Driving range – no worries in winter

Even with a cold battery in the winter, the range is enough for everyday use. Source: iStock

Driving electric vehicles is environmentally friendly when the electricity comes from renewable power. And accelerating is fun. No wonder electric cars are all the rage. Sales are rising. In Switzerland, Tesla’s Model S and Model X, the Renault Zoe and the BMW i3 are particularly popular. But there is one issue that causes head-scratching – the vehicle’s driving range.

Can I go wherever I like with my electric car? What is the range after I have filled my battery? Will I be able to charge my electric car when I get to my destination? There is even a word for this now: range anxiety.

Never as far as advertised

Manufacturers measure range in a standard cycle test under special conditions. The vehicles are driven without lights and without heat. And with much too little time at full throttle. These assumptions are unrealistic. Electric cars never travel as far in real life as manufacturers claim. You have to deduct a third of their stated range –even in summer, as numerous practice tests have shown.

Even lower range during the winter

The moment of truth arrives during the cold season. Heat alone uses one to two kilowatt-hours per 100 kilometres. And batteries provide less power when they are cold. That’s why German magazine Autobild put some of the most popular electric cars through a realistic course at the start of winter 2017.

Practice test of 143 kilometres

The test consisted of 43 kilometres on the motorway, 18 kilometres in city traffic and finally 82 kilometres on rural roads – a total of 143 kilometres. All of the models involved in the test should be able to cover this distance. The manufacturers promise a range of at least 160 kilometres.

The two smallest cars tested did not pass this test. The smart fortwo electric drive went 84 instead of 160 kilometres, while the VW e-up! travelled 79 instead of 160. Both only managed to cover about half the promised range. The testers drove until the batteries were empty and were then towed to a charging station.

There were fewer problems with the vehicles in the middle of the test pack. These cars covered an average of two-thirds of the standard range. The VW e-Golf went 208 of its advertised 300 kilometres, the Hyundai Ioniq managed 192 instead of 280 kilometres and the Kia Soul covered 167 of its claimed 250 kilometres.

The testers found substantial deviations among the vehicles with the longest range: the Renault Zoe covered 244 instead of 400 kilometres, while the Opel Ampera-e went 273 of its advertised 520 kilometres.

You always have to deduct at least one-third of the advertised range. More in winter. It’s a good idea to figure you will get half the advertised range from your electric car in winter. That way, you will be sure to arrive at your destination as planned – or know when you need to find a charging station.

Charging on the go is a hassle

Charging an electric vehicle takes longer than stopping for fuel for a combustion engine. It takes about 20 minutes to get an 80 per cent charge – and that’s using the fast-charge option. This feature is standard on some luxury models, but it is only available for a substantial premium on many of the small cars involved in the test. The number of charging stations is growing quickly. As of the beginning of 2018, there are almost 3,000 stations in Switzerland with nearly 8,000 connections. Yet it is still not always easy to find a station whenever you need one.

The best option is to charge at home

Plug your car in each evening and let it get a full charge overnight. This is essential. To do this, you need a fixed parking space and an efficient electricity connection with a charging station. A wall box for your own personal use does not have to have a high-voltage current or a fast-charge option, as you will have all night to charge the vehicle. 

Simple charging boxes are available for less than 1,000 francs. It also has to be installed by an electrician. If you live in a single-family house, you simply hire one yourself. Tenants will need their landlord’s approval, while condo owners must obtain the consent of the homeowners’ association.

If you charge at home every night, then you will have an advantage over combustion engines: you will never have to stop at a petrol station. Not even for two minutes. When you start it, your car will always have a full tank, I mean, charge. With the full range.

The only question is: Is the range sufficient?

Enough for most people to get to work

The Swiss Federal Statistical Office says that more than half of all commuters drive to work. The median distance to work is just under 15 kilometres. A round trip is 30 kilometres, which even the last-place electric car in the test field covered with ease. Is your commute more than 40 kilometres one way? Then you will have to take a close look at your car’s range. At that distance, the smart fortwo and the VW e-up!, the two smallest cars in our test, would already be bumping against their limits.

Going skiing would be cutting it fine

Off to the Flumserberg mountains for the weekend? From the Comparis offices in Wiedikon, Zurich, to the Unterterzen valley station, it is 72.4 kilometres, according to Google Maps. Whew. You will make it. With the stars in our test, like the Ampera-e and the Zoe, you can even make it there and back. With the two smallest cars, you should at least be able to make it there. Albeit just barely – hopefully nothing goes wrong on the way. However, to get back, you will have to charge up. And you will need a full charge, not just an 80 per cent quick charge. If you park the car all day long, you should be fine.

But unfortunately there is no charging station at the valley station. However, there is a station at the Walensee resort, and we can even use the Chargemap app to reserve a spot. Swisscharge, another app, shows another station at the Unterterzen multipurpose facility. Unfortunately, it does not have a reservation option. Maybe it would be better to charge overnight and find a hotel with a charging station? Or maybe it would be better to simply take public transport?

Ikea should be manageable for everyone

Shopping out of town, especially at Ikea, is unthinkable without a car. You always buy something. And how do you get it home? From Wiedikon in Zurich to the Ikea in Spreitenbach, a round trip is just 32 kilometres. Not a problem, even with the smallest car in the test. But what if you have to drive farther? Then it is good to know that you can also charge your electric car at Ikea. With a full 22 kilowatts. And free of charge. That’s why this option is so popular – and sometimes all of the spots are taken. Unfortunately, you cannot reserve the charging stations.

Milan is difficult

A trip to the cathedral in Milan is 280 kilometres. None of the cars tested would manage this on a single charge during the winter. So you will have to plan well and find a charging station on the way. And it is best to do so before you start your trip.

Most charging stations offer a high-voltage current. At these connections, you can often draw 22 kilowatts or more. If your car has a fast-charge option, your battery will be full enough again to get you back on the road in less than half an hour.

Electric cars: perfect for short distances

The ranges of all modern electric cars are sufficient for daily driving. Even the smallest cars can cover the short distances. Even during winter. It is not necessary to pay a premium for a fast-charge option for daily driving needs. It makes more sense to have a charging station at home.

If you plan on driving longer distances or even going on proper road trips in your electric car, you will have to plan your route well. It’s best to use several apps to search for charging stations – not every provider shows all stations. If you charge while you are away from home, your car will need the fast-charge option. Otherwise, you will have to wait for hours before you can get going again. With this option, you will be back on the road in the time it takes to drink a coffee.