Electric Vehicles vs. Gasoline Cars in Cold Weather Driving

Cars drive past an electric pylon covere
AFP/Getty Images

We know electric vehicles have a tougher time in chilly weather than in places like Southern California, where the weather is balmy for most of the year. However, gasoline cars have almost as tough a time maintaining efficiency in the dead of winter, a point highlighted by the Union of Concerned Scientists blog. According to data on EVs versus standard gas cars, the loss of energy is nearly the same when the temperatures drop, with standard vehicles’ main advantage coming from longer ranges.

Fueleconomy.gov rates the average loss of efficiency in gasoline-powered cars between 12% and 22% in city driving at temperatures below freezing when compared to summer weather. In thousands of runs of the Nissan Leaf at freezing temperatures (examined by FleetCarma), the EV averaged a range of 64 miles (23.8% less), just slightly above the high end of gas cars’ economy losses. Since these numbers include all driving (i.e., city and highway), electric cars’ superior economy in urban driving render these scores a virtual tie.

Interestingly, FleetCarma found Chevy Volt drivers losing much more range (over 30%) during winter runs. This data serves as a reminder that EV drivers have a say in how well their battery performs in the coldest months. Volt drivers, who need not worry about range, are more likely to heat cabins to higher temperatures than their pure EV counterparts.

There are several ways to limit the amount of heat drain and make an EV battery last longer, beginning with how you warm the cabin during trips. Rather than waiting to get on the road before turning on the heat, drivers can use the app to make the cabin more comfortable while charging. Likewise, drivers can take advantage of the heated seats that come standard in models like Kia Soul EV.

A Nissan Leaf electric car is plugged in
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Getting range knocked down by 20% or so in an EV will not affect the driving habits of most Americans. A Union of Concerned Scientists survey found about 70% drove 60 miles or fewer, numbers that are higher than other counts taken by automakers. (Common sense suggests drivers generally take to the road less in frigid conditions than, say, on a warm summer day.)

Using this data, you could make an argument against electric cars’ practicality in places that regularly feature below-freezing temperatures. However, this flaw will likely become a moot point once EVs crack 200 miles in range. Getting bumped down to 180 miles would allow most drivers triple the range they need on a given day.

All things equal, electric vehicles still deliver far greater efficiency than gasoline cars because they lose less heat while powering the motor. You might hope for some of that lost heat in the coldest days of winter, but EVs do not discriminate. They refuse to waste energy even when drivers wish they would. It’s another reason why scientists consider them the cars of the future.

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