Driving electric cars in winter: tips from experienced owner

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2014 BMW i3 electric car during winter [photo: owner Chris Neff]

2014 BMW i3 electric car during winter [photo: owner Chris Neff]

One of the challenges of electric cars is persuading potential buyers that they can do virtually everything that most other vehicles can.

For those who live in wintry climates, that includes dealing with snow, slush, road salt, ice, and variable traction.

Given the recent major snowstorms that hit large swaths of the U.S. this month, we felt an article on that topic might prove useful.

DON'T MISS: Electric Cars In Winter: Six Steps To Maximize Driving Range (Jan 2013)

What follows is a set of advice from Chris Neff, a New Jersey electric-car advocate who's now on his second BMW i3 REx range-extended electric hatchback. Before that, he drove a 2009 Mini E and a 2011 BMW ActiveE—so he's made it through seven Northeast winters of varying intensities.

He continues to travel all over his state, including visits to several nature sanctuaries where the silence and emission-free nature of the i3 electric car are less disturbing to birds and other wildlife.

We've combined and edited some of Chris's comments for clarity.


During these frigid winter days, I've seen several online posts about electric-car drivers experiencing challenges with range, or the lack of it.

There's no getting around it: electric cars in winter have shorter range. On really cold days, the loss can be up to 40 percent, especially when running the heater.  A cold battery, using the heater, plowing through snow and slush, all of that contributes to less range.

Your electric car's batteries are not as efficient when they are cold, just as gasoline cars use more fuel in cold weather—though it's not nearly as pronounced an effect. 

With that said, all is not lost! There are ways to hold onto some of that range and smirk at Old Man Winter.

WATCH THIS: Electric-Car Battery Energy: Why Waste It On Cabin Heating? (Video)

The techniques below are the ones I've used over seven winters in four different electric cars, none of which were garaged, with ranges from 72 miles to 100 miles.

My winter driving varied from round-trip commutes of 76 miles to catching a 5 am daily train in temperatures of -15 degrees F. I encountered black ice and pelting sleet over several inches of snow. 

In the early days, it was more common to see a unicorn in public than a charging station for my car, so I needed all the range I could get. It often seemed then like the early days of the settlers trekking across the Rocky Mountain pass.

Today’s electric cars vary greatly in features and overall range, but these techniques can be applied to all of them.

2017 BMW i3 electric car during winter snow storm [photo: owner Chris Neff]

2017 BMW i3 electric car during winter snow storm [photo: owner Chris Neff]

Note also that with longer-range electric cars now hitting the market at more affordable prices, and many more to come—led by the $37,500 Chevrolet Bolt EV with 238 miles of range—some of these techniques will lessen in importance.

The most important one, however, will remain for any electric car operated in cold weather, no matter what its range:


This is the single most recommended thing you should do.  If your car offers the option of setting a time to depart and warming up the battery while it's still plugged in (and most of them do), use it!

Remember, a cold battery is not nearly as efficient as a warm one. Some models even go the extra step and warm up the cabin while plugged in as well.

By not using battery energy, this can increase your initial range in cold weather by 15 percent to 20 percent. It's well worth it. .


Like preconditioning, this is a must for winter driving. Most electric cars have an Eco or lower energy-usage drive setting.

The Eco mode may make your car feel slower, but it is there for a reason: it boosts range by making your electric car operate more efficiently.

I'll sometimes toggle the Eco setting off briefly if I need a boost of cabin heat to warm things up a tad. 

Eco mode also reduces the power output of the electric motor, which can help traction in snow and ice, just like starting out in third gear in a conventional car.

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