Does the performance of an electric car decline when the temperature drops?

The performance of an electric car can PLUMMET when the temperature drops: Here’s three ways to boost batteries when weather turns cold

  • Range can drop by as much as 50% due to repeat cold starts, experts said
  • That’s because electric cars produce far less waste heat than petrol or diesels
  • It means owners need to rely on heaters to warm the cabin, which saps power
  • Cooler conditions also impacts charging time, battery performance and how regenerative brakes operate 

More drivers are likely considering making the switch to electric vehicles given recent news that the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars could be banned as early as 2032.

But that’s not to say motorists don’t have their concerns; primarily centred around range anxiety, a lack of public charging infrastructure, how the national grid will cope with increased demand and the upfront cost of plug-in vehicles.

But another question that might be on the lips of potential buyers – especially at this time of year – is if there is a dip in performance when the weather turns colder? 

Temperature toll: Electric car range, battery performance, charging times and effectiveness of regenerative braking all decline when weather conditions turn colder, according to VW

There’s no doubting that electric car demand is on the rise, but given the warnings of sub-zero temperatures in the next week, many will be asking if these vehicles are impacted by cooler conditions.   

According to Volkswagen Financial Services’ Fleet division, a drop in degrees will not just impact electric vehicle range, but charging times and regenerative braking systems. 

Range

The range of an electric will reduce in cold weather, VW states. 

It claims that in the coldest of conditions, range capacities between charges can reduce by up to 50 per cent from a cold start, although in typical use it’s more likely to be around 20 to 30 per cent. 

This is mostly the case when owners are making lots of short journeys, where the car cools down between each trip.

The range between vehicle charges can fall by as much as 50 per cent in extremely cold temperatures because electric cars don't generate waste heat to warm the interior

The range between vehicle charges can fall by as much as 50 per cent in extremely cold temperatures because electric cars don’t generate waste heat to warm the interior

That’s because electric cars do not generate much waste heat like vehicles with internal combustion engines.

In a petrol or diesel car, waste heat produced by the engine is used to warm the vehicle cabin. 

The powerplants in electric vehicles are between 75 and 90 per cent more efficient by comparison and the moving parts in the electric motors don’t generate surplus heat.

That means drivers of electric cars will have to rely on the car’s heating system to get warm when they drive, thus sapping power and reducing range.

Colder batteries cannot be charged as quickly as a warm one and therefore may take longer in the winter

Colder batteries cannot be charged as quickly as a warm one and therefore may take longer in the winter

Charging

Rapid charging can be slower in cold weather because the battery will be colder than in the summer, and a colder battery cannot be charged as quickly as a warm one, VW explains.

This means charging times may be longer for winter journeys.

It recommends that electric car owners should be aware of this issue when planning an early morning start or a quick pit stop en-route. 

A ‘cold-soaked’ battery may not charge at all until it is warmed up by the charger, but there are ways to avoid this (see Smart Charging tip in boxout below).

Performance of electric cars in cold weather isn't one of the most common hurdles motorists have with switching from petrol and diesel motors, but it does make a difference

Performance of electric cars in cold weather isn’t one of the most common hurdles motorists have with switching from petrol and diesel motors, but it does make a difference 

Battery performance

Batteries need to be kept warm to perform optimally, which means they either need to be warmed up using their own energy or, ideally, pre-warmed via a chargepoint.

Batteries also need to be kept warm whilst driving – even if you’ve been driving for an hour with the heater on, the inside of your windscreen will still be very cold to touch, and so will the battery underneath the vehicle. 

Therefore some energy will be used purely to keep the battery at operating temperature.

Regenerative braking

Electric cars are fitted with regenerative brakes. These use the vehicle’s electric motor as a generator to convert much of the kinetic energy lost when decelerating back into stored energy in the vehicle’s battery.

Performance of these systems can also reduce in cold weather, because this is also linked to battery temperature and charging. 

This means the car may feel different to drive in cold weather, requiring more manual braking from the driver as the effectiveness of regenerative braking is often reduced.

Regenerative brakes aren't as effective in cold conditions, meaning drivers have to be more involved to slow the car than they would in summer months

Regenerative brakes aren’t as effective in cold conditions, meaning drivers have to be more involved to slow the car than they would in summer months

How to boost electric car performance when it is cold 

Mike Coulton, electric vehicles consultant for Volkswagen Financial Services, there are measures you can take to make your battery-powered car perform more efficiently in icy temperatures.

1. Smart charging

‘If you know what time you’re leaving in the morning, make sure your overnight charge finishes as close to this time as possible. 

‘This will mean the battery will be warmer because of the charging activity, so you won’t lose (as much) range by the vehicle having to warm the battery from its own energy reserves. 

‘You should also feel more regenerative braking as a result, which is good for range.’

2. Pre-conditioning

‘This is where you pre-heat the car prior to setting off, but from the mains electricity supply (whilst charging) rather than by using the battery. 

‘Another benefit is you’ll never have to scrape your windscreen again – pre-heating the car’s cabin also defrosts all the windows, which is a welcome bonus. 

‘On some vehicles you can even remotely turn on the heated seats, steering wheel and windscreen demister too.’

3. Heat management

‘Surprisingly, it is much more efficient to use the heated seats and steering wheel [if your electric car has these features] than it is to heat all the air in the cabin. 

‘Therefore, to maximize range in cold weather, it’s recommended that you pre-heat the cabin whilst the vehicle is plugged in and charging to a nice warm temperature, then when you get in turn the cabin heater down 1-2’C and use the heated seats/steering wheel/etc. to maintain a comfortable temperature for the driver and passengers.’

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