The Electric Car Has a Dirty Secret

The Volkswagen e-Golf and the other EVs have a small problem: Their range shrinks when it’s cold outside.

Electric cars may be squeaky clean, but they have a dirty secret that the Elon Musks of the world tend to downplay or shout down entirely: Like certain football teams, they suck in the cold.

The otherwise impressive Volkswagen e-Golf is the latest to prove that EV driving range plunges with the mercury, and much further than the Teflon-coated likes of Musk would have you believe.

Plop the $36,625 e-Golf near a warm California beach, and a mellow driver can coax about 80 to 100 miles from the lithium-ion battery. That’s on par with other semi-affordable EVs, with the VW’s 24.2 kWh battery almost exactly the size of the Nissan Leaf’s.

But in my frigid winter drive around New York, I twice covered fewer than 50 miles before the remaining range (about 10 miles) forced me to seek sustenance from a charger. Even in short-hop urban driving, 50 miles of effective range is pretty meager. And on a freeway run through Brooklyn and Queens, I suffered range anxiety that no Xanax could quell, watching the VW’s fuel-gauge-style needle plummet to near empty after just 45 minutes on the road. And this was driving in the car’s energy-conserving Eco mode – which dampens the climate control and throttle – and at the thumb-twiddling pace of a Prius fanatic.

Yes, the cold-snap temperatures were especially brutal, between 11 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit during my testing. But tens of millions of Americans deal with just such conditions every winter. It’s hard to imagine many of these snow misers anteing up $30,000 to more than $100,000 for electric cars that, in my experience, lose at least one-third of their already stingy driving range in freezing temperatures.

That seasonal allergy aside, the VW does raise the current bar for middle-class EV’s, including the Leaf and Ford Focus EV. (BMW’s carbon-fiber-intensive i3 is faster and more gee-whiz, but costs closer to $45,000). First, the Golf looks and drives like a real car, not a dorky science-fair exhibit. There’s a right-now 115 horsepower from the electric motor, and signature, snappy Volkswagen handling. The V-Dubya is crazy-quiet, as solid as a gym rat’s abs. And because the Golf’s ingenious MQB platform is designed as a plug-and-play for every imaginable powertrain – gas, diesel, electric, hybrid, natural gas – the 701-pound battery slips aboard without intruding a whit on passenger or cargo space. Toggling the transmission’s shifter, drivers can summon four varying levels of regenerative, energy-capturing braking, from a full coast to an aggressive setting that halts the car with gusto the instant you let off the accelerator.

For all its charming qualities, the VW raised the other sticking point of EVs in New York’s urban jungle: A spotty, inconvenient charging infrastructure for a largely apartment-dwelling populace that doesn’t have garage space for a car, charger or a dusty Weber grille.

Chargepoint, the nation’s largest network, claims 20,216 places to charge from coast-to-coast, including 250 locations in Manhattan alone. The problem is that most of this city’s “public” charging stations seem located in pay-to-park garages: Manhattan garages, where you can spend more to park and juice up than most drivers pay for a tank of unleaded that can take them 400 miles or more.

With temperatures hovering around 20 degrees, I rolled into a garage in the West Village and found its station unoccupied, as my handy Chargepoint phone app informed me. I waved my magnetic Chargepoint card at the 240-volt station to unlock the nozzle and plugged into the Golf. The station connected instantly with the VW’s onboard charger  — often a fingers-crossed moment in my experience. But the wall-mounted station was stuck in a corner, and the only way to use it was to park directly in front of a Tesla Model S belonging to a monthly parking customer. The anxious, English-challenged attendant informed me that if Mr. Big Shot needed to drive his Tesla, he would need to unplug and move my VW, thus halting the charge with no way to restart it.

Fortunately, upon my return in the morning, the Golf’s umbilical cord had not been cut. The driver’s display showed a stuffed battery and 72 miles of estimated range. But the parking bill was $52, and the electricity cost another $9. Cruising back to Brooklyn, that 72-mile estimate fell to 62 miles within the first 2 miles of actual driving; that dicey relationship between estimated and real-world range is another bone of contention on virtually any EV.

Bone-chilling temperatures also slow a battery’s ability to suck up electrons, so the fill-up took 5.5 hours, rather than four hours in kinder conditions. Add it up, and I spent $61 for enough juice to cover 60 miles, or $1 per mile. A convoy of gas-slurping Hummers could travel for less cash. To be fair, I’ve accessed Chargepoint juice for free or for pocket change in other cities. And few EV owners are going to rely on gouging Manhattan garages as a first option. But for now, when the battery is running perilously low and you’re imagining yourself stranded and frozen like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” you’re going to take what you can get.

Making EVs go dramatically farther on a charge seems a prerequisite to convince more Americans to give them a shot. Chevy recently unveiled the Bolt, a concept hatchback that aims to achieve 200 miles of range for around $30,000 (after federal tax largesse) when it hits showrooms in 2017. Around the same time, a Tesla Model 3 and a reworked Nissan Leaf are targeting a similar range and price.

As all these engineers work to boost battery efficiency and cut costs, they might want to address thermal issues that threaten to make EVs a Tale of Two Cities: Comfortable and stamina-rich in a biosphere like Los Angeles, but anemic and anxiety-provoking in wintry climes like New York.