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the road ahead
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Jason Tchir drove a 2020 Chevy Bolt from Vancouver to Kelowna to test its range in cold weather.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

Electric cars are a lot like Goldilocks: they like things not too hot and not too cold.

That’s because batteries start losing range on either side of 21 C due to battery chemistry and the HVAC systems that keep us from freezing in the winter – or roasting in the summer.

So how much range could you lose on a cold day?

Experts have said up to 30 per cent, but it depends on the model and how you drive it. Most car companies won’t even give a ballpark figure. There are online temperature-based range calculators and a 2020 winter test of 20 BEVs by the Norwegian Automobile Federation (NAF) found that they lost about 18.5 per cent of range, on average, and charged slower.

To find out for myself, I took a 2020 Chevrolet Bolt on a 415-kilometre trek along the Coquihalla Highway from Vancouver to just outside Kelowna, B.C., which is 2 km less than the Bolt’s posted 417-km range. It wasn’t Edmonton-in-February cold, but it ranged from 5 C in Vancouver to -7 C on the Coquihalla’s snowy, slushy 1,244-metre summit.

If you’re not in an EV and have good weather, the drive normally takes about four and a half hours. However, an EV trip-planning app I used said the Bolt could do it in just over five hours, with a thirty-minute stop at a paid charger in Hope, 152 km from Vancouver. With that expectation, I started my trip, aiming to answer a few fundamental questions:

1. Is the listed range actually accurate?

Since the cold, snowy roads and steep climbs all sap range, I figured I might need two stops to charge. When I picked up the Bolt, I wondered if two would be enough.

It was fully charged, but the dashboard display said it only had 239 km range to give – or between 282 and 196 km, depending on how I drove.

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The Bolt's screen displays the car's estimated range.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

That’s because the Bolt’s computer calculates the estimated range based on how it’s been driven recently. Fast speeds, heavy acceleration and blasting the heater all mean a lower number, according to GM.

To get the best possible range, GM’s advice is to preheat the car while it’s still plugged into the charger. That way the charger, and not the battery, powers the heater. GM also said to drive “conservatively,” and mainly use the heated seats and heated steering wheel to stay warm.

2. How far could I really get on one charge?

I put on two sets of long johns and a winter jacket and set out, in the rain, at 6 a.m. I wanted to see how far I could on one charge, so I drove with the heater off and the windows barely cracked open. I blasted the defroster, without heat, only when the windows started to fog up.

I kept to the speed limit, and whenever I could, I used the Bolt’s handy regenerative braking paddle, which slows the car and gives juice back to the battery, to stop instead of hitting the brakes.

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Public fast chargers are increasingly common along B.C. highways.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

When I got to Hope at 7:30 a.m., the battery was down to 55 per cent and I had 170 km of range. Since I’d started with 249 km in range and travelled 150 km, it showed that the Bolt’s computer was especially cautious.

There was nobody at Hope’s two downtown fast chargers, so I sat in the car and charged for 40 minutes to get to 80 per cent. After a battery fills up 80 per cent on a fast charger, the charging slows down. The town advises not to stay longer than 40 minutes as a courtesy to other EV drivers waiting to charge. Since nobody was around, I decided to stay an extra 35 minutes to get up to 90 per cent, or 301 km of range.

I was about to hit the “Highway Thru Hell” and needed all the range I could get.

3. How well does range hold up in lousy weather?

The Coquihalla Highway, with its 120 km/h speed limits, sharp curves and sudden changes in weather, has its nickname for a reason. Major crashes have shut it down for 12 hours or more, leaving drivers sitting in their cars.

It’s also steep. The last time I’d tried it in an EV – on a 1,300-km summer trip from Vancouver to Edmonton in a Volkswagen e-Golf with 210 km of range – I’d left Hope with a full charge. Halfway to Merritt, the nearest town about 120 km away, the car warned me that I didn’t have enough juice to make it.

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The Coquihalla alternated between snowy and slushy for most of the drive.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

This time, it had snowed 10 cm the night before, so the road alternated between snowy and slushy. I was behind sanding trucks most of the way and mostly stayed under 70 km/h.

I got to Merritt at 10:30 a.m. with my battery down to 49 per cent and 150 km of range left, exactly the distance to Kelowna. Rather than risk it, I recharged to 85 per cent. When I left Merritt at 11:30 a.m., the Bolt showed a 250 km range. When I got to my destination, just on the other side of Kelowna, around 2 p.m., it had just 50 km left.

That 150 km trip had used up 150 km of range exactly.

So, the 415-km trip took eight hours, with two of those hours spent charging.

Because of snowy roads, the drive was slower than usual. That helped conserve range.

4. Would there be enough chargers?

The biggest different from my last summer EV trip? There were a lot more chargers.

A couple of years back, there had only been one free downtown fast charger – subsidized by BC Hydro – in Merritt. If it wasn’t working or was busy, there was no other fast charger for 150 km.

There were Level 2 chargers nearby, but they take at least four hours to deliver a full charge – not practical for longer trips.

Since then, both Petro-Canada and Canadian Tire have installed paid fast chargers.

I ended up at Canadian Tire, which charges 27 cents a minute. All four chargers there were empty. In total, it took 55 minutes and cost $17 for an 85 per cent charge. While it charged, I sat in the car with some Tim Horton’s takeout chilli.

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Canada's network of fast chargers will need to keep expanding to get more drivers into EVs.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

In B.C., there are enough public fast chargers along highways now to calm most cases of range anxiety. In other provinces, it’s a mixed bag. There are nearly 1,000 fast charging stations, many of which charge more than one vehicle, across Canada now. Most are concentrated in B.C., Ontario and Quebec – the provinces with the most EV drivers – but that’s slowly changing. There are public fast chargers along the entire Trans-Canada Highway, so coast-to-coast EV trips are possible.

That sounds like a lot of chargers, but as more of us get into EVs, we’ll need a lot more.

On my way back home, I got a taste of that when I stopped to charge at a mall in Coquitlam, a Vancouver suburb.

There was a line-up. The two BC Hydro fast chargers, which will stop being free later this spring, were full, and three cars were waiting to plug in.

“It’s usually way worse than this,” said a woman waiting to charge her Nissan Leaf. “Last Sunday, I waited two hours before I could start charging.”

So would I do it again? Yes. For that highway, it was a pleasant drive, even with the lousy weather and the heat on low. Frankly, driving with the heat off isn’t an option for most people, and the small gain in range probably isn’t worth it.

It’s a trip that could be done with one charging stop in the summer – with enough time to grab coffee or lunch – or two in the winter. EVs might not be ideal for people who like to get places as fast as they can, but they work for leisurely road trips.

Sure, car companies have always said that EVs are best meant for city driving, but with ranges now hitting 400 km or more, longer trips aren’t painful anymore – even in the winter.

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