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A Cadillac Lyric is tested inside the squeak and rattle building, which is filled with bumpy surfaces, rumble strips and speedbumps at General Motor’s Cold Weather Development Centre in Kapuskasing, Ont.Petrina Gentile/The Globe and Mail

Electric vehicles may be the future, but for Canadians coping with cold winter weather, the leap to EVs has to overcome a big hurdle: When temperatures drop, EVs lose range and charging times slow.

Some car companies are embracing Canada’s north to cold-weather test their gas-powered and electric vehicles to make sure they start and perform well in frigid conditions. Ford has tested its vehicles as well as Volvos, Land Rovers and Jaguars at the Extreme Cold Weather Test Facility in Thompson, Man. Toyota and General Motors have facilities in Northern Ontario – Toyota in Timmins and GM in Kapuskasing, more than 850 kilometres north of Toronto.

GM’s Cold Weather Development Centre, also known as the Kapuskasing Proving Ground, is the automaker’s only cold weather durability testing site in Canada and the largest facility in Ontario. It’s tasked with testing all GM vehicles destined for the North American market. And as GM transitions to an all-electric future with aims of launching 30 new EVs by 2025 globally, the facility becomes more significant in helping the automaker to assuage people’s worries about range and slow charging.

“The Kapuskasing Proving Ground is incredibly important – not only for General Motors, but for Canada,” said Tobias Suenner, vice-president at GM’s Canadian Technical Centre, which has campuses in Oshawa, Ont. and Markham, Ont. “Our full-scale cold weather facility is responsible for ensuring every new GM vehicle sold in North America – including EVs – can withstand extreme cold, down to minus 30 Celsius and beyond.”

Starting in 1941, military vehicles were tested for the Canadian government at the facility. GM began testing its own vehicles when the Kapuskasing Proving Grounds officially opened 50 years ago on Feb. 14, 1973. Back then, it was a small site on 23 acres of land. Now, the permanent testing facility spans 272 acres and includes a high-tech 3.6-kilometre test track, a 13-vehicle garage, 30 cold cell blocks – think garage-sized freezers – a squeak-and-rattle building, a decommissioned airport runway, a battery lab and facility to test battery performance in sub-zero conditions, and 21 Level 2 chargers and six DC fast chargers.

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The Canadian military tested vehicles for extreme cold weather in Kapuskasing, Ont. in 1942.Courtesy of manufacturer

“The chargers alone that we have on site here, if we aggregated all that power together, we’d power up to 1,500 typical homes,” said Josh Walton, our tour guide and the engineering group manager at GM’s Cold Weather Development Centre.

Since 2015, GM has invested more than $16-million in the Kapuskasing facility as it transitions to an electric future. Each year, 150 to 250 vehicles are tested from late October to late April. Two or three units of the same model are evaluated 24 hours a day, seven days a week over a 12-week period by a team of eight engineers. The testing is equivalent to two years of customer use in winter, according to Walton.

His engineering team has already tested numerous electric vehicles, including the GMC Hummer, the Chevrolet Bolt and Cadillac Lyriq. Currently, several other models are being tested on site – camouflage-clad prototypes that drive by during our tour. “Sometimes we see vehicles five to seven years ahead of production,” said Walton, warning us not to take any photos.

On the day we were there in early March, it was minus 20 and we were driving a 2023 Cadillac Lyriq rear-wheel drive to see what an EV undergoes in cold weather tests. First stop is a cold cell block. Used to study the vehicle in a consistent temperature during the thermal cycle, the 30 giant freezer-like units can fit two Bolt EVs inside and replicate temperatures of minus 45. Vehicles undergo a cold soak where they are parked in a cold cell overnight with fans blasting air at minus 30, followed by a warm-up cycle and additional tests within a 24-hour period to ensure everything from the battery to the heated seats operate well.

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Cadillac Lyriq EVs are tested in -20 Celsius at General Motor’s Cold Weather Development Centre.Petrina Gentile/The Globe and Mail

The Lyriq rides on GM’s new Ultium battery architecture. It’s less expensive to produce, more powerful and uses less cobalt than the batteries found in the Chevrolet Bolt. All GM EVs will have the Ultium battery moving forward.

“The essence of what Ultium is and the way it manages its thermal system is markedly improved over the BEV system [in the Bolt]. We definitely see range [in the Lyriq] that is truer to [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency range] ratings than what we did with the Bolt,” Walton said. And while most EVs lose range in frigid temperatures, “the new Ultium battery pack stays pretty much on par because it self-conditions as you go along. That energy is always present, whether it’s in the battery or it’s coming out in your defroster, that power is always there. We just recycle it and keep the pack warm and ambient,” Walton said.

We see what Walton means during a drive after we speak. The Lyriq’s electric range didn’t drop much in the frigid cold and remained fairly accurate to the distance travelled.

The site also includes new 400-kilowatt DC fast chargers. GM’s partnership with ChargePoint allows them to do mutual testing of the chargers and EVs before they come to market. ChargePoint predicts that by 2025, the new chargers will be available commercially. One 400-kilowatt charger costs about $1-million, Walton said.

Nearby is the squeak-and-rattle building, filled with bumpy surfaces, rumble strips and speedbumps. Vehicles are driven up and down up to 20 times an hour for a 24-hour period and return for inspections every two weeks to ensure there are no creaks, moans, rattles or glitches.

Across the street is a decommissioned airport runway to test systems such as ABS traction control on gravel, snow and ice. There’s a 3.6-kilometre advanced test track, which includes WiFi coverage and a smart camera system that follows the vehicles. Over a 12-week period, a vehicle drives this loop multiple times a day, covering thousands of laps. A drive off-site also enables engineers to test the vehicle’s advanced driver assistance systems on the logging roads nearby.

Over the course of 12 weeks, if the engineering team finds an issue with one vehicle, they’ll check the other units to see whether it’s common to all of them. If it’s an isolated problem, they’ll monitor the other vehicles in case it manifests down the road.

The ultimate goal is to ease consumer concerns about electric vehicles when it comes to range anxiety and charging in cold weather conditions. And judging by GM’s work, they’re on the right track.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.