“Uh-oh. This ain’t good.”

It’s Sunday, Feb. 21. Imagine you're behind the wheel of a Mini Cooper SE, the brand's first fully electric vehicle (EV). It boasts a range of just 177 km per charge.

Electric vehicle ranges are government-approved estimates based on assumptions – but we’ll talk more about that soon. Right now, you have a problem.

On this cold winter’s day, after the charger at a rival automotive producer’s head office didn’t recharge the Mini EV, its range is down at an anxiety-enflaming 13 km. You left the Mini here to be charged while you drove around in the rival brand’s own first fully electric vehicle. Good news: BMW’s head office, where you’re driving, is just five-ish km away. In other news: you’ve never trusted range numbers, which we’ll discuss soon enough.

For now, you’re asking: will you make it? We’ll find out later. Now, another question hits you: in the age of anxiety – when you haven’t seen your neighbour’s full face for a year because of… you know, the pandemic – how can range anxiety still exercise such power?

First, the important question: how did you get here?

This is a test. Last year, a writer from another publication tested the longevity of EVs in the harsh rural Quebec winter. You gotta admire such dedication, especially if you’re a craven bedwetter like me. But why would this other writer want to drive in the frozen countryside?

EnerGuide stats, those government-approved numbers estimating mileage and fuel efficiency, are also the result of tests. But they’re conducted in ideal conditions without traffic, changing weather, or a driver with a heavy foot and ADHD. Since 2015, the reported numbers have come closer to reality, but vehicles are still functionally driven on treadmills in big refrigerators and saunas. That’s why your vehicle’s EnerGuide numbers are usually what marketers call aspirational.

Back to why: according to Statista.com, 81.48 per cent of Canadians live in cities. Moreover, most EVs are pitched as city/suburban solutions, not to be taken out to places like rural Quebec. We wanted to conduct a test to measure the life of different battery charges in different EVs on a large Canadian city’s highways to better understand how they would fare in more realistic conditions.

The idea’s a win-win. First, a goodly proportion of the target-market drivers do the majority of their driving (and traffic jam crawling, inch by frustrating inch) on highways in and around Canadian cities.

And second, if the worst happens and the charge evaporates, the writer doesn’t risk frozen death, just, less dramatically, a late dinner. Any tow truck will take a spent EV to the nearest charging station.

The following measures three-hour spurts by EVs on GTA highways in winter.

It's important to note that our tests were far from scientific because there were too many variables to control. The weather varied radically throughout this story’s five testing days. Not all the EVs were fully charged upon pickup – charging demands greater palaver than filling a tank. And the traffic was dependably inconsistent, magically manifesting snarls out of nothing or suddenly speeding through construction zones.

Then again, what is a fair scientific test? After all, no EnerGuide-approved testing facility’s ever been interrupted by an Amber Alert, flash flood, or oblivious pedestrian nose-deep in their phone. So, here are the numbers of “tests” accompanied by some anxious observations. In all cases, the car was simply driven in the default mode (i.e. not sport, eco, or “ludicrous”).

The Final Volkswagen e-Golf, from $37,895

Tuesday, March 2, 10:15 am – 12:25 pm

Ever stored your iPhone in an outer pocket on a frigid day only to see its store of power plummet from 90 per cent to zero? Like a Speedo on a swimmer in Maine, coldness can sap a battery’s power. It’s one reason EnerGuide testing began including treadmill drives in extreme temperatures a few years ago. It’s more honest.

Speaking of extremes, over the 36 hours that four of the seven EVs here were tested, temperatures ranged between -15 and plus 10 degrees Celsius. The e-Golf suffered the worst of the cold. Its three-hour test was truncated to 2:10.

Did you know the e-Golf is being retired? This tester was the last ever to appear in VW Canada’s press fleet. Indeed, it was about to be shipped away for auction when I asked to test it. Its winter tires had already been replaced with all-seasons, which would affect the mileage positively if slightly. Luckily, despite the frigid temperature, there hadn’t been any precipitation in over a week. Road conditions were dry and no one was endangered in this quasi-scientific experiment. Let’s motor!

Good fun to drive, the e-Golf was a compromise model, adapted from the fuel-powered VW Golf. So, unlike most EVs, the floor isn’t covering a spread-out and anchoring battery. Later this year, VW will introduce the ID.4, which has been designed from ground up as an EV.

When we left VW’s head office, the estimated range, “Max” as the dial called it, was 174 km. When we returned, it had driven 172.1 km. So, the battery was low; however, not as low those numbers would suggest. The computer estimated 27 km left till empty. No wonder the computer intervened and flashed onscreen “Limited convenience functions.” Mind, I had already turned the heat off – didn’t need it with my own temperature rising. Still, we made it with some range to spare.

The drive from VW to the next EV was 60 km away, expletive deleted.

Chevrolet Bolt, from $44,998

Same day, 1:25 – 4:30 pm

Each EV boasts its own nomenclature and information presentation. While the e-Golf had shown “Max” the Bolt reports “Fully Charged” and an estimated 307 km till the battery’s kaput.

Chevrolet began selling the Bolt in 2015. Clearly, it has been taking notes from buyers since. When I dropped it off three hours later, it had only emptied the juice to slightly below the graphic’s 25 per cent line. The exact percentage doesn’t show, just a decreasing bar like most gas tank indicators.

Interesting. Do exact percentages matter to drivers as much as approximate kilometres left in the charge? Maybe not. The Bolt delivers a range estimate – useful. When returned to the dealership after three hours on GTA highways, it reported an oddly specific 79 to 93 km remaining.

On the highway, the ride was grippy and the steering was satisfyingly tight at speed. We’d covered 227.6 km, which is exactly 79.4 away from the originally predicted 307 km. Chevy’s been taking notes.

Nissan Leaf Plus SL, from $52,898

Wednesday, March 3, 9:15 am – 12:17 pm

Nissan was the first major manufacturer to sell EVs in Canada, arriving in early 2011. I drove the first-generation model a decade ago. The Leaf has come a long way but still feels delightfully distinct from every vehicle on the road with an internal-combustion engine. It hums mellifluously when accelerating and glides gently to a halt without the need for braking, like a bumper car.

As that extended name suggests, this tester contains a longer-lasting battery – hence the higher price. The language and symbols the Leaf uses to express what the driver needs to know is a simple “100%” with a battery icon beneath, flanked by the Leaf’s predicted range: 351 km. When dropped off after exactly three hours, its same dial indicates 12 per cent and 45 km remaining. Having covered ugly highways to Oakville, Markham, Ajax, and back to south Etobicoke, the odometer’s increased 227 km. Quite good.

Kia Soul EV, from $42,995

Same day, 12:30 – 3:40 pm

Unlike yesterday’s distance between testers, the pickup spot for the Soul is just five minutes’ drive from the Leaf’s drop-off. A quick check of the dials before launch: The battery is charged to 100 per cent and there’s an estimated total of 348 km left in the electro-tank.

Another circuit around the GTA’s foulest stretches of tarmac does prompt moody ponderings. Like saying a familiar word over and over again till it starts to sound wrong, so much travelling around Canada’s densest area after so long stuck in one place alerts me, afresh, to just how bloody ugly the GTA is. Blah!

But the Kia Soul EV, an unabashed rolling breadbox, helps sweep away the gloom. Before you can count to 180 minutes, three hours have flown by and we’re dropping it off. We’ve added 244.8 km to the odometer and there are still 86 km in the battery. Mind, it was 17 degrees warmer than yesterday’s first drive.

Hyundai Kona Electric, from $44,999

Monday, March 8, 11:10 am – 2 pm

Note the time. Some paperwork and red tape consume the first minutes of my schedule. Soon I’m behind the wheel, reading the stacked stats in the Kona Electric: “Battery 89%, Range 334 km.” Outside, it’s 9 degrees and sunny.

Today would have been the first day of March Break for many Ontarian students but… you know. After a leisurely 45 minutes and owning the highways, I note to myself how empty and civilized these once-crammed roads have become. Big mistake! Maybe my optimism suddenly stuffed the “park” into Don Valley Parkway. We sit and crawl for 15 minutes. Then, for no apparent reason, this huge Slinky unbunches itself and we’re off again.

After nearly three hours, the Kona is back at Hyundai’s HQ. We’ve travelled 263 km and there’s still 17 per cent left in the battery. If that has you feeling good, don’t forget you still haven’t delivered the Mini which is running on empty. But there’s one more EV to measure before then.

Volvo XC40 Recharge, from $64,950

Sunday, February 21, 10 am – 1 pm

This brief spell behind the wheel of Volvo’s first fully electric vehicle is actually the second half of a launch event that went pear-shaped in January because of… you know. Usually these launch events are a logistics ballet and manufacturers do all they can to execute them flawlessly – but Volvo couldn’t overcome a lockdown. Which is why I’m surprised to note the XC40 Recharge isn’t fully recharged. The car jockey admits the previous driver hadn’t charged it.

At 100 per cent, the XC40 EV’s purported range is 335 km but 93 per cent proves plenty. After nearly three hours, we’re back at Volvo and its battery is emptied only to 13 per cent, with an estimated 35 km left. I had not been gentle.

A warning: the Volvo XC40 Recharge will add 20 pounds to your right foot. With that price comes 486 lb-ft of torque and 402 hp. It’s a quiet cannon.

Back at Volvo, I dropped the key in the after-hours slot, unplugged the charger, re-entered the till-now charging Mini and pushed Start. The dial soars from zero to 100 per cent, then recedes back to 13 km. Which is where you came in.

Mini Cooper SE, from $42,956

Same day, 1:20 – 1:28 pm

Why hadn’t the Mini charged? Had I inadvertently unlocked it when Volvo’s detailer hooked up the charger? Perhaps the charger was defective. After all, the XC40 wasn’t fully charged. Regardless, here we both are. A warning flashes “Electric range severely reduced” as if I need to know. If I were hooked up to an EKG, it would read “Heart palpitations severely increased.”

It’s a breezy −2°C but the heat stays off. We don’t engage the brake, just coast-stop to red lights and stop signs. That’s the charm of most EVs. They simply halt when you lift pressure from the accelerator. But you need power first. Will we make it?

Redemption is ours! We arrive at BMW HQ!

Same day, 1:29 pm

I plug the Mini in without needing to call anyone to bring an extended extension cord. FYI, unlike every other EV here, the Mini’s being dropped off after nearly a week’s loan. The protocol for such agreements is the writer washes the vehicle first. Deciding it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission (a lesson learned after a year of nothing to do but observe my dog) I don’t risk the extra three kilometres to the carwash.

We probably could’ve made it, though. There’s still eight kilometres left on the dial.

Five Useful Lessons

1) Every EV manufacturer has its own set of symbols and language to communicate how much range you have remaining. Comparing them is like comparing Apples and Googles. It’s doable but confusing. 

2) When it comes to tinkering, the modern EV has more in common with your phone than the family station wagon or minivan your parents once drove. Get to learn the app your phone uses to communicate with your EV. And when you need to be extra sure, double-check it to be sure your EV is actually charging before you walk away. 

3) It may be worth paying for upgrades to extend or even double your range. Think of it not as an expense but an investment because — remember and smile — you’ll never pay for gasoline again. 

4) The greenest accessories in any EV are the driver’s careful attention and gentle foot. To maximize your range, depress the accelerator as though it were made of eggshells — on a frigid winter’s afternoon, Russian Fabergé eggshells.

5) Electric vehicle range is not as bad as you've heard during our harsh winters. For more on this, check out this article.