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The Chevrolet Bolt's range estimates were significantly affected by cold weather.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

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It was a surprise to collect a full-charged Chevrolet Bolt test vehicle from General Motors last week and see that its driving range registered as 203 kilometres. This is the completely electric compact car that Chevy says “offers an estimated range of up to 383 kilometres on a full charge.”

The temperature outside was -10 C. I drove the 65 km home, plugged the Bolt in right away then sent a note to GM. It’s well known that electric cars are affected by the cold, but half the range in sub-zero weather? Half? I asked if something might be wrong.

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A media-relations representative replied that winter/cold time affects range up to 20 per cent to 25 per cent. He said the speed clocked by a prior driver, as well as heating component usage, would have been tracked by the Bolt and computed a max range of 239 km. I was more concerned about the guaranteed minimum range, which showed on the dial as 166 km.

A few days later, I had to take the car to the airport, with a stop in town along the way for lunch. I live outside Toronto, and the entire trip would be about 150 km. I called Brookes Shean, Central Canada’s general manager for the Flo public charging network, and asked him for some advice to make sure I’d be okay.

“There are three levels for charging,” he explained. “There’s Level 1, which is your trickle-charge, standard wall outlet, which you’re using now and takes basically all weekend to charge. There’s Level 2, which is a 40-amp breaker, 7.2 kW per hour, and it’s giving that Chevy Bolt about 30 km of driving range per hour that it’s connected.

“And then there’s DC fast charging, the fast, fast thing, which is bypassing the brain of the battery and going right into the battery to deliver all of that charge.

“Level 2 is the only level of charge that will optimize the battery. It’s providing enough power to the car to keep the battery charging, but also keeping the battery warm. Level 1 doesn’t have enough power and current to focus on both. Level 2 will keep your battery in its warmest optimal state.”

I don’t have a 240-volt quick charger, and after 24 hours of charging from a regular plug in the midst of the polar vortex, I gained back about 50 km.

HOW THE COLD AFFECTS LIFE WITH AN EV

When I left in the morning and unplugged from the Level 1, 110-volt socket, the temperature was -18 C, and the realistic range of the fully-charged Bolt showed 215 km. The maximum range was 253 km, but I didn’t believe that – I’d been driving slowly, and with normal heat, and couldn’t improve on the realistic range.

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I stopped for coffee in Port Hope. There’s a Tesla supercharger station at a Tim Hortons with a bank of 720-Volt chargers, exclusive to only Teslas, but only one was able to charge: The others were blocked by a tanker-truck that was parked while the driver found some breakfast.

With coffee to calm the drive, the seat- and steering-wheel heaters turned off, and driving at the speed limit, I made it to the airport with 55 km to spare. Of course, upon return, I needed to get home.

It took the Bolt two hours at a Level 3 charger to add 100 km of range.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

I plugged into one of the five 480-volt DC fast-chargers in the cell-phone parking lot, operated by Chargepoint, and called the phone number on the charger. I don’t have a Chargepoint account. A nice woman in Arizona named Cassandra switched on the charger at no cost, and I sat back and waited in the warm car for the fast charge to top things up.

General Motors states that in optimal conditions, about 30 minutes at a fast charger will be enough for 145 km of range. At -18 C, however, that all goes out the window. It took two hours at Level 3 to charge from a range of 50 km to 150 km.

Another Bolt drove up for a charge while I was plugged in, so I tapped on the driver’s window and we chatted about his car.

GAS SAVINGS VS. TIME SPENT CHARGING

Mark Murakami, of Mississauga, told me he’s put 87,000 km on his Bolt in the past two years after owning a series of gas-powered cars and then an electric Smart car. He loves it, but he’s realistic about its winter limitations.

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“If it wasn’t the winter, you’d go 300 or 320 km, but in winter you see a drastic drop,” he said. “It takes a lot longer to charge, too. I used to have a Level 2 charger at home, and it was great, but right now, I’m renting and I don’t have a charger in my garage. That’s why I’m sitting here now.”

Mark Murakami said he thinks that 'if you have a two-car household, one should be electric.'

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

What he really likes is that he’s performed no maintenance on his Bolt in those two years – no oil changes, no brake work needed.

“If I had a Level 2 charger at home, I’d never have an issue. For a good chunk of the year, I was driving to St. Thomas [Ont., 180 km away], but I put in a charger there and I could charge during the day.”

He said that even without the since-cancelled Ontario rebate of $14,000 that helped him buy the Bolt, he’d still buy a new electric car. “I love the torque and the drive,” he said. “I bought the Bolt because it had real electric range. I think that if you have a two-car household, one should be electric.”

We finished chatting, half an hour after Murakami had plugged in with just 4 per cent of his battery power left, and he checked his phone. The app showed he had enough charge now to get home, and then on to IKEA for the next DC fast charge. “It’s becoming more of a problem now to find space at the fast chargers, but usually people are good about it,” he said. “If I have to pay for it, I will, but usually it’s free.”

In another few years, there will surely be fewer free chargers, but for now, people such as Murakami are making the most of them. I realized that the 300 km I’d driven so far in the Bolt would have cost about $40 for gas in my own car, and didn’t feel so badly about sitting around, waiting for the charge to get home.

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