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We Drove the 2019 Chevrolet Bolt in Winter: Learning to Change Habits

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As an all-electric car, the Chevrolet Bolt still has relatively little direct competition on the Canadian market. That will change very soon, however, as we’re about to get introduced to a bunch of new EVs in the coming months and years.

This onslaught will of course bring with it a boatload of new technological advances, so that in future many of the issues today’s motorists have to contend with when owning/driving an electric vehicle will just be bad memories.
But we’re not there yet. In the meantime, we have to manage the realities of today, and one of those is that, in the wintertime, the range provided by EVs’ battery packs melts away like snow under the midday sun.

So how do Canadian drivers manage an EV like the Chevrolet Bolt day-to-day in the colder months of the year, when the mercury can bounce back and forth between 0 and -30 Celsius?

We spent a week driving the little Bolt in mid-January, and the experience was illuminating.

Photo: D.Rufiange

Now, this is not a review per se – we’ve done a more in-depth review of the 2019 Bolt already. Rather, think of it as a quick lesson on how to manage the energy available from an EV in winter. Or maybe we should say, how not to run short of power at the wrong time and place!

Energy management
With a combustion engine, it’s not something we think about very much, because we don’t have to. Range is very high, and when the fuel tank gets low enough that we start to feel the stress, there’s always a service station not very far away.

We can’t yet be that carefree when at the wheel of an EV. Major urban areas do now have their share of charging stations (although it can be challenge to find a free one in some places – check out our Rocky Mountains review of the Chrysler Pacifica hybrid!), but as soon as you leave the big cities it’s a different story. In my case, I live out in the country, some distance from an urban area.

So lesson number-one for EV owners, then, is to know where charging is possible in your environs.

This is common sense, of course, and simple on the face of it. But remember that, as I mentioned above, the chances of you showing up at a charging station and finding it fully occupied are not insignificant. And it may be tricky to find another one nearby. Then there’s the question of time, which we all seem to be short of. And it takes time to recharge an EV’s battery.

From 383 km… down to 215
In ideal and “normal” weather and driving conditions, the Chevrolet Bolt offers a range of 383 km. And yet, when I picked up the car for my week, I was shocked to see the gauge that displays the estimated range based on the current battery charge (which was fully charged) read… 235 km! Now, that’s not peanuts, but if your outings on a particularly day require, say, 190 km of driving, that’s a little stressful, no?

Especially since, on this particular day, I had no time to give to sit a charging station while it recharged.

So, lesson number-two: When you have an EV, you have to be ready to change your habits and your routine. In fact, sometimes you have to revolve your schedule around its needs.

Thus my challenge for the day was to squeeze as much as possible out of the car’s available energy supply so that I had more than a reasonably good chance of getting home under my own steam and not hooked up to the back of a tow truck.

Photo: D.Rufiange

Energy management: the sequel
Here more smart management of resources as required, this time of the range itself. Knowing that I could recover energy via braking in the city, I did my errands in Montreal in the hopes of storing up enough battery juice to get me back home. Home is about 80 km away from that urban centre, and that distance would be covered on the highway, which of course is an energy drainer for EV batteries.

As you drive you can see as you go if you’re gaining range or losing it. On the left side of the Bolt’s dashboard is a gauge indicating the estimated remaining range. But above and below that, it’s also possible to see the maximum and minimum range you could have left. How you drive will decide if you’re getting closer to the former than to the latter; so you can gauge you level of responsible driving, in real time!

I drove the 190 km my errands required. Normally, even with the reduced wintertime full-battery range of 235 km, I should have had 45 km of range left (235 minus 190). And yet, the gauge indicated I had just 10 km left. A good part of the loss came from the cold weather on this day.

An average
Once at home I was able to recharge the battery fully. Next day, I had another outing planned, of roughly the same total distance. Another surprise when I started up the Bolt: the range on a full charge had sunk even lower than the previous day; it now read 215 km. Remember, the advertised “ideal conditions” range is 383 km.

Photo: D.Boshouwers

Now, my goal was to put the EV to the ultimate test. I decided to drive on boulevards and secondary roads to get to my next destination, avoiding the energy-sapping highway. By making full use of the car’s energy-recovery capabilities, I could not possibly run short of battery charge.

As a result, after driving for exactly 54.2 km, the range had decreased by only 9 km, and now sat at 206 km on the gauge. Which meant I had gained back 45 km. And so on it went: after 96.2 km, I had 185 km of range left, for a “gain” of 70 km.

The next morning, after another full night of charging, the car’s system rewarded me accordingly: the range was now set at 247 km.

Lesson number-three: No matter what the range indicator actually says, it’s always possible to get more when you actually go out and drive. And in wintertime, judicious driving means you offset some of the effects the cold temperatures have on the battery pack.

I point out as well that I did not have to deprive myself of the climate control system or the heated seats. I used the car just like I would in any other situation.

Doing this exercise in summertime is even more rewarding. Some owners have managed to get 500 km of driving out of a single full charge.

Photo: D.Boshouwers

An unusual week
One of the little joys of this weeklong test was that I did not have to follow the usual routine of filling up the tank before returning the car. That’ll bring a smile to anyone’s lips…

To fully savour this experience, it is necessary to change you habits… but really not that much. I spent the week making adjustments, but an owner who drives a car like the Bolt over several months and more would quickly make those and their new habits would become second nature.

If you’re thinking of acquiring an electric vehicle but are hesitant, keep in mind that a range of 400 km is more than enough to eliminate the phenomenon of range anxiety. Yes, it will require that you amend some of your old habits, but think of the prize you get for it, which is no longer stopping at the pump.

A Chevrolet Bolt EV in winter? Absolutely, no problem.

There is one caveat. Personally I would choose a model that provides a higher level of comfort. To be perfectly honest, the Bolt offers an in-cabin experience that’s a little too bare-bones.

But as I mentioned, the coming months and years will see an electrical storm of EVs alight on the market. You won’t lack for choice then.

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Photo: D.Boshouwers
Photo: D.Boshouwers