One chilly fall morning, my husband called to say he'd arrived at work with freezing cold hands.
It was his first time driving an electric car, a 2015 Leaf I'd borrowed from Nissan, and he was so worried about running out of battery range, he'd made the 42-kilometre trip with no heat.
I sighed. I'd made my husband a guinea pig in my experiment to see whether an all-electric vehicle could fit our suburban family lifestyle as a replacement for his old car. Over the next few weeks, we would test out the Leaf, the Ford Focus and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV.
I had apparently failed to set out the ground rules, however. "Just drive like you normally would," I instructed. And thus began our foray into the world of EVs.
What I failed to realize, however, was that driving an electric vehicle was not like normal driving: It required thinking ahead about charging options, the distances we'd be travelling, and the cold, which can greatly reduce the battery's range.
Driving the Leaf to my office for the first time required some special preparations. The parking garage doesn't have many outlets, and the maintenance crew wanted to measure how much current the car would draw from the aging electrical grid. At my husband's work, the only exterior plug was in a loading dock that had to be opened from inside. He then had to drive around the building and use an extension cord.
Distracted by work one morning, he forgot to plug in the Focus until halfway through the day. The drive home, with the heat, seat warmer, radio and headlights on, ate up 53 per cent of the battery's charge and left him questioning the practicality of commuting by EV in winter.
Our week with the i-MiEV really drove home the importance of planning ahead, which I failed to do before heading out to the gym one night. I hadn't calculated how far I'd be driving, and the heater was eating up mileage fast. By switching off all the accessories, I made it home with a nerve-racking five kilometres to spare.
Of course, there are ways to extend battery range, but first you need to learn how it's done: by avoiding harsh acceleration and braking. Dashboard monitors coach you along, awarding graphical tree branches or butterflies as your gentle braking regenerates energy to the battery.
My husband, an avid gamer, enjoyed this gimmick, and didn't care that angry drivers were whipping around us while he coasted to a stop. "What? I'm growing branches!"
I also found the cars fun to drive. I liked the peppy acceleration, and was impressed with the gadgetry in some models. The Leaf and Focus are loaded with tech – built-in GPS, LCD touch screens, voice-activated commands, Bluetooth and smartphone apps that let you monitor and remotely activate certain devices. The kids thought remote climate-control would be a fun way to prank their dad, and said the hands-free text messaging was "awesome."
Over all, we enjoyed our EV experiment, especially the guilt-free sensation of driving without gas. Still, after three weeks and three cars, we haven't gotten over our range anxiety. Those cold hands from Day 1 have turned into cold feet now that we've seen how battery range depletes in winter weather.
Unfortunately, the EVs currently available in our price range simply don't have the battery range we need for daily driving. We're not giving up our goal of greener driving, but we're ready to explore other options.
2015 Nissan Leaf
- MSRP: $31,798-$38,548
- Range: 135 km
- Seats: 5
- Horsepower: 107
- What I loved: It looks sleek and modern, inside and out. Joystick-like gear changing made it fun and easy to manoeuvre. Three trim levels allow for flexibility in price. Impressive standard features include rear-view camera and heated steering, seats and mirrors.
- What I wanted: Separate controls for the rear-heated seats. No need to give the kids one more thing to fight about, right?
2014 Ford Focus
- MSRP: $36,199
- Range: 122 km
- Seats: 5
- Horsepower: 143
- What I loved: Separate tracking for different drivers. Customizable display means I can move the GPS screen out of the sun or switch the radio controls to the steering column.
- What I wanted: More space. My kids were cramped in the back seat and the trunk was eaten up by the battery. You’d never get a stroller in there.
2014 Mitsubishi i-MiEV
- MSRP: $27,998
- Range: 100 km
- Seats: 4
- Horsepower: 66
- What I loved: The price puts this EV within reach for drivers who don’t need much range.
- What I wanted: A trunk – I wasn’t comfortable leaving my shopping bags in the tiny open hatch. Also, better interior lighting to find those well-hidden instruments in the dark.
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