Since taking delivery of a Tesla Model S this past June, I’ve enjoyed plenty of summer driving with the car. But now, up here in Ontario, we are in the thick of winter. Yesterday we drove the car in temperatures ranging between -17 and -23 Celcius. That day was the coldest day I’ve ever stepped foot in the Tesla. I didn’t quite know what to expect. I’d heard that range can really take a nosedive in very cold weather, and until yesterday we’d been driving in winter temperatures that were mostly around freezing, with the occassional -10C day.
Yesterday’s experience, along with the rest of this winter, has convinced me that the Tesla is the best winter car I’ve ever owned. To be fair, I have not owned that many cars in my life. I had an Eagle Vista hatchback that I bought for $5,200 out of university way back in the 1990s. Then I drove a couple of Ford Focus hatchbacks while working as an engineer at Nortel and before having kids. Finally in 2005 we bought a Lexus RX330 SUV, which has served us incredibly well for 10 years. It’s our second car now, and we drive it about 1/10th as much as the Tesla.
Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first. How does the Tesla’s range hold up in -20C temperatures? The answer to this is that it really depends on how you are driving. At these cold temperatures, when you start driving the battery will draw about 10 kW just to heat itself up to a normal operating temperature. This might go on for 45 minutes, so you’ll chew up something like 8 kWh (about 10% of your entire battery charge) just for battery heating. Add on cabin heating and you’re looking at a very big range penalty in the first 45 minutes of any drive. But if you know you’ll be doing lots of driving on any given day, you can schedule your charge to complete just before you need to depart, so the battery will already be warm.
Yesterday’s driving in cold weather amounted to about 240 km. We did NOT schedule the charge to finish prior to departure. It finished charging sometime around midnight, so it cold-soaked in the garage overnight. That morning my wife took the car to teach a class about 30km away. The car sit for a couple of hours in the cold parking lot. Then she drove home. Then I took it out for a lunch 5km away and let the car sit another 2 hours in the cold before driving home. Then, later that afternoon, I took the car 80 km into Toronto, did some driving around while leaving it parked in the bitter cold for several hours between several appointments, and finally drove it home late last night.
I started the day with about 350km of “rated range”. I screwed up by forgetting to set my charge level back to 90% after showing the car to some friends the other day. Otherwise I’d have started with 380 km of rated range.
How far would that 350km really carry us in -20 temperatures wiht the the short-haul (lots of trips) driving we did? About 220km. So I knew, when I was in Toronto, that I wouldn’t have enough charge to get home. Instead of hitting Starbucks for a coffee I just swung by the Lawrence East Tesla store / service center / supercharger location and plugged in for a few minutes while grabbing a coffee in their visitors waiting area and chatting with folks in the store. It was a nice way to grab a few electrons before jumping back in car to head to my next appointment.
If you’ve read this far you might be thinking, “Ok so what makes this car so great in winter?”
Here’s the thing: The range “problem” (if you want to call it that) in winter only exists if you plan to do a significant number of short-haul trips in a single day that add up to something greater than 200km. Lots of short trips totalling over 200km in cold temperature will give you some range anxiety unless you have a place to charge during the day. But days like this, for most people, are very rare. So even with a big range hit due to short-haul trips, I could not care less about range on most days. I usually have 3-4 times as much range as I really need.
But now we get to the awesome part. Cold weather SUCKS. It really does. And in a gas car that has been cold soaking for hours, you have to turn on the engine, wait a couple of minutes before driving, and then you wait another 7-8 minutes before you get meaningful heat from the engine block to heat the cabin.
In the Tesla? I grab my phone, tap on the Tesla app and turn on the heating. I pre-heat the car for about 10 minutes before I even arrive. When I get inside it’s already pretty warm. And if I forget to pre-heat the car it’s no problem at all. Sure, it’s FREEZING in the car when I sit down. But the electrical nature of the cabin heating system means that I get warm air almost instantly. The car is comfortable withing 2 minutes.
Oh, and I realize many gas cars have remote starting features. But they require you to be close enough to your car for the remote to work, and they can’t be used when you are in a garage (unless you want carbon monoxide poisoning). Electric cars have zero emissions, so you can pre-heat the car in any situation. Plus, you do not need to be close to the car, since it’s done via an Internet-connectd app.
This post is getting to be way longer than I intended, so I’ll just wrap:
First, let’s acknowledge that range does suffer in very cold winter temperatures. But the range only suffers the most when you’re doing the kind of driving that does not require much range! Once the car is warm it’s using about 250 Wh/km compared to my summer average of about 180 Wh/km.
Second, what makes the Tesla (and likely most other electric cars) so awesome in winter is the instant heat. I suppose I should also say that electric motors don’t hesitate in cold weather and you never worry if your car is going to start. There is nothing to start. You get in, put it in drive, and go.
Finally, with the Model S being a rear-wheel drive car (I drive the S85, not the newest P85D), many foks are probably wondering how the car handles in snow. Here’s the truth: Get winter tires and you are golden. I drove the car on the first day of snow with my all season tires. It was brutal. I put it back in the garage until 3 days later when I was scheduled to have the winter tires put on. From that point on it as been amazing. I’m sure 4WD would be better (and Tesla offers this now), but I’m not the least bit concerned about driving in snow storms with the setup I have.
(Sidenote: Even with today’s low oil prices I estimate the Tesla costs one third as much to drive compared to our Lexus SUV)