Winter Driving

Chevy Bolt in the snow.

Electric vehicles are a great choice for the winter

EVs are ready for the colder temperatures. They do decrease in range, but so do all conventional gas powered cars.

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Introduction to Winter Driving

Many people are concerned about the performance of electric vehicles in winter. Electric vehicle (EV) performance does change in winter, but so does that of gas-powered cars. There are thousands of EV drivers who drive through winters in New York and New England (and even colder places like Canada and Norway) with their EVs every year. Here’s what winter weather will do to your EV and tips from other EV owners.

What happens to my EV in winter?

Your range will decrease in the winter. Batteries operate less efficiently when it’s cold, so a cold battery will get fewer miles per kilowatt-hour than a warm battery. As a result, a full charge will not get you as far in winter as it would in spring, summer and fall. The ratings on miles per charge have been shown to be accurate on a year-round basis with the other three seasons more than making up for the winter. For most of the year, EV drivers can expect to exceed their car’s rating, but on cold days, we can expect less than the car’s rating. This is one reason customer satisfaction ratings for EVs are generally much higher than for gasoline powered cars.


Many modern EVs have a system that heats up the battery to keep it operating at an optimal efficiency. However, heating the battery consumes some of the electricity the battery is storing, so this measure decreases range. In addition, because EV’s drivetrains don’t squander energy by creating waste heat like gas-powered cars (60% of the energy created by burning gas is lost to waste heat!), you will have to use some of the battery power to heat the car to a comfortable temperature. All of these factors mean your EV’s range will decrease when it’s cold. With that said, gas-powered cars’ ranges also decrease in the cold: according to the U.S. Department of Energy, “Fuel economy tests show that, in short-trip city driving, a conventional gasoline car’s gas mileage is about 12% lower at 20°F than it would be at 77°F. It can drop as much as 22% for very short trips (3 to 4 miles).” So, whether you’re in a conventional gas-powered car or an EV, cold weather’s going to decrease your range, period.


Driving in snow and ice will be… fine. Electric vehicles generally have a low center of gravity and evenly distributed weight, which make them easy to maneuver and get you good traction. In many EVs, the battery essentially forms the floorboard of the vehicle, which adds extra stability. Yes, you’ll make it up that hill or through that lump of snow! There are a few EVs available with all-wheel drive, and more on the way.
 

Debby Nissan LEAF testimonial

How much range will I lose in the cold?

The short answer is, of course, “it depends”. How much range you lose in the cold depends on: what car you drive, how you drive it, how you heat it, how cold it is outside, where you park, and many other factors. The good news is there are steps you can take to extend your range as much as possible, which we discuss below.


The following information is out of date, but reliable numbers are hard to come by when discussing the decrease in EV range during cold weather. This example discusses the range of older model EVs, but should still help you get a feel of the decrease in range during the winter months.  The U.S. Department of Energy cites researchers at Idaho National Laboratory to explain the effect cold weather has on EVs: “They found all-electric Nissan Leafs driven in Chicago in the winter had 26% lower ranges (60 miles compared to 81) than those driven in Seattle in the Fall. Similarly, they found that plug-in hybrid electric Chevrolet Volts driven in Chicago in the winter had 29% lower ranges (30 miles compared to 42) than those driven in Chicago in the spring.” Keep in mind that this research was compiled from January 1, 2011 – December 31, 2013, so ranges have increased in both the LEAF (now 151, and soon to be over 200) and the Volt (now 53), which leaves you with more range in winter months. The longer the initial range, the better off the EV will be in colder temperatures. 
 

Winter Driving Collage.

Tips for Getting the most out of your EV in Winter

You don’t need to buy a second car for the winter or restrict your driving radius. To get the most out of your EV, we recommend that you:


Precondition your vehicle. “Preconditioning” means heating up your car’s battery while it’s still plugged in. (Most cars will allow you to start preconditioning remotely via cell phone.) This way, your battery warms up and operates more efficiently when you start to drive but you don’t have to deplete your battery’s reserves to heat it. Not to mention that you step into a warm vehicle when you’re ready to leave, so you won’t need to crank the heat as much when you unplug. It’s a win-win-win!


Use the special heating features of your vehicle. Most modern EVs offer seat warmers and heated steering wheels. Use these features! They require less energy than heating the air and will make you feel comfortable even if you keep the cabin air temperature slightly lower.


Drive efficiently. Turn on regenerative breaking or set your car in eco-mode. By capturing any energy that might otherwise be lost, you’re extending the range of your car. If ever there was a time not to speed, it’s when it’s cold outside. Speed increases drag and drag reduces mileage.


Clean off your car. Chunks of snow and ice weigh down your vehicle and compromise its aerodynamics, both of which will reduce your range.


Put on a sweater or keep on your coat. We are all used to driving in toasty cabins because we have become accustomed to the heat of incredibly inefficient gas engines. It’s obvious, but if you keep on your coat or put on a sweater (gloves are a good idea too), you’ll need to heat the cabin less and your battery will thank you.


Park and charge somewhere warm. If you can park and charge your EV someplace warm, your battery will be glad. For example, if you park outside, parking on the sunny side of the parking lot rather than the shady side will make a difference.

Want more information?

Look here for more great advice from the U.S. Department of Energy. 


And to see how your favorite EV holds up in a cold climate like Norway’s, check out this report by Norsk elbilforening.
 

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