Electric Car Range in Winter, From European Perspective

By · January 09, 2014

Nissan Leaf driving in Winter

Nissan Leaf driving in winter.

This is a bad winter, in the U.S. and in Europe. The cold weather is making headlines, and the news on television is showing people facing terrible cold. So how do EVs manage to cope with these difficult conditions? Not so bad, as Norway proves.

This freezing northern country is where EVs have the highest share of the overall new car market. Admittedly, this is not a purely market-driven choice, as the tax structure in Norway makes EVs half the price as gasoline cars. But it shows that electric cars can cope with the cold.

Yes, I have personally experienced a 20 percent drop in range, between driving a Nissan LEAF along the Mediterranean Sea, and an identical LEAF in Oslo. The car tested in the south was on summer tires, while the one driven in the north had winter tires. This alone can reduce range by 10 percent considering most EVs are sold with special low rolling resistance tires (in Europe). Of course, I had the heater on when driving in Norway. The temperature was about zero degrees Celsius.

Nissan Leaf driving in Winter

On some forums, there are tough hardcore EV drivers who are proud to tell everybody how they drive in full winter gear, with gloves, hats, and ski coats to maintain their range. But that can't be a good solution. The electric car has to be appealing to the average guy, and in 2014, drivers expect to be kept warm inside their cars.

Engineers have found a smart way to reduce heating consumption, with preheating, where the cabin is heated while the car's charging, but drivers still need of information about their expected range when driving in the cold, and this is where the German magazine Auto Bild has been helpful. It's a weekly magazine, and its first edition of the year provides an extensive article about EVs during in winter driving. The journalists took five cars to the Defereggen Valley, in the Austrian Alps, where it's appropriately cold, outfitted them all with winter tires, and tested their range. What did they learn?

Auto Bild cover page

Auto Bild cover.

The Renault Zoe which has an advertised driving range of 130 miles couldn't do more than 36.6 miles in the snowy Alps. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV drove 38 miles, just like the BMW i3. The Nissan LEAF managed 42.9 miles, and the Tesla Model S won the comparison test with a range of 128.5 miles.

Auto Bild easily concluded that the Tesla is the best EV to drive in severe winter conditions, but this shouldn't be a surprise as everybody says it's also the best EV to drive in the summer as well.

This test shows the cold reduces an EV's range by more than 50 percent. That's bad but consider that gas cars are even worse: they don't even start when it's too cold. The situation could improve a little with better battery insulation, and more efficient heating systems.

Maybe EV drivers shouldn't worry too much about long winter range. Driving season has always been summer, and nobody expects this to change. In some cities right now, it's so bad that businesses and schools are closed. No matter what car you own, people just spend less time driving around in these frigid conditions.

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