Buying or Leasing a 2020 Chevy Bolt EV–What I learned

By Paul Gipe

Oy vey! I just concluded a three month search for what I consider a reasonably priced Chevy Bolt EV to replace our leased 2017 Bolt. What an experience.

The good news is we were successful and we have a new bright blue 2020 Chevy Bolt. The bad news is that the process was drawn out, there were many false leads, and there was much flimflamery.

It would have been easy to simply throw up my hands and say, “Oh, Ok, I’ll buy it (or lease it)” and give the dealers what they wanted just to be done with the whole process.

Or I could have walked away and bought a Tesla Model 3 without all the fuss.

When trying to buy or lease an EV you can quickly see why the dealer model of EV sales is on shaky ground. Buying a Tesla is easy, if not costly. You know you’re not necessarily getting a “good deal,” but more importantly, you know you’re not getting a “bad deal.”

Lessons Learned and Tips

  • Be patient and wait until fall if you can.
  • Don’t call the dealer, send an email, and deal only with the internet sales person.
  • Know exactly what you want and what additional options you’ll accept.
  • Know what you expect to pay.
  • Expand your search.
  • Be flexible on color.
  • Deal only with “all-in” or “out-the-door price.
  • Confirm choice with VIN or Stock Number.

Be Patient

We leased a Chevy Bolt in early November 2017 for three years. So we knew the lease was up in November of this year. We had no plans to buy the car for the “residual” price on our lease contract. There was nothing wrong with the car. (It was the best car we’ve ever owned.) But the residual price was far more than the market price of used Bolts. It wasn’t a good deal to buy it. We prefer to let General Motors absorb the loss. They can afford it.

I began what became a frustrating search in mid summer. Prices remained stubbornly high and didn’t really break until mid to late September. By late September there was a flurry of serious promotions. We picked up our new Bolt 3 October.

In late fall dealers start clearing their lots of the current-year vehicles, anticipating the arrival of the new model year. In retrospect, I should have known this since our previous EVs were all leased in the fall. Yet, it didn’t really sink home until I waded into the morass.

Don’t Call, Send an Email

The job of salesmen is to sell. Car salesmen sell cars. This is what they do and they’re good at it or they don’t last long. Salesmen know that if they can get you on the phone, they can get you in the door. And if they can get you in the door, they’re nearly home free on selling a new car.

Short circuit this process by sending them an email instead of calling. Every dealership now has a dedicated “internet” salesperson. Deal with them only. They’ll still call to speed up the process, but they’re there to correspond by email. They know that and so do you.

Spell out what you’re looking for–in detail–in your email. Include the model, model year, version, options, and color if that’s important. Also include whether you want to lease or buy. I sought quotes for both buying and leasing.

Know What You Want

You’re less likely to get bamboozled if you know exactly what you want, including options. So sort out what you want before you start sending messages to dealers.

Bolts come in two flavors: LT and Premier. We knew we didn’t want to pay for the Premier so that left the LT. We knew we wanted the Bolt with DC fast charging capability (no EV should be sold without it really). And our experience proved to us heated front seats and a heated steering wheel are also essential to an EV. This required the “Convenience” package. We also found that the Confidence I package with its blind spot warning, though not essential, was an aid for aging eyes and increasing stiffness.

We could tolerate inclusion of the Confidence II package with “lane keep assistance” and automatic collision braking if the total price was good enough.

And Nancy, my wife, said the car had to be blue so that settled the matter of color–and made my life much more complicated as a result.

Know What You Expect to Pay

We’ve now leased two EVs; a 2015 Nissan Leaf and a 2017 Chevy Bolt. We knew what we’d paid for these two leases. However, in the meantime GM had used all its federal EV tax credit allotment. (Nissan hadn’t, but we were not in the market for another Leaf.) I didn’t know how GM was going to handle the loss of $7,500 in federal subsidies on the Bolt. We could end up paying substantially more than we did before, but I just didn’t know how much.

[Spoiler alert. If we had leased, we would have paid less for the 2020 than we did on the 2017 Bolt lease and we thought we had a low-cost lease then.]

Like a lot of other EV early adopters I follow online forums about EVs and specifically the Bolt. I’d read accounts of what others had paid and were paying for either a lease or a purchase of a new Bolt. (I should have paid attention to what time of year they were making those deals, but I didn’t.) I had a good idea what I “should” be able to get a new Bolt for.

We had a very good lease for our existing Bolt. We were paying $250 per month, all inclusive, for a three-year lease with 10,000 miles per year or $9,000 over the course of the lease. And from what others were paying in Bakersfield for such a lease that was a very good deal.

I’d been following ev-vin, a blog posting lease deals on selected EVs, for several months. They list Bolts in California as well as in other states. Ev-vin posts the down payment required and the monthly payment. Importantly, they sum the two payment streams to give the total cost of the lease before taxes and registration fees. Then they rank them. This is an extremely valuable service and gives you a good idea of a price to aim for. In practice I found the cars advertised were never on the lot or were stripped down without the options we considered essential.

As I type this, ev-vin lists Bolts for lease by two of California’s largest dealers at a cost–before taxes and licensing–of from $4,300 to $5,300. When I was last in the market ev-vin listed the best deals available at around $9,000. That’s how I knew those prices were obtainable. However, at the time those same dealers were quoting me $12,000 to $13,000 with all fees included for the kind of car we wanted. And this was only three weeks ago!

Similarly, the come-on ads pitching a lease for $39 monthly is not what you end up paying. In this case they require a down payment of $3,000. In total you’ll pay $4,400 for the three-year lease before taxes and fees. This is still a good deal–if you meet the requirements for all the discounts included in the fine print, if you want white, and if this specific car has the options you need. Typically, the car you want will cost more.

If you want to buy, Chevy’s MSRP for the Bolt LT begins at $37,000 and climbs from there. And when you add on what we consider the essential options your at $40,000. That’s nearly as much as a basic Tesla Model 3 and they’re not the same cars by a long shot. But nobody pays MSRP for a Bolt–or shouldn’t.

GM knocks off $8,500 up front. Now you’re at $31,500 before fees and taxes. And then the fun begins.

Are you a soldier, fireman, frontline health worker, and on and on? Do you have an existing lease with GM or with someone else? Are you a Costco member? What?

Yep, for Labor Day through the end of the year GM and Costco offered a $3,000 discount for Costco members. We’re not members but for 3k we could quickly become members. Naturally, your membership had to be active before the discount was offered so that wasn’t going to help us.

If you’re talking to a salesman on the phone or in person, you head quickly begins to fill with numbers. It’s easy to get confused, which is to their advantage. Again, you want to throw up your hands and simply say, “I’ll take it.”

I needed to set up a spreadsheet to keep it all straight and I was dealing strictly with email.

I set my target on what I wanted to pay–out-the-door–and kept working toward that goal. For a three-year lease, my target was $9,000-$10,000. I would have gone up to $11,000 when I was getting desperate, but I didn’t (and a good thing too). To buy, I was shooting for the mid to high $20,000s out-the-door. You should be able to get a new Bolt with the options we wanted in the low to mid $20,000s. Taxes and fees add quite a bit. More about that later.

Expand Your Search

We tried buying locally. I gave the local dealer every chance to meet competing offers. They wouldn’t budge. Now maybe if I was trying to buy a big diesel truck they would work with me. But a Bolt? Forget about it. They had three on the lot and they still had three on the lot the last I checked–the same three as when I started my hunt.

We’d previously leased a Nissan Leaf in northern California and had it shipped to Bakersfield. The entire transaction was done by phone, text, and courier–and this was well before Covid-19. Today, most dealers, but importantly not all, are ready and able to handle internet transactions and ship the vehicle to its final destination.

My search began with Bay Area and LA dealers. These are the two biggest markets in California. I gradually expanded the search to more and more dealers in the state when I couldn’t find the price I was willing to pay.

By the end of the process I was contacting dealers as far away as Florida! (A Portland, Oregon friend of mine bought a Hyundai Kona in Maryland and had it shipped.) If the deal is right, shipping is a nominal cost to the transaction.

I soon learned that the biggest dealers–those with the most Bolts on the lot–did not necessarily offer the lowest prices. They did produce some compelling ads and come-on pitches and if the car they were promoting was actually still on the lot when you were ready to get it you could walk away with a good deal. Often that wasn’t the case. The car was gone or it was a stripped down version few would want. My joke to friends when they called about these seeming “too good to be true” deals was to check and make sure the car came with wheels.

I also learned that there are still some dealers who don’t ship or do the transaction by courier.

In the end, we bought our Bolt from a dealer near San Diego who doesn’t ship. And they would only do the transaction in person. We had to drive almost 250 miles to buy the Bolt and another 250 miles getting back home.

Be Flexible on Color

This year GM was shipping a lot of gray, black, and white Bolts. If you want one of those your search can be a lot easier. Many of the come-on pitches that the big dealers offer are for dull colors like gray or black.

My wife wanted “Oasis Blue” specifically and that greatly narrowed down our choices. Dealers know how many cars of such a color are on their lot–and on lots throughout the state. Once they know you want only that color, their bargaining position is stronger and they may be less likely to budge on price.

Out-the-Door Price

As every buyer of a new car learns, the price you’ve negotiated is not the price you pay. There are sales taxes, motor vehicles fees, tire disposal fees, and much more that are based on the final price of the vehicle. And, if you’re not careful, there can be some little extras that the dealer throws in that you weren’t expecting.

California offers a handy registration and licensing fee calculator. You enter your zip code or the country where you live because sales tax varies by county in California. Typically, registration, licensing, and other fees add 10% to the cost of the transaction. If you’re buying a $30,000 Bolt, you’ll be paying at least $33,000 for the car.

Dealers quote the price before taxes and fee. The car looks cheaper that way.

What I found was that the total of fees to drive off with the car sometimes totaled more than 14% of the purchase price–not the 10% I anticipated. Some dealers were adding quite a bit that we didn’t want to pay for.

In the end, I insisted that all dealers provide quotes only for an “out-the-door” price. This way I could compare apples to apples and know exactly what we had to pay to get the car.

The dealer we finally chose adds a nominal charge for etching the VIN onto each window for theft protection. We didn’t care because it was included in the out-the-door price. There were no surprises.

Confirm Choice with VIN or Stock Number

Car sales are dynamic. You may be looking at a particular car and go to find out it’s already been sold. So it’s wise to confirm that the car you’re weighing is still on the lot.

The web sites for all Chevy dealers are the same or close enough to make navigation simple once you know what you want. Once on their web site, set your search parameters, such as, 2020 Bolt LT with heated seats and search the dealer’s inventory. This greatly narrows the search. Find what you think is your future ride, note the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) or the dealer’s “stock” number.

You’re buying a specific car and every car has a unique VIN. Using the VIN or stock number you can see what options that car comes with.

In our case we wanted DC fast charging and the Convenience package as a minimum. The Chevy web sites provide a handy viewer to see a summary of the “window sticker,” or more accurately the Monroney sticker.

Open the viewer and make sure that the car you’re buying has the options you want listed.

What We Paid

So, what did it all come down to? We were quoted a three-year lease with the options we wanted for $7,300 paid up front. Normally, we would prefer to pay monthly for a lease. Nevertheless, this lease was $1,700 less than what we paid on the 2017 Bolt and included more features. In this case, we would have paid the lease up front.

We opted to buy this time around and paid $26,695 out-the-door. Surprisingly, a week later we got a “sales tax” refund of $355. Someone must have made a mistake somewhere. This brought our cost down to $26,340.

We didn’t qualify for nearly all the special discounts that were being offered. But we were returning our leased 2017 Bolt. GM was offering a $1,500 discount for those with a pre-existing lease. This discount is included in the price.

Our friends bought a Bolt at the same time as well–and drove as far as we did too. They paid $3,000 less than we did because they had a Costco membership.

Lease Return

Returning the 2017 Bolt was straightforward. We gave our keys to the dealer and signed documents transferring possession of the car to them. GM will waive the lease return fee because we bought from them again. We’d replaced the tires a few months before after nearly 30,000 miles. There was no damage to the exterior or interior of the car. So we don’t expect any further charges.

When we returned our leased Nissan Leaf in 2017 we expected to pay a lease return fee and a charge for some minor damage. However, Nissan never sent us a bill.

It Gets Even Better

We live in one of if not the most polluted places in North America. Our air quality is regularly worse than Los Angeles or Houston. (We like to be Number 1 around here.) As a result, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District offers a $3,000 subsidy to buy or lease an EV to help clear the air.

Investor-owned utilities in the state also offer a substantial rebate on the air quality savings from an EV. In our case, the infamous Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pays $800 for any new EV. (Unfortunately, the program is coming to an end this year. Get yours now.)

On top of all that the state of California offers a subsidy of $2,000 for driving electric.

All told, our friends qualified for $5,800 in subsidies for their $23,700 Bolt. They’re driving a long-range EV for about $18,000.

We won’t do quite as well. Not only did we not get the Costco discount, we no longer qualify for the state subsidy. Our net cost for the 2020 Bolt is about $23,000.

For us the Bolt cost almost half that of a Tesla Model 3, and buying the car in San Diego rather than Bakersfield saved us more than $8,000.

We have the car we wanted for the price we were willing to pay. Nancy’s happy with the color. And we’ll never have any trouble finding it in a parking lot.

Leasing an EV–What You Need to Know

Tips on Leasing a 2020 Bolt LT

Net Cost of a Lease for a 2018-2019 Chevy Bolt EV in the San Joaquin Valley

Our Lease of a Chevy Bolt and What it Cost Us