Would This One Be The Greenestest?

A Belated Threepeat in Environmental Auto Journalism

In October 2021, Steven’s work won a third AJAC Award for Environmental Journalism. The idea? A blast of reality for electric vehicles (EVs).

Last year, the second place winner wrote about driving electric vehicles around frozen hellscapes of rural Quebec to see how well the batteries would last. A great idea. But most EV drivers are urban commuters.

This article tests a suite of EVs on the highways in the GTA in late winter. It appeared on AutoTrader’s Canadian site but, for your ease and with the permission of the author, it is re-published below. Enjoy.

A Newbie’s Guide to Battery Life: Testing EV Functionality in the Realer Canadian Winter.

“Uh-oh. This ain’t good.”

It’s Sunday, February 21. Welcome behind the wheel of a Cooper SE, MINI’s first fully electric vehicle. It boasts a range of just 177km per charge.

Ranges are government-approved estimates based on assumptions but we’ll talk more about that soon. Right now, you have a problem.

On this cold winter’s day, after the charger at a rival automotive producer’s head office didn’t recharge the MINI EV, its range is down at an anxiety-enflaming 13km. You left the MINI here to be charged while you charged around in the rival brand’s own first fully electric vehicle. Good news: BMW’s head office where you’re driving is just 5-ish km away. In other news: you’ve never trusted range numbers which we’ll also discuss soon enough.

For now, you’re asking: will you make it? We’ll find out later. Now, another question hits you: In the age of anxiety — when you haven’t seen your neighbour’s full face for a year — how can range anxiety still exercise such power?

First, the important question: how did you get here?

This is a test. Last year, a writer from another publication tested the longevity of EVs in the harsh rural Quebec winter. You gotta admire such dedication, especially if you’re a craven bedwetter like me.

But why would this other writer want to drive in the frozen countryside? EnerGuide stats, those government-approved numbers estimating mileage and fuel efficiency, are also the result of tests. But they’re conducted in ideal conditions without traffic, changing weather, or a driver with a heavy foot and ADHD. Since 2015, the reported numbers have come closer to reality, but vehicles are still functionally driven on treadmills in big refrigerators and saunas. That’s why your vehicle’s EnerGuide numbers may still seem what marketers call aspirational.

Back to why: According to Statista.com, 81.48% of Canadians live in cities. Moreover, most EVs are pitched as city/suburban solutions, not to be taken out to rural Quebec. Why not conduct tests that measure the life of different EVs’ battery charges on a large Canadian city’s highways?

The idea’s a win-win. First, a goodly proportion of the target-market drivers do the majority of their driving (and waiting to drive, inch by frustrating inch) on highways in and around Canadian cities.

And second, if the worst happens and the charge evaporates, the writer doesn’t risk frozen death, just, less dramatically, a late dinner. The CAA will tow a spent EV to the nearest charging station. Haven’t renewed your CAA membership since 2012? You can do it from your phone and still get assistance in minutes! Win-win!

The following measures 3-hour spurts by EVs on GTA highways in winter.

Is what’s here reliable scientific head-to-head comparisons? Not really. The weather varied radically throughout this story’s five testing days. Not all the EVs were fully charge upon pickup — charging demands greater palaver than filling a tank. And the traffic was dependably inconsistent, magically manifesting snarls out of nothing or suddenly speeding through construction zones.

Then again, what is a fair scientific test? After all, no EnerGuide-approved testing facility’s ever been interrupted by an Amber Alert, flash flood or glassy-eyed crackhead with a squeegee. So, here are the numbers from the ‘tests’, accompanied by some anxious observations. In all cases, the car was simply driven in the default mode (i.e. not sport, eco or ‘ludicrous’).

Tuesday, March 2, 10:15am – 12:25pm: The last e-Golf in the Volkswagen fleet, from $37,895.

Ever stored your iPhone in an outer pocket on a frigid day only to see its store of power plummet from 90% to zero? Like a Speedo on a swimmer in Maine, coldness can sap a battery’s power. It’s one reason EnerGuide testing began including treadmill drives in extreme temperatures a few years back. It’s more honest.

Speaking of extremes, over the 36 hours that four of the seven EVs here were tested, temperatures ranged between minus 15 and plus 10. The e-Golf suffered the worst of the cold. Its ‘3-hour test’ was truncated to 2:10.

Did you know the e-Golf is being retired? This tester was the last ever to appear in VW Canada’s press fleet. Indeed, it was about to be shipped away for auction when my request to test arrived. Its winter tires had already been replaced with all-seasons, which would affect the mileage positively if slightly. Luckily, despite the frigid temperature, there hadn’t been any precipitation in over a week. Road conditions were dry and no one was endangered in this quasi-scientific experiment. Let’s motor!

Good fun to drive, the e-Golf was a compromise model, adapted from the fuel-powered VW Golf. So, unlike most EVs, the floor isn’t covering a spread-out and anchoring battery. Later this year, VW will introduce the ID.4 which has been designed from ground up as an EV.

When we left VW’s head office, the estimated range, “Max” as the dial called it, was 174km. When we returned, it had driven 172.1km. So, the battery was low. However not as low those numbers would suggest. The range estimated 27km left till empty. No wonder the computer intervened and flashed onscreen “Limited convenience functions.” Mind, I had already turned the heat off — didn’t need it with my own temperatures rising. Still, we made it with some juice to spare.

The drive from VW to the next EV was 60km away, expletive deleted.

Same day, 1:25 – 4:30pm: 2020 Chevrolet Bolt, from $44,998.

Each EV boasts its own nomenclature and information presentation. While the e-Golf had shown “Max” the Bolt reports “Fully Charged” and an estimated 307km till the battery’s kaput.

Chevrolet began selling the Bolt in 2015. Clearly, they’ve been taking notes from buyers since. When I dropped it off three hours later, it had only emptied the juice to slightly below the graphic’s 25% line. The exact percentage doesn’t show, just a decreasing bar like most gas tank indicators.

Interesting. Do exact percentages matter to drivers as much as approximate clicks left in the charge? Maybe not. The Bolt delivers a range estimate: useful. When returned to the dealership after three hours on GTA highways, it reported an anally specific 79 to 93 kilometres remaining.

On the highway, the ride was grippy and the steering was satisfyingly tight at speed. We’d covered 227.6km which is exactly 79.4 fewer than the originally predicted 307. Chevy’s been taking notes.

Wednesday, March 3, 9:15am – 12:17pm: Nissan Leaf Plus SL, from $52,898.

Nissan was the first major manufacturer to sell EVs in Canada, arriving in early 2011. I drove the first generation a decade ago in the first ever AJAC EcoRun. This EV’s come a long way but still feels delightfully like the different animal every EV is. It hums mellifluously when accelerating and glides gently to a halt when not, without need for braking. Like a bumper car.

As that extended name suggests, this tester contains a longer lasting battery — hence that price. The language and symbols the Leaf uses to express what the driver needs to know is a simple “100%” with a battery icon beneath, flanked by the Leaf’s predicted range: 351km. When dropped off after exactly three hours, its same dial indicates 12% and 45km. Having covered ugly highways to Oakville, Markham, Ajax and back to south Etobicoke, the odometer’s increased 227km. Quite good.

Same day, 12:30pm – 3:40pm: Kia Soul EV, from $42,995.

Unlike yesterday’s distance between testers, the pickup spot for the Soul is just five minutes’ drive from the Leaf’s drop-off. A quick check of the dials before launch: The battery is charged to 100% and there’s an estimated total of 348km left in the electro-tank before you would need to call and renew your CAA membership.

Another circuit around the GTA’s foulest stretches of tarmac prompts moody ponderings. Like saying a familiar word over and over again till it starts to sound wrong, so much traveling around Canada’s densest area after so long stuck in one place alerts me, afresh, to just how bloody ugly the GTA is. Blah!

But the Kia Soul EV, an unabashed rolling breadbox, helps sweep away the gloom. Before you can count to 180 minutes, three hours have flown by and we’re dropping it off. We’ve added 244.8km to the odometer and there are still 86km in the battery. Mind, it was 17 degrees warmer than yesterday’s first drive.

Monday, March 8, 11:10am – 2pm: Hyundai Kona EV, from $44,999.

Note the time. Some paperwork and red tape consume the first minutes of my schedule. Soon I’m behind the wheel, reading the stacked stats in the Kona EV: “Battery 89%, Range 334.” Outside, it’s 9 degrees and sunny.

Today would have been the first day of March Break for many Ontarian students but … you know. After a leisurely 45 minutes and owning the highways, I note to myself how empty and civilized these once-crammed roads have become. Big mistake! Maybe my optimism suddenly stuffed the ‘park’ into Don Valley Parkway. We sit and crawl for 15 minutes. Then, for no apparent reason, this huge Slinky unbunches itself and we’re off again.

After nearly 3 hours, the Kona is back at Hyundai’s HQ. We’ve traveled 263km and there’s still 17% left in the battery. If that has you feeling good, don’t forget you still haven’t delivered the MINI which is running on empty. But there’s one more EV to measure before then.

Sunday, February 21, 10am – 1pm: Volvo XC40 Recharge, from $64,950.

This brief spell behind the wheel of Volvo’s first fully electric vehicle is actually the second half of a launch event that went pear-shaped in January because of … you know. Usually these launch events are a logistics ballet and manufacturers do all they can to execute them flawlessly but Volvo couldn’t overcome a lockdown. Which is why I’m surprised to note the XC40 Recharge isn’t fully recharged. Their car jockey admits the previous driver hadn’t charged it.

At 100% the XC40 EV’s purported range is 335km but 93% proves plenty. After nearly three hours, we’re back at Volvo and its battery is emptied only to 13%, with an estimated 35km left. I had not been gentle.

A warning: The Volvo XC40 Recharge adds 20 pounds to your right foot. With that price comes 486 lb-ft of torque and 402 HP. It’s a quiet cannon.

Back at Volvo, I dropped the key in the after-hours slot, unplugged the charger, re-entered the till-now charging MINI and pushed Start. The dial soars from zero to 100%, then recedes back to 13km. Which is where you came in.

Same day, 1:20 – 1:29pm, MINI Cooper SE, from $42,956.

Why hadn’t the MINI charged more higher than 2km in range? Had I inadvertently unlocked it when Volvo’s detailer hooked up the charger? Perhaps the charger was defective. After all, the XC40 wasn’t fully charged. Regardless, here we both are. A warning flashes “Electric range severely reduced” as if I need to know. If I were hooked up to an EKG, it would read: “Heart palpitations severely increased.”

It’s a breezy -2 degrees but the heat stays off. We don’t engage the brake, just coast-stop to red lights and stop signs. That’s the charm of most EVs. They simply halt when you lift pressure from the accelerator. But you need power first. Will we make it?

At 1:28, redemption is ours! We arrive at BMW HQ!

I plug the MINI in without needing to call anyone to bring an extended extension cord. FYI, unlike every other EV here, the MINI’s being dropped off after nearly a week’s loan. The protocol for such agreements is the writer washes the vehicle first. Deciding it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission (a lesson learned after a year of nothing to do but observe my dog) I don’t risk the extra 3km to the carwash.

We probably could’ve made it, though. There’s still 8km left on the dial.