By on January 24, 2022

cold car seat

Following the Virginia shutdown of Interstate 95 that left countless people stranded in freezing weather overnight earlier this month, there was a surprising amount of news coverage making offhand comments about how victims would have been better off if they all were driving electric vehicles (Ed. note — there was also this Washington Post op-ed in which the author worried that an EV would be a poor vehicle to be stranded in And this Vice rebuttal to that article). While it seemed an inopportune time to advertise for EVs, it’s an interesting premise and encouraged Car and Driver to conduct a head-to-head experiment between a Tesla Model 3 and Hyundai Sonata N-Line to see who could keep the cabin warm for the longest period of time when stranded.

Realistically, you’d be better off in whatever vehicle is yielding the heaviest fuel tank or least-depleted battery when traffic stops. But there are other factors to consider. Idling an internal-combustion car for extended periods of time is not recommended and doing so when totally snowed in could potentially trap harmful exhaust gasses if the exhaust is not kept clear. Meanwhile, EVs are notorious for having their battery chemistry altered by colder temperatures. This is especially true if they lack the relevant thermal management systems, resulting in the maximum range being diminished by as much as 30 percent. 

Earlier testing of Tesla vehicles has shown they tend to perform much better in colder environments than other EVs, however, making the Model 3 an ideal candidate for the matchup. The same might not be said of the Hyundai Sonata, though its 14.8-gallon fuel capacity and 2.5-liter motor make it a decent representative of the average commuter car. Keeping in mind that the experiment fell short of the kind of rigor necessary to be truly scientific, Car and Driver placed them both outside on a 26-degree day that dropped to single digits by nightfall.

The Model 3 was placed in camp mode, allowing the vehicle’s climate control system to remain active while the vehicle is parked. But the Sonata, which automatically shuts itself off after a prolonged stint of running without any inputs, had to have that particular function disabled. However, the outlet was unable to shut off the vehicle’s automatic headlamps (a standard annoyance on modern vehicles) and opted to tape over them to reduce the likelihood of making it a beacon for would-be thieves.

It should be said that the mere fact that you cannot customize which systems you want to remain operational on the Hyundai means the test started with a noteworthy handicap already in play. But the Tesla was using an older model resistive heater that’s supposedly less energy-efficient and had 40,000 miles on the odometer with testers estimating its 80.5-kWh lithium-ion battery pack had lost around 8 percent of its maximum charge over the years. Testers also said they failed to pre-condition the battery beforehand.

From Car and Driver:

The Model 3 started with a 98 percent state of charge, and we didn’t precondition the battery. In a real-world traffic jam situation, however, the battery and cabin would both be warm, not to mention it likely wouldn’t be near a full charge. But, despite cooling down the cabin to 47 degrees prior to the test by opening the windows, we didn’t see a significant decrease in battery percentage as the cabin rose to 65 degrees. We finally plugged it in nearly 37 hours later—with 17 percent battery remaining and an indicated range of 50 miles. The battery pack depleted at an average rate of 2.2 percent per hour; put in other terms, it could theoretically last a maximum of 45.1 hours, or just under two days.

We stopped the Sonata just after 24 hours, after it had consumed slightly less than a half-tank of fuel. Its average consumption idling worked out to 0.3 gallon of gas per hour or a maximum total idle time of 51.8 hours, or just over two days, based on its 15.9-gallon tank.

Converting these consumption figures to equivalent energy units shows an electric vehicle’s dramatic advantage in efficiency, with the Model 3 consuming 1.6 kWh per hour and the Sonata using more than six times the energy at 10.3 kWh per hour. That’s no surprise, as the Tesla is able to run only its HVAC system and just enough to keep the cabin at our 65-degree set point, while the Sonata has to keep its 290-hp turbo-four humming inefficiently at idle to run the climate control.

While that last paragraph seems to hand victory to the electric vehicle, it was the gasoline-dependent Sonata that was on pace to have the longer maximum total idle time. But there are loads of other factors to consider, starting with temperature.

Car and Driver explicitly stated that the vehicles were being tested in a survival scenario with a targeted interior temperature of 65 degrees. That’s great for the Tesla, which would have had to use more of its energy reserves to maintain higher cabin temperatures. But it makes little difference to the heater core found in the Hyundai because all it’s doing is reallocating excess engine warmth. In fact, a higher targeted interior temperature probably would have made the Sonata more efficient overall. Testers also acknowledged that the Model 3 would have had to exert substantially more energy to maintain the cabin’s climate if exterior temperatures were colder, whereas the Hyundai wouldn’t.

With the Sonata on pace to outlast the Tesla by several hours, keeping the hypothetical occupant warmer while stranded, it seems like the clear winner here. However, Car and Driver attempted to temper the results by mentioning how EVs tend to be charged overnight while gasoline-reliant cars tend to fill up only when convenient — which is probably accurate but also kind of like losing a boxing match and then suggesting the results would have been different if you had jumped your opponent on the street. Though in a real survival situation one wouldn’t even be running a combustion vehicle full time. They’d only have the engine turning sporadically to ensure adequate warmth, saving as much fuel as humanly possible the rest of the time.

Considering testers could have easily selected an internal combustion vehicle with a larger fuel tank or an EV that’s less adept at holding its charge in freezing weather, it’s kind of hard to know what to do with this information. With no noxious gasses to monitor, it’s probably far more comfortable to be stuck in an EV when it’s cold and there’s literally nowhere to go. But it seems like battery densities will need to continue coming up before electrics become the better option when an occupant’s survival is on the line in a true worst-case scenario.

Unless they forget to fill up the tank, that is.

[Image: frantic00/Shutterstock]

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47 Comments on “Are Electric or Combustion Cars Better at Weathering a Winter Storm?...”

  • avatar

    I guess this may be an issue up north. Here in Savannah Georgia today it was about low 30s when I walked our dogs this morning. It is cold but not deadly. I actually like the cold in the south. It is refreshing.

    Overall, I don’t think winter storm comes into decisions about buying vehicles. Everything will be electric in 20 years. Right now, there is no way I buy electric. If I were to buy electric only option is Tesla. Too easy to gas vehicles now, and hard to charge electric and take too long. So for now Gas is king. City sleekers may want electric now.

    In 20 years, when gas may be $7 a gallon, and batteries can keep 500 mile range and be quicker to charge, things can be different.

    • 0 avatar

      “Overall, I don’t think winter storm comes into decisions about buying vehicles.”

      Three quarters of the market here insists on AWD so they can get out on our triennial snow day, during which the roads completely stop and everything closes.

    • 0 avatar

      concerning pmirp1, excellent points…. from Alabama.

    • 0 avatar

      “Everything will be electric in 20 years.”

      No, it won’t. The average age of a vehicle on the road right now is something like 13 years, and no major manufacturers have announced an end to ICE vehicle production. There isn’t any more reason to think we’re going to have major breakthroughs in battery energy density than there is to think the autonomous vehicles are going to overcome the last ‘little’ obstacles. And batteries are only part of the problem — the other part is that, to convert to an all electric vehicle fleet, we’d need a massive expansion of charging infrastructure and electricity production during a time when the push is to get rid of fossil fuel use at power plants and go to 100% wind & solar. Oy.

  • avatar

    Hybrid or bust.

    • 0 avatar

      This is the best answer.

      Aside from the near impossibility of meeting the limits of battery resources, charging network & access, higher vehicle costs & battery life issues, and reality of how the electricity is generated, the rush to one standard on either side does not satisfy the varied needs of the modern world in the Petroleum Era.

      Yes that is the elephant in the room. This is not the Nuclear Age. Our modern society depends upon petroleum products – including the plastic that cars are made of to the fuel that powers them at the pump or at the far end of the wire. And even those fancy windmills and solar panels require it to manufacture them in all stages of the process.

      We can decant and dispose the 30% or so used as fuel and pretend we are environmentally conscious. Or we can keep working on efficient methods to extract the concentrated energy in the fuel.

      The future will be better if we keep all the options available.

      • 0 avatar

        “Aside from the near impossibility of meeting the limits of battery resources,”

        Incorrect. Scarce materials are being eliminated. For example, cobalt and nickel are being eliminated in some of the new battery technologies.

        “charging network & access, ”
        That’s being addressed as charging networks are being built out.

        “higher vehicle costs & battery life issues”
        as battery prices come down, vehicle prices come down. Also, most current batteries will last beyond the life of the rest of the components.

        ” including the plastic that cars are made of to the fuel that powers them at the pump or at the far end of the wire”

        Actually, there are non-petroleum plastics out there . Even with petroleum based plastic, the petroleum used is not being burned to power the vehicle.

        • 0 avatar

          >there are non-petroleum plastics out there

          The asphalt roadways vehicles rely on are petroleum based. So are the lubricants both ICE vehicles and EVs require (wheel bearings and electric motor bearings for starters).

          Therefore, azfelix’s statement stands: “The future will be better if we keep all the options available.”

          Any aspirations toward a one-size-fits-all, put-all-of-your-eggs-in-one-basket solution amounts to nothing more than a Disney-esque pipe dream.

      • 0 avatar

        The average age of a vehicle in the US is around 12 years. Care to drive an EV with a twelve year old battery? Or even older?

        Plus these cars are being kept running through periodic maintenance and replacement of key parts. This is economically viable for everyone who owns these cars and are likely unable to pony up the $6, $8, $10k(?) cost of a new battery replacement. As much as Buttigieg may fantasize, they will not be stepping up to a $50k or even $35k new car purchase.

        EVs work well for predictable short distance and low to mid weight cars and trucks. They make little sense for users whose needs lay outside of these parameters.

        The quick charge argument for convenience deteriorates battery life and top charge degradation. So long distance travel is not ideal. Not as much of a problem in Europe when compared to the US.

        A quick search on lithium reserves indicates that with the planned growth of battery demand aimed for in the near future, there may only be a 17-35 year supply of it. So is the plan to rely on uninvented or underdeveloped alternatives?

        The charging system expansion is struggling to meet the low volume demands of the long distance traveling elite EV first owners. What is the plan for the average person living in cities and high density apartment complexes? Drive around your town and actually look at how ridiculously complicated and expansive the charging network will need to be to even try and meet the needs of every car owner.

        This holy grail of getting everyone into EVs will impact everyone on the lower end of the economic spectrum severely. I suppose that they can just eat lithium cake.

        • 0 avatar

          “The quick charge argument for convenience deteriorates battery life and top charge degradation.”

          It’s not much of an issue for newer batteries. LFP is 5000 cycles and sodium-ion is 1,000 cycles. Silicon anode lithium can be 1000 cycles. All of these technologies are in commercial production. A 250-mile range EV with an LFP battery could last over a million miles. The Tesla 4680 cell uses silicon and should have considerable life.

          “lithium reserves indicates that with the planned growth of battery demand ”

          Sodium-ion batteries are entering mass production now and over the next couple of years (CATL, Bluetti etc.) and require no lithium. They’ll be used in grid storage/stationary applications at first, but the next generation will be in EVs. Want to talk about sodium reserves?

          “The charging system expansion is struggling to meet the low volume demands of the long distance traveling ”

          Not really. I haven’t seen any issues. It’s expanding. Most people charge at home anyway. For large complexes, we’re all ready seeing the beginning of conversions of gas stations to EV charging locations and that will continue. Shell and other oil companies along electric utilities are expanding facilities. Charging rates are improving as well. As batteries improve their gravimetric density thus creating lighter EVs that can get by with smaller capacity batteries, charging times will come down as well since smaller batteries will take less time to reach full capacity.

        • 0 avatar

          “Not as much of a problem in Europe when compared to the US.”

          That’s not really the case. Europeans travel long distances by auto when vacationing just like here (ever see the photos of jammed French highways in August?), and they love their ‘caravans’ (travel-trailers) just like here.

      • 0 avatar

        good points.

  • avatar

    Gee, what a coincidence. I got a link from a Canadian website that details the experience of a woman in Germany who just picked up her Volkswagen E-car on a very cold day and needed to drive from the factory in Wolfsburg to Munich. It should auto-translate:

  • avatar

    I just moved up to luxury car (ICE) and one thing I’ve noticed is how much better the seat heaters are. From what I’ve read the higher end the car the more heating elements they use and they extend to cover more of the seat. It really envelopes you in warmth a way that the seat heaters in a Camry don’t.

    I’d be curious how well a Tesla’s seat heaters do in keeping someone relatively comfortable.

    Edit: Google says 247wh for Tesla seat heater so with an 80kwh batter that’s 12 days…right?

  • avatar

    If EVs had solar roofs to power a reserve battery for items that use a minimal draw (e.g. heated seats, USB ports), this would end the debate entirely. As is, an EV has advantages but there’s always a chance that someone stuck on a road trip doesn’t have that much charge left.

    • 0 avatar

      The solar roofs I have seen tested so far are nearly useless. Doubt they would offer much comfort in a snowstorm.

      • 0 avatar

        Not to mention, they don’t do much good when covered with snow or in a garage.

        Also, what stops us from putting a solar roof on an ICE vehicle? Use the energy to add “some” heat passenger compartment. Oh wait, a window does the same thing (if not covered with snow or in a garage).

        Solar panels on cars just doesn’t make much sense, unless you’re using it to run a fan to keep the interior from getting too hot in the summer.

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          @brn, were you once an engineer for Mazda?

          • 0 avatar

            @brn may have just read the exchange between a solar panel advocate and US Rep. Thomas Massie, who stated solar panels are not a solution for car battery range.

            The advocate resorted to demanding Massie’s “master’s degree”, so Massie posted his MS in mechanical engineering from MIT. Massie also has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from MIT.

            More importantly, Massie was a member of MIT’s Solar Car Club and was part of the team that ran MIT’s entry in the Solar Car Challenge in 1993, run on an Arizona race track. If there’s anyone who knows about solar panels and cars, it’s Massie.

            MIT was beaten out on points by the Swiss Federal Polytechnic at Lausanne, but the MIT entry set the Challenge’s record for fastest speed in the straightaway, and highest lap speed.

            Many solar panel advocates have high hopes for their uses, but they keep running into practical limitations discovered by others.

          • 0 avatar


            There were plenty of technical roadblocks to just about everything in your house. If there’s money in it, the problems will be solved.

          • 0 avatar

            @FreedMike: No amount of money can alter the laws of physics. Plenty of investors have put money into ventures that required technical breakthroughs that hadn’t occurred yet, and still haven’t.

            The brilliant inventor of catalytic cracking once tried to produce gasoline from coal lignin, and failed so badly, wiping out his French backers’ investments, that he had to go first to London, then the US, to find backers for his catalytic process. That process produced 100 octane aviation fuel that helped win WW2. To date, no one has figured out a way to make any fuel from coal lignin.

          • 0 avatar


            “Plenty of investors have put money into ventures that required technical breakthroughs that hadn’t occurred yet, and still haven’t.”

            And many investors put money into ventures that required technical breakthroughs that hadn’t happened yet, and made out like bandits. Example: anyone who invested in computer companies in, say, 1965.

            But those technologies, like solar panels and EVs, didn’t really require “technical breakthroughs”, though – they required evolutions of existing technology.

  • avatar

    I mean, if I’m stuck that badly, 65 degrees is an unnecessary luxury. Dial that down to 50ish at least.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX


    Interesting test and results, but with a ton of variables – including one’s definition of survival. In my Ioniq 1 EV, I could just run the seat heaters on low (~100 Watts each), and last a very long time. But it wouldn’t be fun. Heating the cabin takes a lot of power.

    The C&D test seems fair enough. Even a more rigorous test would be debated.

  • avatar

    Anyone traveling in the winter should have survival gear. That would be warm clothes, gloves, boots, a sleeping bag, food, and water. You wouldn’t need to run your vehicle at all.

    • 0 avatar

      I always used to tell my daughters, don’t dress for what the temp is in the car, take clothing that you would need to walk a couple miles outside.

    • 0 avatar
      Carlson Fan

      “Anyone traveling in the winter should have survival gear. That would be warm clothes, gloves, boots, a sleeping bag, food, and water. You wouldn’t need to run your vehicle at all.”

      Agree Lou. The next 2 days will be pretty cold here in the western suburbs of Murderapolis, MN. The work shoes will come off in place of warm boots. A warm hat, gloves & my FXR snowmobiling jacket will complete the ensemble just in case.

  • avatar

    I’m a Canadian we know about cold. All things considered …If I’m stuck in a blizzard at -18 C (0 F) and i’m running low on gas ,I have a problem . My problem can be solved with 5 gals of gas ..Facing the same set of conditions with an EV running low , now what do I do ?

    • 0 avatar

      The Rivian trucks were advertising a vehicle2vehicle quick-charging system, specifically for trail-rescue type situations from one charge-port to another. It requires a special double-male cable.

      Failing that, the Rivian truck also 110V outlet that you could use to L1 (slow) charge charge another vehicle. It’s far from ideal, but it would be enough to keep the heater on in another vehicle.

      The F-150 Hybrid provides a 7KW inverter, which you could use to L2 charge another vehicle.

      The Tesla Cybertruck is also likely to be able to provide L2 charging.

      Also, there are portable lithium-ion battery packs which can provide around 3kWh worth of battery power. That’s should get you about the range of a hand-can full of gasoline. Jackery, Yeti, and EcoFlow all make these kinds of battery packs. They’re not cheap, but they are quiet and portable.

      In a pinch, you can recharge an EV with a tow-strap — pull it with another vehicle, and invoke regen. I’d only do this with a pair of glider pilots at the controls of both vehicles — but there are other groups who can pull off this kind of high-velocity teamwork, too, I suppose.

      And, lastly, a regular gas/propane-powered generator can recharge an EV. Noisy and messy, but they are an option when you need it.

      There are a lot more options here than there are for gasoline vehicles.

    • 0 avatar

      What do you do, Mikey? Take ten minutes to top up the charge a bit – if you can get to a gas pump, you can get to a charging station.
      Make sure you remember to plug in at home the night before, so you start the day at 100%. Avoid driving when a blizzard is coming. Bring blankets, water and food with you, just in case.
      If all else fails, you could move to someplace warmer.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        I read today about someone in their EV who was stranded in cottage country (Muskoka) in extreme cold when the charger that they were relying on was out of order. Due to the cold weather they experienced reduced range and could not make it to the next closest charger.

      • 0 avatar

        @RHD “If all else fails , you could move someplace warmer ” ….?? ..I always liked the U.S South west ..I could move there . However… 182 and a half days later U.S immigration will deport my sorry a$$ back to Canuckistan !!!

  • avatar

    There are way too many variables here for the test to tell any individual about their likely experience in an I-95 ice-lock situation (what EV, what ICE, battery/tank size, what state of charge/fuel, seat heaters or not, heat pump or not, energy use customization options, wool hat or not, etc).

    Two reasonable cars were put in a reasonably similar situation and they both give the hypothetical occupant a solid amount of time to sort his/her situation (2+ days). Nearly no one is going to make an EV/ICE call based on this situation.

  • avatar

    It’s hard to overstate how awesome it is, in more ordinary conditions, to run the climate control without sitting in a cloud of your own exhaust. To give just one example, there is a strictly enforced no-idling rule in the Washington State ferry lines, to preserve the health of both the people working there and the people waiting in the line. EV? No problem, just keep your climate control on. For this reason alone an extraordinary number of people on our wealthier ferry-served islands have EVs.

    I take advantage of this *all the time* in the winter, for various reasons. Recently, my wife has been working in the Bolt, with the heat running, the whole time that our younger kid is in his gymnastics class. She doesn’t have to sit inside with all the COVID viruses, she doesn’t have to sit in a cloud of exhaust, and the car is nice and comfy.

    • 0 avatar

      Very good points. Additionally, no one ever died from carbon monoxide poisoning in an electric vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      Carlson Fan

      “It’s hard to overstate how awesome it is, in more ordinary conditions, to run the climate control without sitting in a cloud of your own exhaust.”

      IMO the climate control of an EV isn’t all that efficient in cold weather, because electric heat isn’t efficient . Where the climate control of an EV really shines is during the summer. Even in ECO, the AC cools down my Volt so comfortably and the effect on range is almost non-existent unlike running the heat in the winter. I think the fact that the AC doesn’t have to counter the effect of all the heat coming off an ICE motor is a big factor. In the winter it is just the opposite as all the wasted heat energy is a good thing.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    26 degrees???? I don’t even bother turning the heat on in my Volt at that temperature. That could be the difference between an all electric day & one where I burn gas during my commute to work & back. And I’m not having any of that! People are so soft these days!…..LOL

  • avatar

    The Tesla would power heated clothing for longer. Which makes plenty more sense than running climate control.

    But, the Sonata could have it’s gas siphoned off to power a small Honda generator for likely even longer than that….. At least if there is more than one person with heated clothing in the car…

    Either way, neither car is much to sleep in. Leaving a tent, Thermarest and winter sleeping bag better yet. At which point, the gas in the Sonata could melt an awful lot more snow in a suitable campstove, than the batteries in the Tesla could…

    It’s not entirely coincidental that even devoted treehuggers, tend to bring fossil fuel stoves and fuel into the mountains, rather than electric ones and batteries. Once energy density starts to matter to them personally; and there is no longer a “government” around to force others to help carry the load; physics tends to trump politics and optics even for them.

  • avatar
    Daniel J

    I remember a few years ago with what happened in Birmingham and Atlanta snow storms. I saw some of that in 2015, but not to that extent, where cars were parked on the side of the road right in front of my subdivision.

    At any rate, when I know that there is a storm like this coming, I fill up my gas tank.

    One thing that isn’t taken into consideration here is that if my car runs out of gas or gets close to running out of gas, I can always take a gas can and fill up. If an EV runs out, it has to be towed.

  • avatar

    Or you can get a diesel truck with an atlas fuel tank and just camp out until mid-February.

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