What I Learned Driving EV’s Up North In the Winter

Justin Pritchard By: Justin Pritchard December 11, 2020
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Advancements in EV technology are rolling out to both vehicles and infrastructure, and it’s making ownership of an all-electric vehicle more feasible for more Canadians than ever.

The list of factors to consider before buying an EV is a long one. For some, they make a great primary vehicle for the family, and for others, an EV might become the ideal second family runabout, and one that never needs fuel or an oil change.

The EV is one of many choices shoppers have to get themselves around, and as time passes, you’ll have more and more options to consider if you’re heading in that direction.

I live in Sudbury Ontario—where the winters are nasty and the roads and highways are frequented by big trucks towing big trailers full of gear or toys or supplies that support the lifestyle enjoyed by many who live up this way.

In recent years, the EV has become a common sight on our roads. The latest Teslas are an increasingly-frequent sight, as are their red and white Supercharger stations. I’ve got numerous friends driving the Nissan LEAF, Chevrolet Bolt, and Hyundai Kona EV, too.

There’s at least one reason why we don’t see more of them though, I figure.

A friend summed it up nicely with a question.

“Maybe I’ll buy an EV when they make one that can tow the sleds 700 kilometres at 30 below”.

winter driving EV

This twice-yearly trip has been a prime decision factor in every vehicle my friend has purchased, for years. Today, he uses an F-150 for the job—stopping once for about 5 minutes to refuel along the route to his ice fishing spot, which is hundreds of kilometres away from anything, including an EV charger.

His sentiment reflects, I figure, the reason that most of the EV owners I know also own a larger pickup or SUV for hauling the family and toys off to the cottage. The EV is used for the shorter drives, errands, and commuting.

Below, I’ll share some thoughts from recent cold-weather test-drives of two all-electric models.

These comments are based on covering about 1,300 kilometres in both the Nissan LEAF and Jaguar I-Pace, including a drive from Toronto to Sudbury through what was, at the time, a stretch largely devoid of charging infrastructure.

Both test-drives represented using an EV in far less than ideal conditions: for a long-distance highway trip, in cold weather.

Here’s what I learned.

Range Anxiety

My very first drive from Toronto to Sudbury in an all-electric vehicle was in a Jaguar I-Pace, in the middle of February, at a time when the four-hour drive between the two cities required covering a roughly 240-kilometer stretch with no charging infrastructure whatsoever.

With daytime temperatures in Southern Ontario around the freezing mark, the Jaguar’s on-board computer adjusted the driving range from the rated ‘best case scenario’ of 377 kilometres down to about 305 as the trip home began.

In Port Severn, Ontario, about 240 kilometres from home, I stopped to fill the Jaguar’s battery for the empty stretch that lay ahead. This was to be my last charge before arriving home, where another charger awaited.

Now some ways north of the GTA, the temperature had dropped to about 10 below, meaning the full charge was now worth about 285 kilometres.

winter driving EV

winter driving EV

Later that week, temperatures plummeted. With a daytime high of 29 below and the heat blasting for comfort, the 377-km battery was good for about 225 kilometres. Significant? Sure—but that’s still enough for a week’s worth of commuting and errands, for many.

I drove the Nissan LEAF PLUS a bit later in the year, with spring on the horizon. It’s 363-kilometer battery turned in about 250 kilometres of range on the coldest days, around 15 below, with the heat blasting.

You EV’s range will fluctuate based on the outside temperature—but both of these machines, even in extreme cold, still provided hundreds of kilometres of range.

Experts say that a 50 percent reduction in EV range is possible at 40 below. Even here, both of these machines would be able to handle a week’s worth of commuting for many Northerners.

Learn Your Computer

As you drive, the EV considers and processes a multitude of factors to give you the most accurate remaining range calculation possible. If you follow the remaining range readout closely, you may see it suddenly climb, or suddenly drop.

Usually, the change is slight. Often, it happens in response to changing outside temperatures, or changes to the climate control settings.

winter driving EV

After a few drives, the vehicle picks up on your driving style and habits, and the remaining range calculation becomes more accurate. On long-distance drives in cold weather, range fluctuations can be stressful, but after a few days at the wheel, your writer quickly learned to trust the system as it adapts to where, and how, you’re driving.

Plan for The Worst

Drivers out and about on Canadian roads in the winter should always prepare for the worst, no matter what they drive.

In an EV, that might mean having a backup plan if the trip you take requires a recharging stop.

I’ve found the charging stations I’ve used aren’t cared for like gas pumps. Sometimes, they’re out of order—a real bummer if there’s only one charger where you had planned to stop. Other times, they’re inaccessibly buried in snow.

Whether using an app or a web search, plan your longer trips knowing where you’ll charge up to keep the battery as full as possible, identify the location and distance to other nearby chargers if possible, and always plan your driving and charging to leave a surplus of power available in case there’s a road closure or detour between you and your destination.

Charging Fast

You can charge your EV at one of three levels. Level 1 is the slowest, at 120 volts.

Many EV owners install a Level 2 charger at home, which runs 240 volts for much faster charging. You’ll find Level 2 chargers in public, too.

The Level 3 charger is the fastest way to charge your EV, and especially if its battery is fairly depleted when you plug it in.

The Level 3 chargers (sometimes called “Quick Chargers” or “DC Fast Chargers”) are built to you’re your EV battery a rapid recharge on the go. In the past year or so, my Toronto-to-Sudbury route has gained 3 of these fast chargers. Hooking up to one can add 100 kilometres or more to the EV’s battery in the time it takes to take a washroom break and pick up a coffee and a snack.

winter driving EV

When looking for a public charging station, remember that a Level 3 charger is the fastest way to juice your EV’s battery—making them worth keeping along your route on longer trips in the cold, where that battery will drain more quickly. When travelling long distances by EV in the winter, a route with plenty of Level 3 charging stops available can add plenty of confidence.

On my Level 2 charger at home, refilling the battery in either the LEAF PLUS or I-PACE was an overnight job. If you’re only driving a few dozen kilometres a day, you can skip recharging until the battery is low, or top it off as needed in a matter of hours.

Remember: you refuel your EV the same way you refuel your phone: by letting it fill up slowly, while you’re not using it.

Best of all, you can program your EV to charge solely during off-peak hours, or to pre-warm the cabin and pre-defrost the windshield using grid power, before your arrival each morning. I preferred to plug in every night, meaning I’d arrive to a full battery and a warm cabin every morning.

If you’re lucky enough to have indoor parking at both home and work, you’d never have to step outdoors during the winter while commuting, since your EV simply refuels in the garage while you’re asleep.

Beautiful AWD Performance

An AWD-equipped EV is still a relatively big purchase. Today, the most affordable EV’s on the market are front-wheel drive, though EV’s from Tesla, Porsche, Jaguar and others use dual motors to provide four-wheel traction.

Referencing the Jaguar I-Pace, the AWD system performance is incredible. By removing the limitations of differentials, axles, churning fluids and clutch-packs, it powers all four of its wheels with a level of smoothness, precision and immediate response to changing surfaces that I rarely see in a mechanical AWD system.

In total silence, the I-PACE picks up on the driver’s vibe: light-footed driving in inclement weather is met with sure-footed grip, no wasted wheelspin, and no fuss. In this setting, using winter tires, it feels remarkably trustworthy, even as traction levels decrease.

winter driving EV

Even during a city-stopping snowfall, the I-PACE was a joy to drive—silently whisking through deep powder without a care in the world.

Driven with intent in a sportier drive mode, on-demand access to rear-wheel torque sends the I-PACE slipping and sliding around on a whim—resulting in easily-triggered, easily-controlled powerslides that are smooth and quiet and drama free.

My favorite I-PACE moment came while bird-watching: I was able to silently stalk a Piliated Woodpecker with my camera, even as the I-PACE slogged its way through nearly a foot of wet snow.

The vehicles were provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.

winter driving EV

winter driving EV

winter driving EV

winter driving EV

winter driving EV

winter driving EV

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