woman adjacent to Nissan leaf in snowy residential area
Electric Autonomy’s managing editor, Emma Jarratt, gives her account of EV driving in the winter. Photo: Emma Jarratt

Through southern Ontario’s blizzards, freezing rain, fierce winds and frigid temperatures, Electric Autonomy’s managing editor Emma Jarratt shares the adjustments that driving an electric vehicle in the winter requires

The winter of 2022 in southern Ontario has not been gentle.

Despite a late start with the first “real” snow only arriving in mid-January, the phrase “in like a lion” seems apt.

And while the November-through-March stretch can often feel humdrum, this season brought me a new challenge: this year I’m driving in a Toronto winter in a 2019 Nissan Leaf — my first battery electric vehicle (BEV).

After so many years of gas-powered SUVs and all-wheel drive it’s difficult to say whether the car or I had a look of greater trepidation as the first blizzard of the year started to blow. (Fifty-five centimetres, 48 hours later in minus 20 degrees and there was a palpable feeling of panic, “What have I done?”)

But for better or worse the Leaf and I are together this winter and given 79 per cent of Canadians are seeking data on EV performance in Canada’s winter, it seems documenting my learning curve could prove a useful opportunity for everyone.

Meet my Nissan Leaf

The first thing to know about this peppy 2019 SV hatchback is that she has a name: Daisy Rose. We can all thank my children for the moniker.

The second thing to know is that poor Daisy Rose had the shock of her little car life in the last six months after being uprooted from her native California homeland and shipped unceremoniously across the continent to land in my driveway mid-August 2021.

We are a one-car family and Daisy Rose’s 62.0-kWh battery pack is expected to shoulder a heavy burden what with carting around two small and busy children, their La-Z-Boy sized car seats, a pet, having all of our gear crammed in on odd and unpredictable schedules, while bravely enduring dirty shoes on her seats, smudgy fingers on her windows and shovelfuls of crumbs ground relentlessly into her every crease and cranny.

Daisy Rose tolerates all of that with the silent dignity only a BEV can muster. But three months after arrival she was staring into the abyss of the auto world: an Ontario winter.

The penetrating cold. The corrosive salt. The frozen windshield wipers. What had she done, I’m sure she wondered, in her short and climate-friendly life to deserve such a fate?

But Daisy Rose — the little Leaf that could — is rising to the challenge with gusto and is thriving while driving in the winter, despite her occasionally bumbling handler and pint-sized tormentors.

I’m delighted to eat my slice of humble pie about my momentary faltering confidence in Daisy and admit that my favourite thing about being a new EV owner is being taught so many things.

Seven lessons learned about winter driving in an EV

  1. Plugging in overnight is crucial cell-care. Would you ever put a baby to sleep in a freezing room with no blanket? Unlikely. Charging overnight when the mercury dips below minus 10 degrees is the auto equivalent of giving your battery baby a kiss on the head and a hot water bottle to snuggle down with through the long, cold night.
  2. Not being battered by the elements at a gas pump several times a week is crucial self-care. If for no other reason (though I, happily, do have many more) I would choose an EV every time, if only to get this reprieve from the wind, rain and general ick-factor of sharing a gas pump handle in a time of COVID.
  3. There is a “winter effect” on range in temperatures below minus 10 degrees, but it’s not dire. In the summer with no climate control and a full charge, Daisy Rose gives 407km of range — well above the certified 363km Leaf standard — for city driving. In the dead of winter with heat blasting and a full charge Daisy Rose has 307km of range, which is slightly above the common standard of 20 per cent winter battery performance loss. The winter range reduction hasn’t impeded us getting to where we need to go and, P.S., combustion vehicles lose roughly the same 20 per cent gas economy in winter, too.
  4. To maximize the reduced range, pre-schedule the EV warming so it occurs while still plugged into the charger before you get on the road.
  5. The fastest way to drain the Leaf’s battery is to drive on the highway I quickly learned — even in the warmer months. But a highway is not an appealing place to spend time in the winter anyway with weather advisories and dangerous driving warnings blaring, so it doesn’t feel like a loss to be incentivized to take the slower routes.
  6. EVs can get those crucial winter undercarriage car washes without damaging the battery. (Yes, this was an actual Google search of mine. The nightmare of my laptop’s unfortunate bath several years ago lives clear in my mind.)
  7. It is unexpectedly liberating for my conscious to not feel any guilt about idling in school parking lots, the spot for grocery pick-up or in traffic knowing that Daisy Rose’s silent purr isn’t emitting a molecule of pollution. For the first time since developing an environmental conscious I actually feel good about getting into my car, like really good.

And the verdict is?

Simply put: even though we are still at least a month and a half from spring (thank you, surly groundhog bearing ill-tidings of another six weeks of deep freeze) I have no doubt the Leaf can handle driving in a Canadian winter.

Am I surprised? Yes.

Despite being privileged enough to have access to extensive industry information about EVs, a residence where installing a residential charger was no problem, a garage and ample community support as I learned the ropes of a new way of driving, I still had a lot of question marks as I welcomed Daisy Rose into my family.

It was a leap of faith to put all my trust in an electric car to be driving my little family around with no plan B and one of my standout concerns was about how the Leaf would do in winter.

For the rest of Canadians — the vast majority of whom experience snow and ice and many of whom have none or only a few of the privileges mentioned above — it is understandable that there is a lingering reluctance to transition and a valid need for more information on what it is like to drive an EV in all climates.

For 12 years, I wore a track on the highway driving the east-west corridor from Montreal to Sarnia and as far north as Huntsville. I held fast to my stick shift and gas points cards, never feeling great about the tail of emissions behind me, but not having enough confidence in battery technology to do anything about it.

There is no teacher like real-world experience though, and for many legacy ICE drivers — including myself — actually getting in an EV and seeing it to believe it may be the only thing that soothes all concerns.

My journey into the driver’s seat of an EV began with a weekend rental of an EV. It was an economical and prudent way to test the technology and one that more Canadians could and should take advantage of in order to see if an EV is the right fit for them.

But the biggest question of all: do I ever miss my ICE vehicles and would I ever go back?

Not a chance.

  1. Emma, being imported from California, your Leaf is probably not equipped with the heat pump. I have a 2018 SV Leaf and it has the heat pump. Mine is only a 40 kw battery. In the winter when I leave, I turn on the heated steering wheel and the heated seat on low. I don’t even turn the heat on until the windows start to fog. Our car is parked in the garage and we lose between 20 to 30 kms of range depending on how cold it is out. Normal summer range is 240 kms, now it is between 210 to 220. It does 90% of our driving fine without planning. Going to the cottage in Haliburton is more of a challenge but we have that worked out. Did you know there is an adapter that would allow you to use Tesla level 2 destination chargers? There are two in Haliburton that we use from time to time. We’ve thought of trading up to the Plus Leaf but may wait for the Ariya. They have the Ariya at Yorkdale mall if you’d like to check it out.

    1. Hi Leslie — you are right. No heat pump for my car (though I did luck out with the extra-tinted-for-the-Golden-State-sun windows!), but happily it hasn’t proved a major issue and I’m thrilled to hear that your heat-pump equipped Leaf is even better with winter performance. There are so many new EV models coming to market this year to look forward to. It’s an exciting time to be shopping. Even a few months ago when I was looking for my EV it was really hard to find even one to test drive. Let us know what you think of the Ariya if you do decide to go that route!

  2. You are doing well, Emma. We’ve had a Bolt (still waiting for the battery fix) since 2017. Living in Owen Sound, we find we gravitate to the Bolt for winter around-town driving. It heats up and is very comfortable fast. With the Outback, we’re across town before there is much heat. The Bolt loses more winter range than the Leaf. I read it was the worst at cold weather loss, but it still works for us. Of course with all the GM restrictions, we can’t recharge in the garage. Sure are looking forward to our new battery.

  3. Good article, but I detect some (expected) agenda in your words. Your apparent EV experience is much better then most.

    Some EVs are knocked down very badly in the cold, As I write this, it is -22C this AM, and the very few EVs I know of here will remain parked, useless for the task at hand. With an EV, for part of the year here in NB, you need a spare car. This is not a “reluctance” to move to EV, it is the circumstance. EVs will get there, but it’s a long way off for those that must remain a single car family.

    Waiting months for a technical solution (Ian has been waiting 5 YEARS!! ) or a part for limited production EV is a major issue, and cannot be tolerated by a single car family on a limited budget. ( I am not prepared to wait 5 DAYS for an essential part. ) A Leaf can barely haul itself and the driver, and I find it hard to get excited about. There are probably better choices.

    The turning point will be when EVs can proliferate WITHOUT my contribution of tax dollars. (I don’t think I should have to finance the purchase your new EV) It is a sad state when thousands of dollars of subsidies have to be offered to entice one to purchase an EV. EVs will come, and are needed, so stay the course. The challenge is mostly in the infrastructure, and your article on the “Eight fold Increase” states only part of the problem. When the needed chargers are installed, how do you get the power to them? We do not have anywhere the grid capacity to power just the home chargers, and I have no idea where the dollars are to upgrade it. A month ago, our grid here hit 100% capacity, and some larger industries had to shut down overnight and part of the next day to keep heat on in our homes. The choice? Stay warm or charge the car to get to work? A very poor set of options… 🙁 Cheers!

    1. Hello,

      Thanks for reading my account of owning a Leaf. It’s a factual and honest recounting of my experience thus far and, I agree with you, it has largely been a positive one. I feel fortunate to be able to transition to an EV and that the change has gone well for my family. I hope others have similarly enjoyable experiences or, if they do face bumps along the way, feel they have the necessary information and support available to them to help troubleshoot.

      I agree with you that it does feel like taking a risk when you are a single car family on a smaller budget adopting an EV. That is my exact situation. As a single mother, I will only ever be a one car household, so, I’m all-in on this Leaf for many years to come.

      You are correct that every year more and more choice of electric models comes to the market. Hopefully that increasing selection will meet the varied needs of most consumers. Luckily, for my family, the Leaf fit into our limited budget and meets exactly what our needs are. It hauls myself and my children with no trouble. We are excited about our first zero-emission vehicle.

      Grid load management does vary widely province to province and most utilities and energy generators we’ve spoken to are studying the challenges they face in their particular jurisdictions closely to understand the impact EVs will have on time of use and peak load. Hopefully the smart energy technologies being piloted across the country will offer one method of managing demand and help defer or avoid the need for costly infrastructure upgrades in the future — which is good news for customers. It certainly seems like we will see much innovation in this area as everyone looks for the best solution.

      Very sorry to hear your jurisdiction is struggling with peak demand challenges. That can feel frustrating. But perhaps the adoption of EVs will serve as a catalyst for an overall system improvement and greater efficiencies so your area’s energy needs are fully met in future.

      Thanks for reading.

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