Reader Rides: Winter Snow Adventures in a 2012 Toyota Rav4 EV

I live in California’s Central Valley just over 100 miles from a number of beautiful spots and ski resorts in the Sierra Nevadas and try to get up there at least once a year.  My town is 52 feet above sea level, so traveling to the Sierras involves a steep climb over thousands of feet.

I’ve been driving a 2012 Toyota Rav4 EV for the past 2½ years and have been sharing my experiences with readers here at Transport Evolved.  This post addresses the following questions: How does my EV handle winter outings in the mountains?  How well does it drive in the snow?  This post also relates another example for how rapid DC charging works for a typical drive.

The blue line on the map shows the route I took up into the Sierra Nevadas. The graph below shows changes in elevation along the route.

The blue line on the map shows the route I took up into the Sierra Nevadas. The graph below shows changes in elevation along the route.

This year we drove up into the mountains over the MLK holiday weekend to stay in Twin Bridges and go skiing.  The map to the left shows my route, and the graph below it plots elevation along the route.  Starting and stopping points, and points of interest, are indicated.

One important thing has changed since I last visited the Lake Tahoe region: JdeMO.  Last September Tony Williams installed Quick Charge Power’s JdeMO port on my 2012 Toyota Rav4 EV.  I now use the growing network of CHAdeMO DC charging stations in California to fuel my trips.

CHAdeMO is a direct current charging system that sends high voltage, high amperage direct current to the battery of your electric car; in my case a maximum of 386 volts and 125 amps.  This reduces the amount of time required to charge your car to the time it takes to grab a quick bite to eat: 30 – 40 minutes.

My destination was about 115 miles away.  In warm weather I’d easily drive that distance in the Central Valley, with plenty to spare.  But cold weather decreases range, and steep climbs require extra energy – something that is true for all cars no matter what kind of energy fuels your car.

Based on info provided by Tony, I’d need an extra 1.8 kWh in the battery pack for each 1000 feet climbed, more to carry the extra weight of passengers and luggage, and more to drive in cold temperatures since the car uses energy from the traction battery to heat the battery pack (click here to read Tony’s advice for calculating the energy needed to gain elevation).  I calculated 2 kWh per 1000 feet, and with a 7000 foot climb ahead of me figured I’d need to add an extra 15 kWh to my battery pack along the way.  I could achieve that with a 3 hour stop at a Level 2 charger along the way, or less than 30 minutes using CHAdeMO.

The trip from the CHAdeMO station to our destination was 64 miles with a 6000 foot climb. We arrived with 7 bars, about 14 kWh of energy in the pack. On the bottom right you can see the battery pack tracks where I drove through.

The number of CHAdeMO stations in California is expanding, but the CHAdeMO charging station in Folsom is currently the closest  to Lake Tahoe.  This station was 65 miles and 6000 feet elevation from my destination in Twin Bridges.  Unless you’re driving a Tesla, that’s a trip you plan well.

I started from home with the Rav4 EV fully loaded with a family of 4, supplies for a winter weekend, and way too much food and drinks.  My battery was charged to 95%, about 40 kWh.  I stopped at the Folsom CHAdeMO station for 30 minutes and picked up an extra 16 kWh while getting coffee and a bite to eat.  To be on the safe side I also stopped in Placerville and added 4 kWh to the pack on a Level 2 charger.  Starting with 40 kWh in the pack, plus the 20 kWh I picked up along the way I had about 60 kWh for my trip.

The trip up to Twin Bridges was uneventful.  The temperature dropped as we climbed, snow appeared along the roadside as we drove above 4000 feet, and lots of traffic slowed us down – everybody had the same idea that this would be a good weekend for skiing.

After driving 65 miles from the Folsom CHAdeMO station I arrived in Twin Bridges with 7 bars on the State of Charge gauge – about 14 kWh remained in the pack.

The house we rented for the weekend was along an unplowed road covered with about 12 inches of fresh snow – higher than the battery pack under my car.  I stopped to put on chains, and while waiting my turn to drive up the road watched an all wheel drive BMW get stuck and sit there spinning it’s wheels.  That driver made a common mistake: when the tires start slipping in snow you really don’t want to floor the accelerator, it’s not going to help.

On a related note, EVs have instant torque that makes them fast, and I wondered if that torque would make the car prone to slipping.  Not at all.  The front wheel drive Rav4 EV handled the snow like a champ – it probably helps to have an 850 pound battery pack sitting over the wheels.

The next day we drove up to Sierra-at-Tahoe for a day of skiing. The resort has one charging spot available for drivers of plug-in cars: a 110V outlet with a single plug.  You have to bring along your own mobil charging cord to use this charging spot so I came prepared.

110 volts is not the ideal way to charge the Rav4 EV.  It’s essentially a trickle charge and takes insanely long.  Over 7 hours the 110V line added 6 kWh to the pack.  A 220 volt line would have been nice, but I was happy the resort gave me a dollar’s worth of electricity in exchange for the lift ticket I bought.  As an aside: I tried plugging into 110 volt outlets at our rental, but the outlets were not properly grounded and would not initiate a charge.  These are the sorts of variables you want to keep in mind when planning a trip like this.

My 2012 Rav4 EV charging at the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort.

My 2012 Rav4 EV charging at the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort.

After several great days in the snow, it was time to head back down to the Central Valley.  I had about 16 kWh to start my return trip.  Even though the driving range estimate of my EV indicated just 35 miles, I knew 16 kWh was more than enough to drive 60 miles downhill.  Why?  A word on range estimates is warranted here.

The Rav4 EV driving range estimate is called a Guess-O-Meter, or GOM, for good reason.  The car computes a driving range estimate based on several variables starting with how much energy is stored in the pack, the efficiency of your past couple of trips, and the temperature of the battery pack.

If your past couple of trips included steep inclines, and if the car is parked outside in cold weather, the estimate will be low.  But if you’ve been driving on flat terrain in warm weather the estimate will be much higher.  Either way, an important thing to keep in mind is that the amount of energy stored in the battery pack doesn’t change… just the car’s estimate of how far you might drive with that energy.  Dianne Whitmire, who sold more Rav4 EVs than anybody else, put it this way: “The GOM is where you’ve been, not where you’re going.”

Better systems are out there.  If you drive a Tesla Model S or Model X, you type in your destination and the car will account for elevation and weather to provide an accurate range estimate.  GM has said that their upcoming EV, the Chevy Bolt, will also take these factors into account.

In the Rav4 EV we are stuck with technology from 2012….  things are moving fast in the EV world!  But with 2½ years of experience driving the Rav4 EV, I knew 16 kWh was more than enough to get us down to Folsom.  Just think about piloting a sled downhill: it doesn’t require onboard energy, just control.  Better yet, when coasting downhill EV’s generate electricity that is stored in the battery pack, so I planned on making electrons!

We started our trip down with 8 bars - 16 kWh - and used just 4 kWh for the 62 mile, 6000 foot descent.

We started our trip down with 8 bars – 16 kWh – and used just 8 kWh for the 62 mile, 6000 foot descent.

It was 32 degrees and there was a fresh layer of snow on the ground when we left Twin Bridges, so I kept the tire chains on till we reached the chain control check point on Route 50.  After driving more than 60 miles we arrived to a sunny 65 degrees in Folsom with about 8 kWh remaining in the pack.  I plugged into the CHAdeMO charging station for 30 minutes while we ate lunch, and then drove home.

As I’ve noted several times before, Toyota lacked the motivation to include a DC charging port on the 2012-2014 Rav4 EV.  Lucky for me and others, Quick Charge Power has addressed this shortcoming by producing JdeMO.  And I feel compelled to say again that JdeMO works flawlessly and has greatly expanded the utility of my car.  A trip up to the Tahoe region, or anywhere for that matter, takes far longer without DC charging.

Tony Williams’ vision and expertise, and his small company devised a solution for longer distance traveling in the Rav4 EV that a company like Toyota with huge financial resources would not provide.  Toyota has really dropped the ball here.  It’s easy to conclude that Toyota didn’t want to generate much interest in the Rav4 EV since they almost nearly killed the original Rav4 EV (several hundred remain).  Instead Toyota has invested billions of dollars to develop a hydrogen powered car.  In my opinion this smells of commitment bias.

There are a couple ways to approach driving longer distances in an electric car: You can have an electric car with a large battery that will drive you 200 or 300 miles – like a Tesla; You can drive an electric car with a rapid DC charging port – like a Tesla; Or you can drive one of the growing number of EVs with 80 – 100 miles of range and a DC charging port.  The Rav4 EV is on the upper end of that spectrum with an EPA range of 113 miles.

Nissan, BMW, Ford and VW have all announced, or already released, new versions of their electric cars that will have 25 – 30% greater range simply because of continual improvements in the energy density of Lithium ion batteries.  If Toyota had continued development of the Rav4 EV we could be looking at similar improvements and a real-world, EPA-rated range over 140 miles.

Summary:  The Rav4 EV has great traction on snowy roads.  The Rav4 EV is a great electric car with tons of room for storage, great utility and decent range.  With the addition of a CHAdeMO charging port the range and utility of the car is even better.  And finally, effective DC charging infrastructure makes traveling a cinch.

Disclaimer: The author has no financial interest or ties to organizations and companies mentioned in this article.


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