A sudden battery cell failure gave Electric Autonomy Canada’s managing editor firsthand experience of a worst-case EV repair and the opportunity to put a Chevy Bolt through its winter paces
Well, it was almost a perfect happily ever after.
Two days after Daisy Rose’s debut on the world stage she, quite literally, drove into the sunset: taking my children and me for a weekend at a rural property an hour out of the city.
Over the course of our Friday afternoon drive, Daisy, a 2019 Nissan Leaf, whisked us north with all the expected vigour of a car in its 18,800-km odometer prime. After a faultless journey, her cargo was decanted and she was plugged in, as usual, for a well-deserved night’s rest.
Saturday morning broke: pre-dawn shoulder pokes by eager little fingers, milk and cereal spills on the table and the eternal hunt for mittens, scarves, hats and boots. Finally, we were all ready to leave for the skating rink.
Unfortunately, Daisy Rose was not.
After three failed start attempts I was confounded: Daisy Rose’s lights, wipers and dashboard would all start up, but her motor and climate control would not, nor would she charge.
The only clue was a cryptic message on the screen: “Service EV System. Unable to start after power off.”
Little did I know at the time, but this error signal would plunge me into the world of rare EV repairs, providing firsthand experience about how to navigate the growing pains of this bourgeoning industry.
What is going on?
There is nothing in the official Nissan owner’s manual about this indecipherable alert from the Leaf, but one “Dr. Google” search later I found a handful of drivers from the U.K. to Seattle with the same anecdotal feedback: battery cell failure.
I got on the phone with Nissan. None of the three dealerships nearest to me had EV techs on duty over the weekend. There was no one else who could help before Monday.
This was far from an ideal solution, but I lined up a tow truck ride back to town for Daisy and we caught a lift home in my father’s truck — an enormous gas guzzler, no less.
On Monday afternoon, Daisy Rose arrived at our local dealership while I continued to car-share the petrol-glugging truck, waiting to hear the diagnosis and crossing my fingers that Daisy Rose was just suffering a petit mal rather than a full-on aneurism.
Wednesday brought official confirmation from Nissan: Daisy Rose was to be admitted to the ICU (also known as the EV repair bay). She suffered a battery cell failure requiring a module replacement and the parts need to be specially made and flown in from Japan.
In short: the timeline on this repair is possibly months, not days, and as a single mother with no back-up vehicle, this posed a serious problem.
It was though, at this point, that the universe (via the kindly retailer who sold us Daisy Rose) decided to throw me a bone in the form of a snappy little electric loaner chariot we’re calling Winston Allan III, the gunmetal grey 2019 Chevrolet Bolt Premier.
So, if there is a silver lining to be found here it is that I had the benefit of experiencing two EVs through an Ontario winter and get to share the findings of both.
Making lemonade out of lemons
If Daisy Rose has the disposition of the whimsical and ever so slightly aloof poodle of the car world, Winston Allan’s spirit animal is the affable and unassuming English Bulldog.
Everything about the Bolt wants to be noticed and liked. It has an exuberant singsong greeting upon opening the driver door, there is a geometric decal and vivid blue illuminated strip along the dashboard and a heated steering wheel to ensure warm paws. If you gave it long enough it would probably learn to roll over and shake a wheel for a treat.
To be honest, I never gave the Bolt any consideration when shopping for my electric vehicle and, no, it wasn’t because of the battery fire debacle.
My only exposure to the Chevy Bolt was in the decidedly non-winter month of July during an early EV shopping reconnaissance trip, when the 20-something sales associate let me peek in his. The back seats were folded down to make room for a mud-spattered mountain bike, still crammed inside. The six-foot plus owner assured me it was a comfy ride, but it seemed impossible, sizing him up next to the car, that there was any way that would happen without the poor fellow having to remove one of his legs (at least), much like the front wheel of his bike. It could be an acceptable car for a child-free driver, I thought, but impossible that it could fit a family.
Winston Allan took my children’s car seats (followed by the children themselves), backpacks, extra blankets and pillows, requisite quorum of stuffed animals and various on-road entertainment supplies without a grumble. The Bolt’s cabin, once we are all inside, feels equally as large as the Leaf’s. Where it loses size is in its snub nose (actually a benefit in tight parking spots) and its truncated truck, which, there is no way around it, is dollhouse-sized small to a comic degree.
(The only other criticism came from my eldest, whose dismay that Winston did not have gull wing doors is ongoing.)
Had I given the Bolt a closer inspection during my EV shopping period I still believe the lack of trunk space would have been the deal breaker, but it would not have been as cut and dry as my initial assessment. If nothing else, of all the seven vehicles I have ever wrestled those 31-pound car seats into, the Bolt is by far the easiest, which is a major — perhaps primary — selling point in any parent’s book.
But it is the difference in handling in winter conditions in Winston Allan III that is really surprising when comparing the Chevy Bolt to the Leaf — or any other car I’ve driven for that matter.
Unexpected winter warrior
Whereas Daisy skims along the road in summer and winter (occasionally stumbling over a slushy spot or icy intersection), one block in Winston proved that it is possible to have a car without all-wheel drive that handles like an armoured personnel carrier, just in miniature.
Whether or not the Chevy Bolt has a centre of gravity that is actually lower down and therefore sturdier than the Leaf in winter conditions, I will leave for the true car wonks to figure out. But it certainly feels that way to me.
The Bolt is the smallest car I’ve driven, but, much like the bulldog, it positively clamps onto the ground it’s on. During our first 35-minute, horizontal sheets of sleet drive home on the highway (and our many on- and off-highway rides since), come hail or high drifts, Winston doesn’t so much as shiver off his steered line. When he encounters a stubborn mound of heavy snow in the road you can feel him square his little juggernaut axles and charge right through. This tenacity is most reassuring.
Due to the active liquid thermal management, which helps to extend battery life while the vehicle is running in hot or cold temperatures, and joyful features like a heated steering wheel and heated front and back seats, the Chevy Bolt is, definitely, a more winter-hardy vehicle than my Leaf, which still relies on passive air cooling.
The lesson is that Winston has provided lived experience that it is worth splurging for these extreme weather features in an EV, if available, and the difference is notable. Winston has a range of 383 km on a full charge (on par with Daisy Rose), but by not having to expend so much energy heating the cabin that range holds up far better in the winter.
Which just goes to show, there is a lot of substance to the requests of cold-climate drivers to have EVs with appropriate features to maximize the battery performance and the industry should pay close attention to that.
Don’t look in the rear-view mirror
It is certain that many more lessons, some beneficial and others maddening, will be learned as we continue down the EV repair road with our Leaf.
And despite the eyes-to-the-sky “Why me?” part of the seven phases of grief following Daisy’s untimely and highly ironic collapse, I still believe EVs are the best option for drivers from a health, environment and economic view.
This week, after a deep winter month with us, Winston Allan III the Chevy Bolt returned to his owners as a Nissan-backed rental became available — a non-EV Kia Soul the kids have informally nicknamed “Stinky.”
It’s a new spin on the general issue of transitioning to zero-emission vehicles to see the matter through their eyes.
My youngest is indignant at the Soul’s “guh-saust pipe blowing smoke,” while my eldest grumbles about the noise in the cabin (and devastating lack of gull wing doors). Both mutter under their breath about “the gasoline engine.”
My kids — and many others of their ages — won’t remember the gas cars of their babyhood. And now that my family’s mobility experience is so largely rooted in zero-emission vehicles, driving around on a tankful of gas equates, for us, to a conscience full of guilt.
Clearly, there are rough spots of EV ownership that need smoothing out and hopefully automakers move quickly (as in right now) so their EV customers see repair wait times equal to combustion engine patrons as more battery and EV manufacturing facilities open around the world. The service industry around EVs must scale in time with, or even more quickly than, adoption rates for this transition to be at all comfortable for early adopters — no one likes feeling like a guinea pig in an experiment.
The good news though is my Leaf’s battery repair is covered under the eight-year battery warranty and it’s looking like the timeline will end up being closer to six weeks rather than the three months I had been cautioned to prepare for.
So, even though the worst has now happened to us when an EV goes wrong, having to return to burning fuel to get around only solidified my answer to an important question.
Do I ever miss my ICE vehicles and would I ever (voluntarily) go back?
Still not a chance.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the Chevrolet Bolt’s battery management system is called “active liquid thermal management.”