Saturday, September 13, 2014

Review: Driving an Electric Car in the Adirondacks

VoltLast week I discussed the general concept of electric cars in the Adirondacks and the possible types of electric car one might choose. I suggested that a pure electric car – that is, one with no gas engine backup – would not yet be practical in the park because the odds that one would use up their range and be potentially stranded are too high. But an electric car with gas backup is completely workable – and considerably better in terms of fossil fuel use than a hybrid.

This week I’d like to report on our experience driving a Chevy Volt in the Adirondacks. The Volt is an electric car with a gas engine that acts as a backup generator as needed, giving a total range comparable to typical internal combustion cars. As before, I do not endorse the Volt; it simply happens to be the car I own. However many of its features and the issues attendant to driving it in a vast, mountainous park would be common to any electric car.

I must begin with a major caveat: our experience so far has only been in summer and fall conditions. Obviously testing the car in winter is paramount for consideration as an Adirondack vehicle; therefore you can expect a fourth and final article in this series in January, after we conduct a thorough winter test.

There are a number of questions a prospective Adirondack owner might ask before purchasing an electric car: how does a battery powered car actually perform in the mountains? How much battery life can one really get in such conditions? Is an undersized gas engine (1.4 liters in the Volt) able to provide enough power when it’s running as backup, say during a steep, prolonged climb? How and where can you charge the car in our region?

To answer these questions I’ll give my report in two sections: range and performance and handling.


Every electric car owner knows – or if not, soon learns – that driving style has a massive impact on electric range. Drive an electric car like a sports car (which you can, as off the line these cars are mighty quick) and your typical range can easily be cut in half. Blast the heat on a cold day and the drop can be similar. Because of that I was concerned about driving in the Adirondacks, where demanding driving and cold conditions are not optional. With all the going up and down would my range be destroyed no matter how careful I was?

Several hundred miles of driving in the park alleviated my concerns. My range was about the same as in the flat Midwest, perhaps even a little bit better. But one has to be smart.

The Volt has driver-controllable modes that offer some real advantages (as do other electric cars). The Normal, or default, mode uses the battery exclusively until it’s gone, then seamlessly switches to the gas engine (all the variations I’m going to describe involve utterly seamless transitions on the fly); there is a Sport mode that adds torque – it adds no value whatsoever to range; there is a Mountain mode that uses the gas engine and battery simultaneously to generate more energy when on a prolonged climb; finally, there is a Hold mode that forces a switch to the gas engine and holds the battery charge where it is.

The Mountain mode clobbers battery life so I’m pleased to report that it is unnecessary in the Adirondacks. Even something extreme like the climb up Blue Mountain toward Long Lake was no problem for either the battery or gas engine alone. That’s a good thing. I tested this theory extensively with no concerns.

The Hold mode is your mileage savior. The Hold mode was designed to allow you to save battery power for use where it is best – in stop and go traffic in a town or city, for example. In the mountains you can use Hold to the same advantage. On a prolonged climb, which sucks battery life at a frightening pace, you can put the car on Hold. Then at the top you switch back to battery. You’ll use some gas on the way up but on the way down you’ll actually gain battery life as regenerative braking and coasting charge the battery.

Electric cars have fantastic aerodynamic profiles and low-resistance tires. Their ability to coast is so superior to other cars that the first time you experience it it’s actually a little disconcerting. I was able to coast from the apex of the Blue Ridge Highway down to I-87 without touching the accelerator, straight through the flat section by Elk Lake road (I’ll admit that my top speed in the upper section of the road may have “slightly” violated the speed limit).

The result of this is that Adirondack ups and downs can be worked to one’s advantage, extending battery life more than they hurt it – albeit with a little bit of gas use.  This was a nice revelation. I was able to “commute” from Tupper Lake to Newcomb on a full charge without using gas except on a few up hills, where it was the efficient choice. Newcomb to Keene Valley and on to Placid was the same story. Our total gas used over these trips was less than a third of a gallon.

Even though I do not yet have a winter review let me give a word about cold, comfort and efficiency. Heating the cabin in the manner one is probably used to – blasting air – sucks the battery. The Volt leverages heated seats which are much more efficient. Cold Adirondack mornings cost me at first, but learning to rely upon the heated seats for the bulk of my comfort reduced the impact significantly.  Plus they feel wonderful.

Performance and Handling

My next concern was performance and handling: would an electric car have enough “oomph” to drive on Adirondack roads? How would it take the curves? Would it be able to navigate bad roads? Once again my concerns were largely – though not entirely – put to bed.

On any of the State or County Highways performance was as good as a typical four-cylinder car. Acceleration on the up hills was adequate. Going up into Cascade Pass I had decent pull through about 55 mph. After that the car felt a little over-matched (comparing it to my WRX, a vicious beast in the mountains, is inevitable but unfair).

A very steep road, perhaps a local road or dirt road, might pose a bit of a problem, depending upon speed. We tried that circumstance by driving up to the Garden trail head from Keene Valley. At low speeds there’s no issue: electric cars have a lot of torque on the low end. But I got a sense that at higher speeds the car might labor – perhaps Mountain mode has a use after all. The road to the Garden does not provide an opportunity for high-speed testing but if you live up a steep road you might not be able to take it fast.

Steering, cornering and road grip were all plusses. Electric cars are heavy and have a low center of gravity thanks to the battery – that low weight is quite noticeable. Road hugging under normal speeds was nearly as good as my WRX and that’s saying something. The low-resistance tires gripped well even in the rain or on gravel, though I have not yet pushed them super-hard.

Speaking of tires, one concern I have not put to the test is the lack of a spare tire. To save weight Chevy Volts carry no spare tire, in favor of an injection tire repair kit. If I shredded a tire on a dirt road in the Moose River Plains or in the Western Adirondacks I’m not sure that would do the trick. Roadside assistance – included with all electric cars so far as I know – would be scant comfort.

The only significant negative in the handing department is clearance. Electric cars have low clearance because of the significant gain that affords them in aerodynamics. On bad roads – of which there are plenty in the park – I “bottomed out” more than a few times. I use quotes because electric cars lower their profile with high-impact-resistant rubber edging – I never slammed the chassis or drive train, just the rubber trim. But nonetheless it’s not an ideal situation.

Amy and I are hard drivers, by both style and circumstance. We’re usually in a hurry, we go to many remote places and we often carry lots of equipment. The bottom line in our thorough Adirondack test was that we were quite satisfied. With a little strategic driving our Volt delivered consistent and effective range and handled well. Now we’ll see about winter.

Next week I’ll talk about the practicalities of charging in the Adirondacks, whether electric cars are as good an environmental deal as claimed and how we can work together to make the park more electric-car friendly.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

3 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    “The only significant negative in the handing department is clearance.”

    Same goes for the Civic Hybrid I have. Great car, handles really well and is super durable but it has very little clearance, you “hit” underneath even on pretty well graded dirt roads. And if there are significant pot holes or larger stones forget it! But like with this car you describe there appears to be no real damage despite all the noise. But you can’t take it on certain roads that can easily accommodate other cars with more “normal” clearance.

    Not an official plug for Chevy but a pretty good one so far!

  2. Hawthorn says:

    Any chance you could squeeze in bigger tires and wheels for better ground clearance? Also, I have heard rumors that the low-resistance tires are terrible in the winter. I have no first-hand knowledge of this.

    • Paul says:

      I have driven my Civic hybrid with the “low-resistance” tires in the winter as well as with snow tires. If you have a good set of year round tires (even the low-resistance” variety) they are okay.

      You don’t have to use low resistance tires you just get the best milage with them. I don’t really see much of change with my hybrid even when I use the snow tires.

      The term “low-resistance” is also a bit of a misnomer. It sounds scary but it really isn’t. The real term is “low rolling resistance”.

      This is at most related to 5-10% of the cars fuel efficiency. So if you are worried about it just use whatever kind of tire you are comfortable with. For me in the winter that is pretty gnarly snow tires!!

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