Electric cars may be the solution to some of our problems, but if they’re going to be our main source of transportation they need to work everywhere, all the time.
On a warm, dry road in southern California, EVs seem to have no problem operating as promised. But how do they cope with the harsh realities of a real winter? Can they survive subzero temperatures, repetitive snow storms and freezing rain during six gruelling months?
To find out, I ventured out on a very Canadian quest behind the wheel of a 2019 Chevrolet Bolt EV in the middle of January. Turns out, if you’re going to commit to daily driving an electric car in a northern region, you’ll need to consider a few things first.
(Full Disclosure: Chevrolet Canada wanted me to drive the 2019 Chevrolet Bolt EV in winter so badly it charged one up, threw a bucket of fluorescent yellow paint on it, and handed me the keys for a week.)
What Is It?
It was also a response to the Tesla Model 3. General Motors wanted to beat Elon Musk in the affordable EV race and it knew it needed something a little more substantial than the plug-in hybrid Volt to get there. When you think about it, GM kind of won that race.
But now, times have changed. The Bolt faces serious contenders like the now long-range Nissan Leaf Plus or the Hyundai Kona electric. Also, the Tesla Model 3 is now an actual car people can buy, and it’s quite good.
Yet, Chevrolet’s electrified egg-shaped subcompact is still relevant three years after its release. That’s because at roughly $US45,000 ($63,431) (before incentives) for 383km of range, it remains a good bang for your buck. That’s in Canadian, I should say. More southern Bolts start at a bit over $US37,000 ($52,154).
You get 200 horsepower and 121kg-ft of torque from the car’s 60 kWh battery pack, which allows it to sprint from 0 to 60 mph in a claimed 6.5 seconds. That’s not too far behind a Volkswagen Golf GTI.
Why Does It Matter?
It seems like every automaker is making some attempt to go electric these days, but the Bolt EV is officially the only electric car within GM’s enormous portfolio of cars and trucks. I don’t understand why GM still hasn’t utilised the Bolt’s drivetrain in other vehicles.
Anyway, here in Quebec, electric cars matter a lot as they’re state-supported and is historically the province is among the top EV-buyers in the country. One of the reasons is clean energy, in the form of cheap and renewable hydroelectricity. That’s the same type of power that supplies a large chunk of New York City by the way.
Also, our government actually wants us to drive electric cars.
In the land where poutine was invented, you’ll get an $US8,000 ($11,277) (CAN) tax return if you go full electric. $US4,000 ($5,638) if you get a plug-in hybrid. And an extra 600 bucks if you get a home charger fitted in your domicile.
In Quebec, EVs get a free pass on toll highways, bridges, and carpool lanes. There’s even free parking in some locations. And with over 1,700 public charging stations scattered in and around the province, which you can conveniently find through a free app on your phone, range anxiety isn’t much of an issue.
So yeah, EVs are a big deal up here.
Will It Winter?
Perhaps ironically, Quebec also happens to be one of the coldest fuckin’ places on Earth. In January, temperatures drop to a brain-damaging -40 degrees.
Now, imagine what this does to your car.
Electric cars lose about 30 to 40 per cent of their battery capacity in such extreme conditions, at least according to my good friend Daniel Breton, who happens to coach dealerships on how to handle EVs.
A journalist and a former politician up here in Quebec, Breton’s one of the founding fathers of the entire province’s electrification plans. He knows a thing or two about EVs, and he’s written a few notable pieces about the behaviour of their batteries in the cold.
Of course, gas-powered cars also lose a good percentage of their efficiency in subzero temperatures by burning more fuel. But EVs can’t afford that luxury. At least not yet. Charging infrastructure is still too scarce and charging times are too long, even in Canada.
I found that out the hard way the morning I picked up my Chevy Bolt press unit. When I turned on the car, essentially the same way you turn on a smart phone, the range meter indicated 224km, 159km less than what Chevrolet advertises.
By the time I got home, which consisted of a 24km commute, heater, rear window defroster, and heated seats turned on full blast, that same meter showed 161km.
Now, in fairness, all electric cars have this issue, GM or not. And frankly, I was happy to be in a Bolt, because its massive battery still allowed me to retain a fair amount of range.
The trick with using EVs in winter is to keep them plugged in to keep the battery warm. But I live in an old apartment building. I don’t have room nor the infrastructure to charge at home.
Plus, if I had connected the Bolt with the provided 120V charging cord, it would have taken it 50 hours to charge. Fifty! I’ve also been told that the 120V charger is too weak for Canada’s savage conditions. At -40 degrees, that tiny cord is barely strong enough to provide heat to the batteries.
Luckily, my phone app told me there was a Level 2, 240V public charger just half a mile from my home at the cost of $US1 ($1) an hour. It would take my Bolt nine hours to charge.
The Next Morning
The following day, confident that my little Shock Yellow electric car would have its batteries all juiced up, I gazed through the window onto the desolate winter hellscape that is Canada in January, sipping my coffee, wearing my hoody, enthusiastic that I would drive to the countryside in utter freedom burning no gasoline at all.
As I walked towards my car, wearing three layers of clothes; a tuque, Ski-Doo gloves, the whole shebang, climbing over snow banks and facing the polar wind like the tough Canuck that I am, I imagined myself roasting in the Bolt’s not-so-comfortable heated leatherette seats thanks a juiced up lithium-ion battery pack.
When I got there, the car looked like a big block of ice on which a dog had urinated. In a warm city like San Diego, I’m sure that paint job looks cool, but here, next to this withered mall, in the suburbs of Montréal, covered in shards of snow, calcium-induced ice chunks hanging from its fenders, my Bolt didn’t look so cute.
I eyeballed the onboard computer. It was covered in fog from my steaming mouth. It read 232km. Goddammit!
Still, 232km would be enough to get me to my destination, which was about 129km east of Montreal. Plus, my app told me that halfway there, in the town of Bromont, there would be a fast-charging station (400V). So I was fine.
Range issues aside, the Bolt itself is actually pretty fun to drive. That’s if you can get past the flimsy plastic interior and questionable materials used to cover its dashboard. But there’s a lot to like here.
The low-end torque provided by the electric motor means it’s rather punchy when you slam the accelerator, and the little trigger sitting at the left of the steering wheel that enables regenerative braking is strong enough to immobilize the car entirely. There’s something pleasant about driving a car with only one pedal.
Now, traction was a bit of an issue on ice. That’s inevitable when you’re sending this much instant torque to the front wheels. It also didn’t help my range situation. But thanks to an extremely low center of gravity due its battery sitting on the car’s floor, the Bolt EV is surprisingly well-planted and secure on a slippery surface, which adds confidence when ploughing through a storm.
It’s also quite roomy in there. That’s because, although the Bolt sits in the subcompact car category, it’s actually quite big. Check it out parked next to my neighbour’s Honda Element.
Such girth means the Bolt’s rear seat is spacious, even for an enormous human such as myself. And once that bench is folded flat, it’ll engulf 56 cubic-feet of your gear. That’s almost as much as a Mazda CX-5 crossover. To put things into context, you could fit an entire mountain bike in that trunk, or a very large sled and a dog.
The Charger Situation
Finding that public charger through my app was a breeze. When I got to Bromont, it promised an 80 per cent charge at $US10 ($14) an hour within 50 minutes. So I got working.
But during that 50 minutes, other EV owners wanted to use “la borne”. LEAF owners, Bolt owners, Tesla owners. People basically come up to your window as you wait there in your misty, electrified pod of you, hoping to one day get back on the road, asking how much time you’ve got left, or straight up demanding, “Can I use it?”
I gazed longingly at the people at the gas station across the street, fuelling up in minutes.
After dealing with the crowd of hungry EV owners, I finally got my chance to fill up my car. While my Bolt was feeding on fresh electrons, I walked out to grab a Tim Horton’s coffee and read a newspaper I now happen to write in. I reflected on the availability of charging stations. “This is ridiculous,” I thought. Will parking spaces require their own dedicated charger once we all go electric? And how much power will they need to fill up the next generation of long-range EVs?
At least, for now, any doomsday scenario of overloading a grid is “pure fantasy,” as a report in Wired outlined last year. Even I’ve been told by a Hydro-Québec engineer that Quebec’s electrical grid has enough energy surplus to support 1 million spontaneous charging cars. But driving the Bolt out here, that figure feels like a very long way off.
I got back to my car 30 minutes later. The meter read 174km. A storm was coming. I hit the road.
Welcome to Canada
The Orford area, in Quebec’s Eastern Township region, bordering the state of Vermont to the south, is a post card representation of Canada in winter.
The landscape is magnificent, the trees are abundant, and you can often spot deer and moose on the side of the road. But it’s also immensely windy, the roads are slippery and it’s often dark. Gusts of wind blow snow onto the tarmac as other cars come towards you in the other lane. Driving in these conditions requires concentration, patience, and alertness.
The Bolt was a fantastic companion during this endeavour: feeling heavy, stable, barely affected by the hard wind pushing its flank, smooth electric motor quietly providing locomotion. It’s a fantastic bit of engineering this thing, a well thought-out, efficient machine that also happens to be quite quick off the line.
It’s too bad we’re not seeing more of it at General Motors.
My final destination had no charging station this time. Deep inside the humid wilderness of Canada’s Appalachian region, my electric car would have to rely on the electrical circuit of a cottage house built in 1972. With only 56km of range remaining, I started worrying the 120V charging cord wouldn’t suffice to get me home.
When I woke up the next morning, the cord had somehow worked, and my glowing Chevy told me it could travel 180km. It was barely enough for me to make it back to Montreal, but at least, I could.
As I sat there by a fire, preparing my body and mind to head back into the persistent clutches of old man winter, I contemplated on the freedoms gasoline-powered automobiles have provided us for over a century.
Electric cars are the future, I have no doubt. My entire adventure had only cost me $US16 ($23) of electricity, and I had released zero emissions along the way.
But as alluring as they are, these cars still have a long way to go before they can convince consumers they’re a more reliable source of propulsion than petrol, at least up here in the cold and not in eternally-temperate Silicon Valley enclaves. We’ve been spoiled by gas-powered cars that can sit outside in savage conditions for days, yet still provide enough freedom to bring us to our destination quickly. EVs can’t do that yet, not up here.
Meanwhile, I continue to believe that the Bolt EV is the cleverest car GM has ever built.