I’ve been attracted to the idea of owning a hybrid or an all-electric vehicle for several years now. I got pretty excited when Tesla announced the development of their more affordable Model 3, so I put down my $1,000 to hold my place in line for a future purchase. After a long wait for news on production and delivery schedules and pricing information, I realized that, even with available tax incentives for plug-in vehicles, the cost of owning a new Tesla was still a stretch for me.
Then a new acquaintance told me how affordable used Nissans Leafs were. The Leaf, like Tesla, is an all-electric vehicle. I wasn’t sold on the Leaf quite yet. New models of plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles were coming out from several car makers, but finding the right combination of size, mileage range, cost and maintenance took some digging. While the Nissan Leaf had a limited range compared to a gas-powered vehicle or a Tesla, it easily beat the electric-only range of plug-in hybrids. Coupled with the range, I also wouldn’t have to maintain an internal combustion engine and drivetrain, which made electric-only vehicles much more attractive. So, I started doing a little more research to compare the options.
Finally, last spring I bought my first electric vehicle, a used Nissan Leaf, and our family sold off one of our two gas-powered vehicles. My 2015 Leaf has an EPA-rated range of 84 miles on a fully charged battery. Driving conditions, speed, driver habits and temperature are all factors that affect range, and “range anxiety” is experienced by most people as they adjust to the new realities of driving electric vehicles. The anxiety is a product of the shorter range and longer recharging, or refueling time, for an electric vehicle compared to a gas- or diesel-powered vehicle.
My range anxiety faded pretty quickly when I realized that the car could easily manage two days of driving the kids to school and commuting to and from work on a single charge before it needed to be recharged. And there was plenty of time to recharge the car overnight, even with the slow, level 1 charger that comes with the vehicle. Upgrading to a faster level 2 charger at home effectively extended the car’s range on those days on which I needed to drive more that usual. Public charging is always an option, too, but I find that I do well over 90 percent of my charging at home.
Last year, I attempted my first longer-range trip to visit my brother’s cabin up north – and I learned a lot about planning, about how to occupy the time when my car is charging and, most importantly, what to do when my plan goes to bust because a charging station was down.
As winter set in, I felt the range anxiety creep back in. I knew that cold weather would affect the range, but I didn’t know how much. Cold reduces the efficiency of batteries at the same time that more power is needed for heat and lights on our cold, dark days here in Minnesota. On the plus side, Electric Vehicles (EV’s) are equipped with climate control systems that can be controlled by a timer or an app so the car can be warmed (or cooled) while it is plugged into a charger, saving the battery power for driving instead of warming the car. EV’s also generally have a heated steering wheel and heated seats, which use a lot less power than the cabin heater. When I’m away from home and the car can’t be plugged in, electric heat is a great advantage in that you don’t have to wait for the engine to warm up before the heater starts to deliver warm air. The electric heaters warm up quickly.
That said, cold weather does effect the driving range. In my experience, when the temperatures dip into the single digits, range can drop as much as 40 percent. It seems that only about a 10 percent to 15 percent reduction is due to the lower efficiency of the cold battery. The other 25 percent to 30 percent is consumed mainly by the cabin heater. It takes a lot of energy to warm all that cold air. By contrast using the seat and steering wheel heaters have almost no noticeable effect on driving range. For me, the reduced range meant plugging in the car every night to comfortably meet my driving needs for the following day, but even if I forgot to plug it in, I could still get to a public charging station near work so the car would be ready for my drive home. Cold weather has virtually no effect on starting or drivability of a cold electric vehicle.
Driving speed is probably the second biggest factor effecting range. When I drive my Leaf in the city, the vehicle has a rating of 126 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent to gasoline). That drops to 101 MPGe for highway driving. So even though the EPA rating is 84 miles on a single charge, I can get close to 100 miles of range doing errands around town, but I’ll get somewhat less than 84 miles if I’m on the freeway doing 70 or so. So my car is not ideal for longer trips, but the car has no problem keeping up on the highway, and the newer models can get over 200 miles per charge.
The bottom line is that our family loves all the advantages of electric vehicles. I love never needing to go to the gas station, except to use the car wash. I love the quiet, the performance and the low maintenance. For longer trips, many EV owners simply choose to rent a gas-powered vehicle, claiming that the money they save on their EV’s fuel and maintenance easily pays for the rental.
Later this year, I’ll be shopping for a used Chevy Bolt, or another all-electric car with a range of more than 200 miles as a replacement for our other car, which is likely the last gas-powered vehicle that I’ll ever own.