How do plug-in hybrids hold up against Canadian winters?

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electric-car-in-winter Photo by Hrecheniuk Oleksii/Shutterstock

By Tyler Munro

Every family has its own cottage rituals, but chances are they all start pretty much the same — the drive. Whether you’re opening, closing, heading up for a mid-season jaunt or baring down for a winter weekend, the drive up is often the only constant. Really, the only thing that changes is the weather.

One thing that is changing about the drive to the cottage is the cars themselves. For a while, SUVs kept getting bigger; wagons kept stretching longer. Now, changes are mostly happening under the hood. More and more electric cars are becoming commonplace. Last year, Rawdon, a small Quebec cottage town about 30 minutes north of Montreal, became the electric car capital of Canada. Plug-in vehicles aren’t just for Silicon Valley-types anymore.

Still, a few questions linger amongst Canadians. How powerful are they, really? How will they handle less-than-smooth non-city terrain? Most importantly: How do they hold up against Canadian winters?

While they’ve come a long way, some of the stereotypes around electric cars do still hold true. Cold weather can halve your battery life. But there’s a happy medium out there. 

So how does it hold up in the winter? Pretty well, actually.

No more range anxiety

One of the best things about driving an electric car in cottage country is the relative silence of its electric motor. While you’re not likely rolling your windows down on a December trip to the cottage, if you did, you wouldn’t hear the typical roar of a gas powered car. No, you wouldn’t hear much of anything at all — just nature, as cottage country should sound. But with that relative silence comes, for many consumers, cause for concern. Cold winter temperatures can put a damper on an electric car’s battery range, perhaps even cutting it in half, forcing cottage commuters to question whether their vehicle has enough juice to make the trip.

The beauty, then, of a plug-in hybrid vehicle like the Outlander PHEV is that it calls on the best of both worlds. We know that electric motors excel in city conditions, really earning their keep in stop-and-go conditions, while more traditional gas engines seem tailor made for highway driving. The Outlander PHEV offers the best of both worlds, using the traditional gas powered engine as a range-extender, or as the car’s driving force while the electric motors provides assistance as needed. Even better, the gasoline engine can not only preserve battery power, it can actually charge it.

There’s no compromising

Canadians love their SUVs. The “light-truck” segment, which includes vans, small pick-up trucks and SUVs, accounted for nearly 70% of Canadian auto sales in 2017, and we’re betting cottagers accounted for more than a healthy chunk of them. It makes sense — our weather can be volatile, our winters endless, and the terrain out in cottage country, while not as riddled with potholes as their city counterparts, can be unpredictable, especially when you veer off of the main roads.

“A lot of people are apprehensive or hesitant to make the jump into the plug-in hybrid technology in vehicles,” says Don Ulmer, Mitsubishi Motor Sales of Canada’s Senior Manager of Product Planning. “That’s something that we really focused on with this vehicle.”

He says that Mitsubishi approached the Outlander PHEV first and foremost as an SUV. “We didn’t want to lose any of that SUV capability: flexibility, cargo carrying capability, and so forth,” he says. “We took all of those aspects that people really want in an SUV and applied plug-in hybrid technology. You’re not compromising anything.”

Stay warm, while it warms up

One of the best things about driving a plug-in hybrid vehicle is that, when winter comes, you don’t need to wait for the engine to heat up to an optimal temperature for peak performance. “There’s no issue with cold with the electric motors,” says Ulmer.

But a car’s interior is not its engine, and chances are you’d rather get into a warm car than one so cold you can see your breath. If you can believe it, there’s an app for that. The Outlander PHEV comes equipped with heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and an app that lets you start warming up the interior from the comfort of your heated house or cottage. The Outlander PHEV app lets you remotely check in on your car’s battery status, set a charging schedule, and control the car’s interior climate, and more.

No retrofitting needed

There are literal levels to plug-in hybrid charging, and if you so choose, you can spring for a little luxury when it comes to charging your electric vehicle. But that doesn’t mean you need to.

Does your garage or cottage have an outdoor outlet? These days, virtually all plug-in hybrids and electric cars can be charged using what’s called “Level 1” charging, which uses your standard 120v household power outlet, and the cord-set that comes with the Outlander PHEV can also toggle up to use 12 amps of power from a dedicated circuit, charging the vehicle fully in approximately 8 hours.

Level 2 is, as you might have guessed, the next step up. Using a 240 volt system, this upgrade from your standard household outlet can charge your vehicle twice as fast as Level 1, and is a relatively pain free installation for a qualified electrician. Even better, it’s incentivized by the governments of British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec.

And then there’s the Level 3 charger, often referred to as DC Fast Chargering. These aren’t something you’ll likely have installed at your home or cottage, but rather the kind of heavy duty station you’d find at a gas station or rest stop. These use a 480 volt system that can charge your car in about the time it takes to go through your morning routine. Ulmer sees a future where these are commonplace at service stops on your way to the cottage, meaning you can park your vehicle, plug it in, grab a coffee and a quick bite and come back to a nearly topped up battery. In approximately 25 minutes, you can get up to an 80% charge.

All four wheels, without the emissions

When the snow gets rough and the roads get icy, you might wonder if an electric car can handle it.

Yes, they can.

First, there’s the matter of linear torque, which allow electric engines instant torque, which can help acceleration on icy roads. But it’s more than that. Most plug-in hybrid vehicles have the ability to operate in parallel hybrid modes, which use both gas and electric motors to provide four-wheel drive, however, the Outlander PHEV can actually operate in four-wheel drive while fully electric, thanks to its twin electric motors (one in the front, one in the back). That means you can drive silently, without engine noise, but with the rugged capabilities of a four-wheel-drive SUV.