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The biggest electric car test in winter wonderland ever

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Five popular BEVs in both rough and scenic Norwegian winter conditions. This was not at all going to be yet another urban test. Watch unique video!

Mid-February in Norway. Sub-zero salty, slushy highways. Snowy and icy country roads. Freezing temperatures. Not your ideal conditions for driving battery electric vehicles (BEV), right? Think again. Prepare for the most comprehensive winter test in the history of the Norwegian EV Association, which also included the very recently launched second generation Nissan LEAF. The not so coincidental starting point was Vulkan parking garage in Oslo, Norway´s state of the art EV charging facility, with a total of 102 charging points (in Norwegian). All five were charged to 100 percent state of charge (SOC) upon departure. Just like at Vulkan we were careful at all times securing similar preconditions for all cars, to avoid differential treatment and thereby flawed test data. From Vulkan (a generous handful of meters above sea level) we drove all the way to the mountains, more than 1,000 meters above sea level. We also included a highway detour. Zero range anxiety, even in the freezing cold and crisp mountain landscape from Valdres to alpine skiing destination Hemsedal (see map). If you are the kind who likes headlines and not the full picture: None of the five fell through in any of the disciplines included in this test. They were also able to endure the scenic «tenderloin» of this trip. On the scenic Panoramavegen (watch unique video below, with English subtitles), more than 1,000 meters above sea level between Valdres and Hallingdal, we are quite certain five BEVs have never been driven together before. Not on any mountain pass across the world, for that matter. It was a «sound of silence» moment. You could hear the snow crackling beneath the tires. Driving almost silently in such winter conditions was a remarkable experience. To make it picture perfect the sun peeked through the fog long enough for the convoy to be captured from a drone. Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no Aside comparing the fast charging speeds and electricity consumption, on both highways and rural country roads, an important objective was reassuring that you can drive your BEV to the rural cabin or mountain lodge. Even if it is equipped with a modest battery pack.

Comprehensive test procedure

Interior temperature was set to 20 degrees celsius in all five BEVs during the whole test circuit. A total of 530 kilometers were logged carefully during the 700 driven. Eco modes, that are meant for saving energy (typically mean a 10 percent reduction), were deactivated. At the same time various systems for regenerating electricity while breaking were used in an active manner and where appropriate. Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no During the two packed test days we gathered data from different disciplines: Average electricity consumption on highway (see legs in table) and in total including country roads. We did of course also compare the positive impact from topography during the return trip on the second day, heading back to EV capital Oslo. During the day the height difference was roughly 450 meters, leading to significantly lower consumption than the first day, with temperatures between -5 and -8 degrees and a combination of salted and dry road surface. In the morning hours we also performed a «make-believe» cold commute roundtrip around scenic Slidrefjorden in Valdres. The first leg was driven with cold battery packs, to illustrate winter consumption when preheating of the battery is unavailable. We will get back to just how that went – in the shape of a table (also includes the consumption comparison for major parts of the return trip). Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no

The different characteristics

Before this test the Opel Ampera-e was the undisputed range champion in the C-segment. It still is, with its ability to drive twice the distance of the BMW i3 on one charge. The drawback is significantly slower fast charging than that of the other four, even if theoretical maximum charging speed is the same; 50 kW (DC). The actual speed should be improved, to make Ampera-e an even better alternative. In this consideration it should be taken into account the Ampera-e was «out of sync» with the four other cars, meaning its charging needs was way less because of its generous range in the first place. To make the test run smoothly, and avoid different charging locations, the Ampera-e was fast charged at times when state of charge (SOC) was higher than what usually gives optimal fast charging speed. If we had tested the Ampera-e only, or for instance in comparison to Tesla Model S 75D (in Norwegian), it would have been more practical to «drain» the battery (more) before fast charging. The clear winner in terms of fast charging was the Hyundai IONIQ. Read on, and you will get more insight into the results. At the same time the Ampera-e was the only car to have (more or less) sufficient range to reach the final destination of the first test day. Getting to Gomobu mountain lodge in Valdres took roughly five hours of driving (around 300 kilometers), including the detour along European route E6. This meant driving from a just few to roughly 1,000 meters above sea level, with a stable elevation profile at +/- 200 meters on the road to Gjøvik. Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no Later we passed the steep hill called Tonsåsen at roughly 500 meters, before heading down to levels around 150 meters. On this both hilly and winding stretch, cold and slippery winter conditions was added to the challenge. Particularly the Nissan LEAF and the Volkswagen e-Golf stood out from the crowd regarding safe and steady handling underway, while BMW i3 (the only car with rear wheel drive) and Opel Ampera-e were somehow a bit more nervous. In this category the Hyundai IONIQ performed on average. The handling of the different cars could not be related directly to the choice of studless winter tires (see technical data below for details). In regard to electricity consumption, margins might be gained by choosing a more moderate tire and rim size. In this test both the Nissan LEAF and Opel Ampera-e were equipped with 17-inch rims and rather low-profile tires. The rule of thumb is that bigger wheels generally lead to higher consumption, which might be taken into consideration when choosing winter tires. After the hill pass it was mostly smooth sailing along rural parts of European route E16 until the day´s last fast charging session in Røn, Vestre Slidre. From there we had a steep uphill (600 meters) 17,5 kilometers to reach the mountain lodge. The combination of elevation profile, driving conditions and temperatures ranging between 0 and 10 minus (celsius), made the total stretch a good description of «road trip to the cabin». Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no

Road salt, washer fluid and fast charging

The detour including Hamar and Gjøvik, interior towns located around the biggest lake of Norway called Mjøsa, was chosen to monitor average electricity consumption on highway. This stretch was wet from ice, snow and road salt. This messy combination meant we had to spend an avalanche of washer fluid. Underway we had a fast charging pitstop at Espa (along European route E6), which is also famous for its wheat buns in different flavours. This station has four fast chargers, which come in handy when arriving with a small bunch of BEVs at the same time. But, even though this station is relatively large today, it is going to be small in the near future.
Later on, our patience was stretched a few times during charging sessions. This illustrates the amount of fast chargers that need to be added at important junctions. For a BEV owner on a road trip one thing is crucial: Fast chargers must work. And mostly they did work just fine during our test, but not without exceptions. Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no All cars were equipped with the Norwegian EV Association´s own RFID tag (in Norwegian) which is offered to the 50,000 members. The tags were registered with Norway´s leading (at present) fast charging operators called Fortum Charge & Drive and Grønn Kontakt.
We experienced interruptions while charging the e-Golf at CC Gjøvik. After three interruptions, the charger finally decided to call it a day. After an unsuccessful chat with customer service and restart of the charger, it eventually «decided» to wake up and we were able to finish. Later on, we also experienced interruptions while charging in Hemsedal and Sokna, but on both occasions we were able to restart without any further ado. In the afternoon of the first test day we reached the final fast charging destination at Røn, located in scenic Vestre Slidre along European route E6 (heading westwards across the mountain pass Filefjell, which is also covered by the Norwegian charging network).

What happens when the battery pack is cold?

Before the cold test leg on Tuesday morning all five BEVs were fully charged overnight at the mountain lodge using earthed household sockets (called Schuko). We could of course have used apps for controlling charging and preheating of the cars. Our intention was instead to leave them fully charged and cold. The plan was to describe how they perform in winter if you do not have the opportunity to charge upon departure. Charging was finished in the middle of the night, before rolling the 600 meters down to the Fortum Charge & Drive fast charger in Røn, Vestre Slidre five hours later. Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no In the early morning hours, we logged 10-12 minus degrees outside the mountain lodge. Having fully charged battery packs we were of course unable to regenerate any power heading downhill and were left to use the friction brakes. Before the two identical trips around Slidrefjorden (37.6 kilometers) both trip and consumption counters were reset. The reason for repeating: Our hypothesis of falling consumption with increasing battery temperatures. The hypothesis was supported by four of the cars, while the e-Golf delivered the exact same numbers on both attempts. This author (and test responsible) drove the LEAF first on both legs. Unlike the first day we did not switch cars, and emphasis was put on keeping even speed and distance between the cars. The LEAF might have got a small disadvantage from driving first, even though there were no slipstreaming effects for the others.
We think the results in this discipline are significant, meaning they give a good idea of a commute in tough winter conditions. Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no After the morning commute simulations, we had another fast charging session before taking on the slopes to reach the scenic Panoramavegen. On this stretch we did not monitor electricity consumption, only random samples, as this mountain stage was devoted to photo and drone filming. By the time we reached the fast charger in alpine ski destination Hemsedal, we had driven some 85 kilometers. Even though consumption was roughly 25 percent higher on average, there was no range anxiety whatsoever on this stretch.

So, which one is the best?

Underway we have had a lot of questions about which of the five is the best BEV. It is not a simple question to answer. It depends, to a large extent, on your needs. This is why we would rather make a sketch of pros and cons for each model instead of naming an undisputed champion. As mentioned the Opel Ampera-e (named Chevrolet Bolt in the US) is by far the best alternative in the electric C-segment if you need to drive long distances between charging. The LEAF had a similar consumption profile to Ampera-e during the first day but takes fast charging more quickly. In theory it might be able to «outrun» the Ampera-e over longer stretches. Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no Both the i3 (average 40 kW) and the e-Golf (38) performed steadily, but the IONIQ was the best performer with an average fast charging speed of 45 kW. The explanation might be that it was the only one (in the test) that can utilize 70 kW DC charge power. That is 2.5 times the usable capacity (28 kWh) of the battery.

Doublechecking the Ampera-e

Differences in fast charging speed may of course also be due to differences between the chargers, but no such pattern was determined during the test. Arriving in Hemsedal we also double checked the charging time for the Ampera-e. SOC on arrival was 42 percent. At 81 percent, after 47:30, the battery had received 20.1 kWh. That meant an average charging speed of 25.5 kW. Actually, that is not much more than the maximum AC charging speed for the Renault Zoe (22 kW, cannot be DC fast charged). We did a Zoe winter test in similar conditions one year ago (in Norwegian). Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no But, as mentioned, the performance might have been better if SOC was closer to 0 than 40, as in this case. To ensure the quality of the Ampera-e results logged in this test, we will repeat the procedure, as previous samples have shown speeds up to 50 kW from low SOC levels.

Minor challenges underway

Our test team fully agreed that it is very nice to find a functional fast charging station in a rural place like Røn in Vestre Slidre. Luckily no other BEV owners were there to charge at the same time. The challenge was a bit like «playing solitaire with a deck of 51» but still possible. Meaning five cars and only two available DC plugs. This experience describes just how the fast charging network must develop to avoid long queues in the future. Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no We killed some time having nice conversations and doing some basic shopping at the nearby KIWI grocery store. But there is no doubt many more fast chargers are needed along the main road network. Also, with more power installed, to accommodate modern BEVs that can utilize it. In this way fast charging will be more like – and as simple as – filling your tank with petrol or diesel. We also made a strategic decision to never fast charge to more than 80 percent SOC. The obvious reason: Charging speed decreases rapidly beyond this level. Both time and money can be saved by following this strategy: In Norway the pricing policy is based on time – not energy (partly to reduce queues due to slower 80-100 percent charging). At 2,50 NOK a minute (our RFID tag) the energy becomes more expensive when charging speed decreases. It is worth noting that charging to 80 percent SOC never led to problems, not even for the BEV with the smallest battery pack (the i3). Thereby we are also able to confirm taking a BEV with a modest battery pack to the cabin is no problem. If fast charging queues are avoided, drive time can also be equal to that of driving a car with an internal combustion engine (ICE). Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no But if you do not have your own household socket or wallbox at hand where you are staying, it is favourable to make arrangements in advance. We did just that and were able to charge in the old-fashioned way while staying at the mountain lodge.

But if we were to name a champion…

Overall, we have got a solid basis for evaluating how the five popular BEVs perform in tough winter conditions. Even if the results are not scientific, they represent a handy tool for comparison. Our focus was also rather narrow. Or as long term BEV specialist and test team member Øyvind Lunde said:
«We test what counts for BEVs. Others might study how many cans of soda you are able to stuff in the trunk.»
Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no Regarding electricity consumption the Hyundai IONIQ is by far the champion, and the test results are consistent with those from summer tests (in Norwegian).
So, if we were to name an overall champion during these two days, all in all, it would be the IONIQ. It illustrates the fact that a bigger battery pack is not always equal to best. Among subjective arguments against the South Korean car; a bit tighter suspension and more direct feel through the steering wheel would be nice. When it comes to handling the Volkswagen e-Golf excels in all areas, while the LEAF in our opinion delivers the best compromise. The handling discipline was not examined thoroughly, due to slippery roads on longer stretches and our ambition to keep consumption at decent levels. Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no Even though the IONIQ has roughly 8 kilowatt hours (kWh) less usable energy than the new LEAF, range is practically identical. This notion was confirmed during several legs. Nissan has not yet confirmed usable capacity, but our estimates show roughly 36 kWh. The IONIQ also fast charges significantly faster than the other four (see tables above). The general refrain within the test team was that «none of the cars is best for all». It is all about use pattern. Or taste and comfort. That is the main reason why Opel Ampera-e and Hyundai IONIQ were the most discussed during the test. They remain references for different OEM approaches regarding usable battery capacity and fast charging speed, while the remaining trio delivers consistently well in these areas without excelling in particular. In short: It is nice to drive a BEV that can handle the road trip without stopovers. But if you need to fast charge underway, it is a massive advantage if the charging session actually is nimble. Ståle Frydenlund / elbil.no The minor disappointment concerning the new Nissan LEAF was the fact it had significantly higher energy consumption than expected (see consumption tables for comparison). Our guess was that the heat pump would contribute more to reduce consumption, but it might not have been as effective in sub-zero temperatures as expected. The higher consumption is not a problem due to expensive «fuel». It is only a matter of holding on to as much of the range as possible, especially during winter. Not least if your daily commute is long and you do not have the opportunity to charge at work. We will conduct a new LEAF test during summer season to see how the numbers compare. The remaining models have been tested previously (in Norwegian). Either way there is no doubt the second-generation LEAF is a better car in most ways, as we established after the first test drive (in Norwegian). It also accommodates more luggage than the other four cars in this test, as the trunk volume has been expanded significantly. PS. In this comparison test we had only two days at our disposal and a variety of test disciplines to attend to. This is the reason why we emphasized energy consumption and fast charging times in winter conditions and put less energy in discussing handling characteristics and equipment / options for the different models.
Last, but not least: Take a look at some more test pictures!