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I drove an electric car in the freezing cold and learned they can still be practical in winter if you know their limits

Tim Levin   

I drove an electric car in the freezing cold and learned they can still be practical in winter — if you know their limits
  • I drove the all-electric Polestar 2 in the frigid New York winter.
  • My driving range dropped by 20-40% at times, and the car charged slower than normal.

If you've ever had to resuscitate your smartphone after leaving it in the beating sun all day, you understand what extreme heat can do to a battery.

But when I spent a weekend driving the electric 2022 Polestar 2 this January, I had the opposite problem on my mind. Temperatures were forecasted to plunge into sub-zero territory where I was headed in upstate New York. And I wasn't quite sure how the electric sedan would react.

I figured the Polestar wouldn't die on me completely. But electric-vehicle range — the one thing standing between you and an embarrassing roadside call to AAA — is notoriously susceptible to changes in the environment. A fully-charged Tesla may be able to travel 300-plus miles in theory, but throw in some hills and inclement weather, and that number will drop significantly.

Moreover, I'd heard stories about electric cars losing range when sitting parked in the cold. And who hasn't had to jumpstart a gas car on some freezing winter morning? In the leadup to my trip, I wondered whether I'd wake up one day to find my battery level cut in half. Would I be able to have any fun, or would I spend all weekend babysitting the car and hunting for charging stations?

As it turns out, I was overreacting. And anyone who claims that electric cars are a disaster to drive in the winter is overreacting too.

I made sure to arrive at my Airbnb on Friday night with a healthy 70% charge. Temperatures dropped to -2 degrees overnight and crept into the low single digits by early Saturday. Much to my relief, the car didn't lose any energy by morning.

Apparently, I shouldn't have worried about this in the first place, according to Venkat Srinivasan, a battery expert who runs the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science. Electric cars don't discharge all by themselves in the cold, but they can run into other issues, he told me.

The main drain on a vehicle's battery in wintry conditions comes from heating up the cabin, Srinivasan said. While gas cars repurpose heat generated by their engines to thaw their passengers, electric cars rely on battery power alone. You can't expect a vehicle to max out its driving range if you're siphoning off energy to run things like the heater or seat warmers.

Srinivasan said EV owners can expect around a 30-40% drop in range in cold weather, and that's about what I observed at most — though my range fluctuated depending on my driving speed and use of the heater. To combat this, I made sure to charge early and often, always maintaining a much fuller battery than I needed. In retrospect, I probably didn't need to be quite so nutty about it.

Here's a not-entirely-scientific example: One 55-mile drive at 70 mph in 18 degrees with moderate climate-control use chewed through 85 miles of potential range, representing a 35% decrease in efficiency. Sometimes the discrepancy was more like 20%, in line with findings by the Norwegian Automobile Federation. For those who want to get a little nerdy, the Polestar 2 includes a neat Range Assistant app that shows how your driving style, speed, and climate-control use impact energy consumption in real time.

Cold also slows down the flow of ions in a battery pack, reducing efficiency, Srinivasan said. But once the pack warms up, after around 15 minutes of driving, that becomes a non-issue. Lastly, the cold stunts an EV's charging speeds and limits regenerative braking, both of which I noticed.

The extent to which cold weather impacts your EV experience comes down to your driving habits and the car you own. The longer charging times and reduced range didn't bother me, as I wasn't in a hurry and had access to plenty of charging plugs. The Polestar 2's healthy 270-mile range left me with ample mileage even after switching on the heater.

But if you live in a cold area and have a demanding commute, you might think twice before buying a 149-mile Nissan Leaf, which could see its effective range drop below 100 miles in winter.

If you're worried about driving an EV in frigid conditions, here's my advice: Budget for more mileage than you need, know where nearby charging stations are, and keep a close eye on your battery level. And don't go crazy with the heater – you'll survive.


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