What I Learned Driving EVs in Northern Ontario

In the past little while, you’ve heard from about several modern electric vehicles (EVs), as experienced in my custody during a week or two at the wheel, round about Northern Ontario.

In each case, and like all vehicles I report to you on, these EVs make a 400-kilometre one-way trek from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), north to Sudbury, Ontario (where I live), and then, back down again.

For the bulk of my career, that has meant driving an EV home for review just wasn’t feasible: the cars didn’t go as far, and the recharging infrastructure on that highway was basically non-existent.

In the more-recent past however, the EVs are going further. Also, my weekly (and lengthy) highway drive sees me pass a few charging stations for electrics, and even more if you have a Tesla.

So, for the first time in over a decade at this game, my first battery-propelled drive home was in 2018 – in a BMW i3 S. This particular unit was optionally equipped with a gasoline back-up generator, just in case. Training wheels, for my first-ever “EV road trip”, if you will.

What followed were the Jaguar I-Pace, intentionally reserved for a deep-freeze torture test in the middle of February. The Nissan Leaf Plus SL came around in the spring, and just this past September, so did the Kia Niro EV.

If you’re wondering, no gasoline back-up is available, or possible with these machines. You couldn’t put gas in them if you wanted to.

What follows is simple: a mashup of my observations of various things EV-related that I learned along the way.

Northern novelties

First thing? The EV is a novelty up here. Mostly because they’re so rare, and more so, because you still get looked at like you’ve got two heads if you’re taking a lunch break or checking your email in a car that’s plugged into a cord. It’s 2019 people, get over it.

But, people are curious. That’s the second thing.

Not a public recharge came and went without questions and concerns from passersby. And since recharging can take some time (we’ll get to that), I had nothing but time to chat. One gentleman I talked to even used a public charging app to see when the nearby charging station was in use, so he could pop by to get a look at the latest electric cars.

So, I’d say my fellow Northerners are curious. Especially the ones driving Bro-Trucks, who love to close in for a better look, often followed by a loud blast-off, possibly in protest of quiet cars.

Everyone has a pickup truck up this way, after all. That’s because almost everyone has a snowmobile, boat, ATV, trailer, and cottage. The pickup is king up this way, almost entirely because of the lifestyles enjoyed by so many folks who live here. And for them, an EV just isn’t going to work, until it can haul a sled trailer 700 kilometres, at 30 below.

Not that we don’t have EVs up here. Especially Teslas. You can hardly do a shoulder-check in Sudbury without seeing a Model 3 somewhere nearby. And there are Bolts and Ioniqs and Smarts and more than a handful of Leafs, too. Some of these owners are friends of mine. For now, I’ll chime in with my observations and responses to some of the most common questions I was asked (and the biggest worries I had).

The big one: what happens when the battery gets cold?

Winter range: the most common question

Common perception seems to be that range is halved, though I did hear from a few friends who supposed only 100 kilometres of driving might be possible on a very cold day. The range takes a hit (same deal with your Silverado, by the way), but I figure it’s not as bad as many folks think.

The Jaguar I-Pace has a 377-kilometre battery in ideal conditions. At the freezing mark, that dropped to about 300. At 25 below, make it 230 on my watch. Another few degrees didn’t change much – I saw 28 below, and 225 kilometres of possible range calculated. Your results will vary.

The Leaf Plus gets a 363-kilometre battery in perfect conditions, but in some cold, early-spring weather with the heat blasting away, I saw about 250 instead.

Based on information from at least one major study on the topic, a 50 percent reduction in range would be expected at or below about -40. There, most of the cars on this page would still get you around for a day of errands or commuting.

In summary: the battery drain incurred by cold weather probably isn’t as bad as you think.

Next up? Charging times.

Charging an EV takes a long time. Some are faster than others, faster still if you find a Level 3 DC Fast Charger to plug into. But filling your Elantra is much faster, and you’ll be able to drive further, too.

That DC Fast Charger (the fastest way to charge), can nearly refill a battery (from nearly empty to 80 percent) in about 30–45 minutes, depending on the car and size of the battery. If you’d like a full 100 percent charge, that time roughly doubles to 60–90 minutes, as these chargers really slow down the charge speed to protect the battery when nearing full charge. But these chargers aren’t meant to dawdle while waiting for a full battery. That same charger can add from a few dozen to hundreds of kilometres of range in the time it’d take you to scarf down a pita, grab a coffee, take a bio-break, and head back to the car.

Northern Ontario is short on these chargers, though Tesla Supercharger stations are available more abundantly, with (I gather) excellent coverage between Sudbury and Toronto. Further, Petro Canada is (I gather) installing one or more Level 3 chargers at their gas stations along the same route in the near future.

You can also recharge on Level 2, which is slower. Thing is, Level 2 chargers are more common, and you can have one put in at home. I did. It cost about $1,000 bought and installed. Your results may vary. Look for Black Friday sales.

The Level 2 charger uses the same juice as your electric dryer, and it’ll recharge an empty EV battery in about seven to 10 hours. Call it ‘overnight’ (but remember, that’s from empty). Plug in to Level 2 at night before bed, and you’ll arrive every morning to a full charge.

That’s convenient. In fact, it’s just as convenient as having someone refuel your Lancer every night while you sleep.

You can find Level 2 Chargers more commonly in public, too. Plug into one while you shop, eat at a restaurant, see a movie, or hit the gym, and it’ll give you a few dozen kilometres of range per hour.

You can also use Level 1, which is a standard household outlet.

This would take several days to refill an empty battery, but many owners trickle-charge their batteries at home on Level 1, and make occasional Level 2 or Level 3 top-offs while they’re out and about (or at work).

The key to this whole thing is that you fill up while you’re not using your car, rather than filling up while you are using it, by stopping briefly on your way to something else.

Also, remember that you can fill and empty your battery in any ratio you like. With a gas tank, we usually wait till near-empty, to totally refill it. With a battery, you take sips of electricity here and there instead. There’s no need to wait till the battery’s empty to plug it in, and if it is, there’s no need to charge it back up to 100 percent.

Still, the lack of public infrastructure is the massively limiting factor.

Public infrastructure still lacking up north

For instance, some trips from Sudbury to popular destinations further north simply aren’t possible, let alone in winter. Over-range trips across a span of highway with available infrastructure take longer, since you’ll need to add power. Thankfully, many recharging stations are located at restaurants, attractions, public transit, and the like.

For many Northerners (myself included), an EV makes far more sense as a second car, leaving the crossover or pickup as the default for longer trips in colder weather.

What about the hydro bill? After all – the electricity that drives the car isn’t free, unless there’s a free recharging station in your area. Ikea has one at every location, as well as cheap lunch, by the way. You’re welcome.

If my math is correct, based on where and how I drive and the rates in my locale, off-peak overnight and weekend charging lets me drive a given distance for about one fifth the cost of making that same trip in a four-cylinder family sedan. Your results may vary.

Performance?

Many folks still live in Narnia, and think electric cars are gutless. This is often the last question in random EV discussions with curious passers-by. It’s usually a little lean-in, and then, under the breath, “But has it got any guts?”

Immediate power a big benefit, plus advanced AWD (if equipped)

Sure does. Kia Niro EV has almost 300 lb-ft of torque and does 0–60 as quickly as a Honda Civic Si. The Leaf Plus, with 214 horsepower, is in the same ballpark. And I’m pretty sure the i3 S could totally toast my buddy’s Honda Civic Si-R in a drag-race, too. Ditto, and more so, the Jaguar I-Pace – with 400 horsepower and stacks of torque.

And with no gears, transmission, shifting power curve or parasitic driveline losses, the EVs performance is incredibly immediate, virtually silent, and most of us won’t miss the exhaust note as much as we think we will.

Full acceleration arrives as quickly as you can apply full power to an electric motor, which is to say, right now. There’s no kick-down, no power curve sweet spot, no lag, no waiting. That’s how electric motors work: 100 percent output is available in milliseconds, at any motor speed, for maximum performance.

Let’s wrap up with a few additional observations and thoughts.

First, relating to electric all-wheel drive, which only came on the Jaguar of this group.

During two weeks with the Jaguar I-Pace in mid-February, I noted excellent performance. Specifically, in regards to the system’s ability to seamlessly transition between varying levels of traction beneath each wheel, maintaining straight-as-an-arrow progress, without so much as a hiccup felt from beneath.

Of course, with no clutches, gearsets, fluids, and shafts to slow things down, precise control of power delivery to each wheel is as easy as changing the current to an electric motor. The result, I figured, was performance as good as any excellent mechanical AWD system, with smoother operation when challenged.

Next, the driving experience itself.

Common to all of these machines? They’ve got throttle response unmatched by just about anything with a gasoline engine. Also, they make virtually no noise. That immediate torque output, unconstrained by revs and gears and power curves, means they’re an absolute point-and-shoot blast to drive through city traffic, too.

Noiselessly sailing away from your fellow stop-light mates never gets old – mostly because of the torque-rich jump off the line, followed by an uninterrupted surge of thrust, and all without making a peep.

Maybe you’re an enthusiast, and you like noise and vibration and drama from the driveline in your car.

I know I do. But I also like quiet and quick just as much. Is one better than the other? Maybe so, maybe no. I think they’re both just swell, and probably, you will too.

Or maybe, you’ll just buy a gas-sipping compact for half the money, and give little thought to how long it would take you to use, say, $25,000 worth of gasoline. After all, a Corolla is half the cost of a Kia Niro EV, you can refuel it anywhere, and it drives even further. Even the gas-electric, less equipped, non-plug-in Kia Niro Hybrid starts at roughly $20,000 less than the low-volume Niro EV.

And that’s fine, too. These are, after all, just some of the dozens of choices you have, on how to get around. It’s always nice to have options – and many more are coming soon.

EV observations from the Frozen North 1/14/2020 3:30:00 AM