What do extreme cold temperatures mean for drivers of electric cars like Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf?

DETROIT - We're all used to warming up our cars in the winter, but what can drivers of newer electric cars expect as temperatures drop?

It's all about the battery. And batteries don't exactly love extreme temperatures – cold or hot.

If you work outside in the winter, you will notice that your cell phone's battery doesn't always hold a charge as long as it does in better weather. The same is true for electric vehicles and hybrids.

The Chevrolet Volt is an electric vehicle that also has a gas generator to produce electricity when its battery runs out. The Volt's generator works much like the one you might use at home as a backup when your power goes out.

On a normal day – when temperatures are neither extremely hot, nor extremely cold – a new Volt can drive nearly 40 miles on the charge from its battery. After that, the gas-powered generator kicks in to extend the car's range.

"During the colder months, the energy needed to warm the vehicle's cabin and high-voltage battery can cause your electric range to decline," says Chevrolet on a blog for Volt owners.

Tuesday morning's single-digit temperatures were enough to do the trick.

When automakers test their vehicles, they certainly subject them to conditions that are far more chilling than your drive to work on the coldest day. Electric vehicles and hybrids won't stop running in the cold, but their makers all say you can expect to drive fewer miles on each charge or tank of gas.

Nissan's all-electric Leaf doesn't have a gasoline generator as a backup. Instead, it has a higher capacity collection of batteries. In "ideal driving conditions," the company says the Leaf has a range of 138 miles before its batteries run out.

The very first Nissan Leafs were not sold in cold states. Now available here in Michigan, the 2013 Leaf even sports a more efficient heater than previous versions.

When it's cold outside and urban traffic is "stop-and-go," Nissan's website says the Leaf's range could be reduced to just 62 miles per battery charge.

Both Nissan and Chevrolet advise drivers to spend a few minutes warming their cars before they drive to work on a cold morning. And both offer a suggestion that's foreign to drivers of more traditional vehicles. They say owners should use their car's smartphone app to start it up and get its climate control system going before they walk out the door of their home.

Both automakers also say you can leave your car plugged in while it's warming up and your Volt or Leaf will draw power from your home's electrical outlet, not from the car's batteries that have often been charging all night.


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