A Tesla’s Comfort in Extreme Cold

FEB 25, 2019 – After driving the Tesla in extreme cold weather and discussing the battery range, I wanted to spend some time focusing on comfort during the recent extreme cold weather. For comparison, here are our other vehicles: My daughter’s Fiat, my son’s Suzuki Esteem (yes, like Saul Goodman), my wife’s Jeep, a Suburban and a Chrysler Pacifica. Of those cars, the Jeep has the best HVAC system. The heater warms up in about 5 minutes and gets HOT, even if you don’t preheat it. The Pacifica has the worst. By the time I get to work, it’s just getting to blow out warm air. Preheating it would take literally 20 minutes. So on a ranking system, the Jeep is a ten, the Pacifica is a 1. The Fiat would be a 4 and the Esteem a 6. This is to say, I understand there is a wide range of HVAC capabilities and a blanket statement can’t just be, “The Tesla has a bad heater, therefore electric vehicles just won’t work in North Dakota.”

The Tesla is a 2. Here’s why: Although the heat is immediate and will eventually warm the car, I had to consciously manage it. Even on the Pacifica, I just set it and forget it. Because the Tesla is trying to maximize battery life, the heater has a hard time sucking in fresh 0-degree air and heating it up. Combustion engines are inefficient, but in the winter that’s great because you can leverage that inefficiency to heat the cabin. Not so with a Tesla. It seems to default to the “recirc” setting, circulating the cabin air and reheating it. Which means that eventually the cabin fogs up. Then you have to turn on the defrost, which eventually means the cabin isn’t warm enough. Then you run into the problem that comes along when everything is computerized through a touch screen. This “curse of progress” means that what used to be done blindly with motion memory (reaching down to the lever, flipping it from main heat to defrost or from fresh to recirc now requires you to take your eyes off the road and hit the touchscreen in four different places to makes those changes. Maybe people will eventually be able to do it while driving—or more likely we’ll be forced to talk to Alexa or Siri to make things like this happen. All technology is not progress.

On the plus side, you have seat heaters—for all seven seats—and they are very good. But the experience of relying upon seat heaters to mask the deficiencies of a typical heating system is a compromise that you feel.

Here’s another tidbit. The gull-wing doors. They look awesome. They attract attention. And they let all your heat out in wintertime. Heat rises, and cabin heat is a precious commodity in a Tesla when its 20 below zero. Now this isn’t a “Tesla” complaint—it’s not even a complaint, it’s a finding—that would apply to any car with gull wing doors. But when you open that door, the heat escapes. And if you open both of them at the same time, it’s VERY noticeable.

Bottom line—the Tesla seems very similar in capabilities, heating-wise, with our other vehicles until the temperature drops below 5 or so. Then, you have to consciously work to keep it the perfect combination of comfortable and defrosted. No one is going to not buy a Tesla because of the heating system, or not buy one because the gull wing doors that let the heat out, leading to a minor inconvenience of reheating the cabin. And as any family with a few cars knows, there is a lot of variation in heating capabilities in cars right now. With Tesla cornering the market for high-end EVs right now, those things are just the way they are. But as competition extends across the high-end electric SUV market, those things will get more attention than they get from a car manufacturer based in warm and sunny California.


Jason Bohrer


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