaps that feeling was more dramatic because the trip had started with pure joy. A car service delivered to my driveway a 2018 Chevrolet Bolt Premier electric car, and within a few minutes driving it around Orange County, I had fallen in love. A couple weeks before, I had test driven a BMW EV that cost about $10,000 more, but I actually liked the Bolt better because it felt roomier and, with the way things were laid out, more driver-intuitive.

Ride Me actually began as a column solely reviewing EVs, hybrids and cars powered by fuel cells, natural gas and other alternative means. My reason for creating it was selfish: I was in the market for a new car, and I had wanted an electric since the gas-rationing nightmares produced during the Jimmy Carter administration. My EV desires led me in 2003 to start writing about Seal Beach electric-car advocate and activist Doug Korthof, who sadly lost a battle with lung cancer in 2012. When I previewed the documentary >Who Killed the Electric Car? in 2006, writer-director Chris Pine told me a national magazine piece on EVs and my “Dude, Where’s My Electric Car!?!” cover story in >OC Weekly were the only print sources on the subject he could find during pre-production. Korthof went on to appear in the movie.

A “Sweet 16” game at Staples Center. Photo by Matt Coker

Already glowing with the Chevy Bolt, I had a mid-week destination that ensured the good times and all-season tires would keep rolling: Staples Center, which was hosting NCAA “Sweet Sixteen” basketball games. A buddy and I made a rainy trip to downtown Los Angeles in comfort and without any issues about a lack of juice. The L.A. Live parking structure has EV chargers, but the Bolt had enough of a charge to get us there and back home.

Once safely in my Costa Mesa garage late that same night—after Florida State beat Gonzaga and Michigan dispensed with Texas A&M—I did break out the supplied trickle charger for an overnight appointment with a household electrical outlet. By the next morning, the Bolt was back at full charge.

Giddiness over that experience with the car led me to believe something a Chevy representative had told me about a planned weekend trip to see my grandson’s Little League opening day ceremonies in Goodyear, Arizona. I had reached out over fears about driving an electric to the Grand Canyon State, especially since my grandson had endured an emotionally scarring 2016 EV experience with his grandparents. But the rep said that based on the distance to the destination (350 miles), the Bolt would make it after one, half-hour stop at a fast-charging station, because the EV’s range on a full charge is 200 miles.

So, we loaded the Bolt with bags, baby bedding stuff, two grandparents, one mother and one 9-month-old in her car seat for an expected six-hour, afternoon drive to Goodyear, where we would pick up my grandson and take him with us to a hotel suite we booked near the spot of Saturday’s 7 a.m. opening ceremonies.

Charging up the Chevy Bolt in Cathedral City. Photo by Matt Coker

According to a helpful EV charger locator app on our iPhones, we knew we could make it to an EVgo quick-charging station next to a Starbucks in Cathedral City, which is where we plugged in. As the Bolt was charging, I struck up a conversation with a fellow named Doug, who owned (and loved) an older Bolt. We were both headed to Arizona, and when I noticed the timer showed I had been hooked up to the charger for 45 minutes, and a sign informed you were to surrender the nozzle to a waiting customer after half an hour, I ended the session with a 79 percent charge on my Bolt’s battery. “Are you sure?” Doug asked as I handed him the nozzle. No problem, I answered.

Un-truer words were never spoken. Shortly after leaving Cathedral City, driving through the warm California deserts with the air conditioner on, I calculated the miles left on the charge would not be enough to cover the distance to Goodyear. Many electric cars reviewed in Ride Me display the locations of charging stations on the on-board navigation screen, but the Bolt has you contact an operator with OnStar, the hands-free, subscription-based, GM-owned communications system. Before you speak to an actual person, you have to tell a computer-generated voice what it is you are seeking. Because of our positive experience in Cathedral City, I asked for the location of another EVgo.

“I’m sorry, I can’t find that listing.”

Figuring “EV” is not something a computer can easily comprehend, I spoke more slowly (and repeatedly): “E! V! GO!”

“I’m sorry, I can’t find that listing.”

Next, I tried what those initials stood for “electric vehicle” along with “charging station.”

I was told there are three charging stations in Quartzsite, Arizona. Blythe is 120 miles from Cathedral City, and Quartzsite is another 24 miles east on I-10. So I punched in the address of one of the Quartzsite charging locations into the navigation system. We breezed through Blythe and the state border and were led to the back of a Carl’s Jr. in Quartzsite that indeed had a full row of chargers.

Unfortunately, its nozzles only fit Tesla vehicles.

Looking at the indicator, I had 22 miles of range left. I got a live OnStar representative on the horn and explained our dilemma. She called one of the other Quartzsite charging locations, an RV park that would loan us an electrical outlet so we could use our own trickle charger. (There was no charger at the third Quartzsite address that showed up on our app and the OnStar rep’s map.)

When I asked for a quick-charge location, so we could still make it to Goodyear on time, the rep said there was one 40 miles away, but if she sent a tow truck it could only take us 25 miles under the terms of our subscription (which actually belonged to the car service). Plus, only two people could ride in the tow truck, so the other two would have to wait it out at Carl’s Jr. So, two of us were to be driven with the Bolt, which would then be un-hooked from the tow truck after 25 miles, at which time we would drive the remaining miles to the charging station, where we’d have to wait before driving back to Quartzite to pick up the rest of our party, then go on to Goodyear. 

Not liking that option, we told the OnStar operator that we would make a dash for Blythe, where the app had shown there were three more chargers, which held out the hope one would be a quickie model. With 22 miles of range to a destination that was 24 miles away, we white knuckled it there. Traffic got heavy for some reason as we neared our exit, allowing us to watch the remaining battery life drain to zero on the indicator. Once we finally reached the exit, the indicator flashed on and off, in “Danger, Will Robinson” style, as if to inform we were now on our own.

The EVgo charger screen shortly before handing the nozzle to Doug. Photo by Matt Coker

Fortunately, we reached a free ChargePoint station in the parking lot outside a Riverside County Probation Department office. It was twilight, we had not eaten, the dry desert air had us feeling parched and it still felt as if Goodyear was a million miles away. (Actually, the distance was 163 miles.) The county offices were closed by this time, and I really had to use a restroom. I actually contemplated joining the Freemasons, who had a lodge across the street, just so I would have someplace to go. Google Maps revealed there was a Mexican restaurant a couple blocks away, so I walked over to use its facilities instead, although I did enjoy the Freemason literature.

When I returned to the Bolt, my wife informed me that the indicator showed it would take nine hours to reach a full charge. That meant it would be hours before we could get enough juice to pick up my grandson and get him to our hotel room. My daughter checked Uber and Lyft and discovered a ride from our location to Goodyear would cost $157—but there were no drivers in the area anyway. We looked into renting a car, but the listing for apparently the only agency in Blythe showed it was closed. (And it had horrible Yelp reviews.) The next closest car rental agencies were near Palm Springs airport, where one stayed open until 11 p.m. Making it there before closing would require gambling on how much of a charge we could attain in a few hours in Blythe—with everyone, including a baby who had been stuck in a car seat for hours, having to hang out in an empty county government parking lot in the meantime.

Another option was having all but me take a taxi to Goodyear while I stayed with the Bolt long enough to get a charge back to Cathedral City, where I would then use the EVgo to get enough juice to get me back home to Costa Mesa, where I could pick up a real car and drive back the next morning, hopefully in time to catch the tail end of the Little League opening ceremonies.

The app showed the second of three Blythe chargers was another ChargePoint across the street at City Hall. The third was an electrical outlet near the pool equipment of a Red Roof Inn, three blocks away. So this is the plan we came up with: Cancel the hotel in Goodyear (that miraculously did not charge us), call my grandson to say we would meet him at the Little League park the next morning, get a Red Roof Inn room so the baby and her mother could get some much-needed sleep, and hook the Bolt’s trickle charger up to the motel outlet overnight.

By then, we had enough juice to drive over from the county complex to the motel, but when we got there, the outlet was already in use, and I recognized the car. It was Doug’s Bolt from the Cathedral City EVgo station. Damn you, Doug!

Front view of 2018 Chevy Bolt Premier. Photo by Matt Coker

The four of us sat in the Red Roof Inn parking lot revisiting the earlier options before I finally came up with a new plan: Get a room with two beds so the mother and baby could go to sleep while my wife and I went back to the county complex, put the Bolt on the charger it had been on and walked back to the Red Roof Inn, stopping along the way for food.

One of the few places open was a Del Taco near the motel, but farther down the way was a Mobil gas station mini-mart where we could get some beer to take care of our parched throats. To get to the entrance, we had to march through a gauntlet of down-on-their-luck folks whose blank stares screamed “meth!” We exited with Corona tall boys wrapped in brown paper sacks to go with 99-cent bean and cheese burritos scored from Del Taco. My wife really wanted to take a photo of me sitting on the curb outside the Blythe Red Roof Inn, with a burrito in one hand and beer wrapped in paper sack in the other, so she could send out the social media caption, “This is what has become of our life.”

Inside our room, the baby’s mother was close to being passed out from exhaustion. The baby, who had seemed very close to that when we dropped them off, was now wide awake, crawling all over the floor after being awakened by noisy kids upstairs, who were apparently wearing ski boots as they ran laps inside their room. Eventually, we all got to sleep, but it only lasted a few hours because the same neighbors checked out early, and if the heavy stomps of the kids getting ready did not wake us all up, the father repeatedly honking his horn outside our paper-thin door did the trick.

I walked over and retrieved the EV, and as I was loading it up back at the motel, none other than Doug came walking over to ask how I liked my Bolt, which had been his opening line in Cathedral City. I had to remind him we had already met, and after I told him our sad tale, he finally revealed the problem with long-distance traveling in EVs: There are not yet enough charging stations along highways to allow you to drive without thinking about it, as you would in a gasoline-powered vehicle. You have to carefully plan. He then told me of a better app than the one I had been using to locate chargers, and he offered a tip: One Blythe ChargePoint station, either city hall’s or the county complex’s, is actually a little faster. Sorry for damning you, Doug.

Our pity party finally made it to Goodyear with plenty of juice to spare. “I told you,” my grandson kept saying about the EV. After the Little League festivities, we were on to a hotel room in Scottsdale. The app ala Doug showed plenty of charging stations of all different types in the greater Phoenix area.

Meeting some family in Scottsdale for an early dinner at a mall, I dropped everyone off at the Yardhouse entrance and headed for a quick charger in the adjacent parking structure. I found it with a generous four parking spaces surrounding two nozzles, but three of the slots were filled with non-electrical cars and the fourth was an EV that was not using a nozzle. That meant I would have to wait until someone left their space to charge the Bolt. All four vehicles had Arizona license plates, too. Fuckers.

Arizona vehicles surround unused EV charger. Note that some stalls are marked EV only. Photos by Matt Coker

I went back to the Yardhouse, defeated (but now REALLY ready for a cold beer). My wife suggested that, before the food came out, I double check the charging station. The spaces were still all taken. I walked over to a parking valet and asked if anything could be done about it. He said about all that happens is a security guard will give offenders dirty looks as they back out.

At least, by now, a space opened directly across from the charging station, and just as I was locking the door a couple walked up, got into the EV and drove off, finally freeing up a space next to the unused nozzles. After all those miles, all that agony since Cathedral City, the Bolt was finally on a fast charger again.

My wife remarked “the charging station thing has taken over our lives.” She had to decline a visit to her 91-year-old aunt in Mesa because it would have involved sitting at a charging station before seeing her and then having to do so again to ensure a full charge back to California.

Sunday afternoon, while everyone else hung out around the hotel’s pool, I went alone to a fast charger near an upscale outdoor mall near Scottsdale’s airport, and I tipped it off so the Bolt would have a full battery before dropping my grandson off for school Monday morning in Goodyear. 

We got up at 6 a.m., loaded everyone in the car, and my daughter gave her baby a bottle. A few moments later, my granddaughter projectile vomited what had been the entire contents of the bottle. Needless to say, when we dropped our grandson off at school, he was happy to leave us.

With the Doug app, we discovered there is a trickle charger in a new development on the outskirts of Buckeye, which is the next city west of Goodyear and therefore closer to California. We stopped there long enough to get the battery full for the ride to the state border, in hopes enough juice would be left to get to a fast charger beyond Blythe. We left the a/c off and would not even plug our iPhones into the outlets, trying to save all the electricity we could. 

Unfortunately, there is no way out of the Arizona desert and across the state border without stopping before reaching Palm Desert, at least not until someone erects more charging stations or installs batteries that squeeze out more mileage. We toyed with stopping in Quartzsite and using the friendly RV lady’s outlet, but it made more sense distance-wise to just suck it up and head back to you-know-where.

All smiles upon re-charging in Cathedral City. Photo by Matt Coker

“We’re trapped,” noted my wife as we pulled into Blythe. This time she called the local Chevrolet dealership, which had a charger, although no one in the service department knew if it was a trickle or fast version. We hooked the Bolt up to it and walked from there, with the baby in a stroller, to a Mexican restaurant.

After lunch, we walked back to the dealership and discovered it was not only a trickle charger, it was apparently the world’s slowest trickle charger, having in a couple hours only increased the charge by 4 percent, which was not nearly enough to get us to Palm Desert. So we drove over to the City Hall ChargePoint, thinking it must be the faster one. Nope. Back to the ChargePoint across the street near the probation department.

The temperature was rising and the baby was just not having it. Her mom surmised she was suffering from a heat rash on top of whatever was going on with her digestive system. We took her to a park and then a nearby library, where I actually got some work done on my laptop computer. My granddaughter loved crawling around in an air conditioned room. By around 5 p.m., after six hours in Blythe, we decided to head for Palm Desert.

Everything was going as planned until we neared Coachella. That’s when the baby had an explosion of diarrhea. It was all over her car seat, all over her. We pulled into a Del Taco parking lot to clean her up. Not sure if we had enough juice to make it to a fast charger, my wife called a Volkswagen dealer not too far away that had a trickle charger we could use.

However, during the descent into the valley–with the a/c still off, nothing plugged in and even the radio now off–the battery picked up juice whenever I took my foot off the accelerator. By the time we reached the exit for the VW dealer, the indicator showed us right at the available mileage to make it to Cathedral City, so we pressed on in hopes of returning to our favorite EVgo station.

We reached it with a couple miles to spare, and with the baby now able to spend the next 45 minutes out of her stinky car seat, she was back to her smiling self. We left the charging station and made it home at 10:30 p.m. For those keeping score at home, that means a normal six-hour trip took 16.5 hours.

Back home in OC, Maddy is ready to get out of the EV. Photo by Matt Coker

Some takeaways:

  • If we’d been in our gas guzzler, we could have made the same drive twice, back and forth, in fewer hours.
  • OnStar should be better equipped to deal with electric vehicles. Step one: recognition of “EVgo.”
  • If EVs are indeed our future, we are going to need more charging stations, and especially fast ones, between the California border and Phoenix. How come all those truck stops we passed don’t have them?
  • How come I don’t have the entrepreneurial mind to monetize new charging stations along that long stretch of desert? Free vomit bags to the first 100 customers!
  • Buy a Tesla.

Next week: A much shorter review of the actual Chevy Bolt, I promise.

 

>Matt Coker

Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.

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