How Do Electric Cars Handle Freezing Cold Weather?

Electric vehicles are the way of the future. From Norway’s zero emissions movement the EV commuter wave, people are embracing EVs all over the world. Once a cute novelty for short distances, EVs now have the torque required for high speeds – even some hauling – and the battery power to handle medium distances between charges. However, with winter upon us and EV releases at the top of everyone’s mind, this leads to one very important question: How do electric cars handle freezing cold weather?

Those of us who have spent a few winters in places like the freezing Midwest where engine heating blocks are a normal part of the morning commute have some legitimate questions.

  1. Do EV batteries go dead in the cold, like the smaller starter batteries of gasoline vehicles?
  2. Does the cold affect the range of your EV?
  3. When most cars use engine heat to warm the cabin, how do electric vehicle keep passengers warm?

These are all important questions to ask, and we have the answers.


It’s True, Batteries Don’t Like the Cold

Right now, most electric cars are powered with either Lead-Acid or the heavier but more efficient Lithium-Ion batteries. Both types of batteries are liquid chemical batteries, and power comes from electrons bouncing around in the liquid. Just like the starter battery in a gasoline engine, extreme cold causes the liquid to become more viscous (sludgy) and electron movement inside the liquid chemicals will slow down.

This is why car batteries of all sorts perform more poorly in the cold.

But Your EV Won’t Stop or Die in the Cold

However, you don’t have to worry about your EV stopping entirely. Electric vehicle batteries are much larger and more self-regulating than a little starter battery. While it’s possible to allow an EV to drain fully, you will get plenty of warnings and opportunities to charge or top-up with the traction battery before that happens. What happens is that your battery loses efficiency, but it doesn’t die entirely.

EVs Self-Heat and Self-Regulate

Your EV is also self-regulating. It can use a small internal heating system to warm itself and make the battery more efficient, but this also spends a little energy. Ultimately, this results in less energy loss than running on a frozen battery, but you will still lose some range as a result of the car managing its own freezing temperature and battery maintenance.

We found most EVs lose about 20% of their range in the coldest temperatures, and give fair warning any time their charge is low while you are out driving.


Electric Vehicle Efficiency in the Freezing Cold

So just how much EV efficiency is lost in the cold? The answer is somewhere between 9% and 50%, depending on the model, conditions, and whether you’re running the heater. The Hyundai Kona is the best performer, only losing 9% battery range without the heater running. While AAA found that the average EV lost between 20% and 41% on a practical trip with the heater on.

Running the Heater Does Make a Big Difference

If you suspected there would be a difference due to the lack of engine heat, you’re right. In the freezing cold, expect to lose about 20% of your range, but watch that battery efficiency if you need to blast hot air. It’s true that EVs don’t have engine heat to pipe into the cabin on a cold day, so it uses electricity to generate heat, which uses some of your battery power to heat the air over electric coils like an in-home HVAC instead.

This is why the heater makes such a big difference to your EV range. But it’s also why so many EVs come with nifty heating alternatives that use less power than the air system, like heated seats.


Increasing Your EV Efficiency in the Winter

We’ve taken a look at how EVs perform in cold weather. Now let’s talk about smart vehicle maintenance to get the best winter performance from your EV.

Keep the Battery Charged

Just like your gasoline vehicles, keeping the battery full is one of the best ways to improve performance. Your EV will have a better daily range, and self-regulate more efficiently, when it starts with a full charge. Give your EV the best change possible to optimize its own performance with internal heating and a high starting range each morning. Plug-in overnight.

Warm Up in the Morning

While your engine block heater isn’t useful for an EV, the premise is the same for the morning warm-up. Instead of heating up your engine’s internal fluids from winter-sludge back to liquid, a battery heater can return that sludgy battery acid back to an electrically-active liquid and improve your starting efficiency. This also gives the internal battery warmer a head-start in fighting off cold when you’re out on the road.

Use Heated Seats to Minimize Heater Use

While the air heating system may be a major battery drain, many EVs have heated seats as a cozy alternative. Switch on heated seats for driver and passengers to keep warm. Then either forego the air heater, or keep the settings low for a balance of winter comfort and efficiency.

Find Chargers Away from Home

In the winter, it’s more useful than usual to find EV charging stations while your vehicle is parked. Top-up while you’re at work or shopping to maximize your range, extend your trip options, and get home with a comfortable level of charge. There are plenty of online map widgets to help you find both fast and slow charging stations out in the wild.

Drive Gently in Eco Mode

Finally, optimize your EV with Eco mode as you would any time you want extra mileage. Chill in the slower lanes of traffic when you’re not in a hurry and coast home if your commute challenges your winter-time battery range.


EVs vs SUVs in Freezing Climates

So here’s the real kicker. You may be thinking that the EV efficiency loss in the winter is less than worth it. Many people in freezing climates are adamant about the need for SUVs and crossovers to commute safely. But now that EVs have the traction and torque needed to handle icy roads, the debate has become one of range and efficiency.

Let’s remember that these performance differences only occur down below 40 degrees F, and most tests took place below 20 or even 0 degrees F. So, for those of you who live in regions with mild winters, the EV efficiency loss may only be noticeable on the coldest days of the year.

For those who live in places like Norway or the freezing Midwest, let’s be real. Heating your EV in the morning isn’t that different from firing up the block heater 1-3 hours before work every winter morning. If you already bundle-up for the commute and your commute is within 80%-40% of your normal battery range, you won’t notice much of a difference in your morning routine. And the gas price savings? Many would say the change is worth it.


How do EVs perform in freezing weather? While they do lose efficiency, the steps needed to optimize your EV winter performance are pretty directly comparable to the steps needed to fire up a gasoline engine in the same conditions. You’ll still need to warm up your power-source in the morning and drive carefully on icy roads. And in 5-10 years, we may see solid-state batteries that can out-perform gasoline cars in cold temperatures.

If you’d like to learn more about protecting your vehicle during the winter, don’t hesitate to contact us at any convenient time.

Kenley Wallis