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Road-tripping along Quebec’s Electric Circuit in a Nissan Leaf

JEREMY SINEK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The trip

Distance: 900 kilometres

Cost of recharging: $54.72

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*Estimated gasoline cost: $74.25 (Based on Nissan Sentra turbo, 7.5 litres/100 km, $1.10/litre)

Stated range, government testing: 172 km

Actual range, winter driving: 136 km

The mission: To experience the Electric Circuit, Quebec's rapidly expanding network of public charging stations, in a Nissan Leaf.

The question: With most electric vehicles claiming improved range on a charge – yet still less than 200 kilometres – is it possible to hit the open road, especially in winter?

The goal: To drive a Nissan Leaf from Gatineau to Quebec City. And back again.

I've booked a room at a Hilton, fittingly just steps from Quebec's EV-friendly parliament. There's a charger in the hotel parking garage, and EVs park for free.

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The Electric Circuit lists more than 800 charging stations, but key to this experiment will be the 70-and-counting quick-charge stations strategically positioned along the province's major travel corridors.

A typical 240-volt home charger needs about six hours to fully recharge a 2017 Leaf. However, the 400-volt quick chargers claim to provide an 80-per cent charge in 30 minutes. On a road trip, that's about the time you'd spend on a personal-comfort-and-coffee pit stop.

I've done my homework: ordered an Electric Circuit "charge card" and loaded it with $20; installed the app on my iPhone; and located the quick-charge stations along my planned routes (outbound north of the river, homebound through the Eastern Townships). Along these busiest routes, there are quick chargers every 45 to 60 kilometres; east and north of Quebec City, gaps of 110 to 130 kilometres are more typical.

DAY ONE

Gatineau to Montebello: 66 kilometres

The fully charged Leaf shows a promising 201 kilometres of range when I pick it up. But I'm skeptical. The car is brand new, so what history is that prediction based on? The closest quick-charge station is only 66 kilometres away, in Montebello, but the next option is 161 kilometres, in St. Jérôme. I point the Leaf toward Montebello.

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The weather forecast is ugly: freezing rain. I could keep warm enough just using the seat heater, except I frequently need the energy-hogging HVAC to defog the windows. I muse that a roll of paper towels would be a good range extender.

Along the way, I explore NissanConnect on the navigation system. I tap "Update Stations" and it downloads 15 new charging-station locations. The system also directs me to the Montebello tourist-information office, where the big blue-and-white metal box is easy to spot.

After 66 kilometres, the Leaf shows 41 per cent state of charge and 62 kilometres of range remaining.

I tap my Electric Circuit charge card, await authorization, plug it in and push the button. Easy peasy. In 30 minutes, the state of charge (SoC) is back up to 85 per cent. Another 12 minutes of charge time only adds 5 per cent more: Above 80 per cent, the charge rate slows significantly. As a further disincentive to hogging the charger, you pay by the hour, not kWh. Those 42 minutes cost $6.90.

Montebello to St. Jérôme: 90 kilometres

I let the navigation system pilot me along the Autoroute, but after 60 kilometres at 105 km/h, I'm alarmed by the rapidly declining range. I drop the pace to 90 km/h. Still, arrival at St. Jérôme is accompanied by dire "find a charger now!" messages from the nanny in the dashboard.

Like many in Quebec, this charging station is at a St-Hubert chicken rotisserie. I eat there while complaining about the uncleared snow pile at the base of the charger that has turned to solid ice.

This time, 41 minutes brings the SoC back up to 95 per cent. It seems the lower your starting SoC, the quicker it charges. That helps save time on long trips, if your nerves can stand it.

St. Jérôme to Baie-de-Maskinongé Service Area, A40: 115 kilometres

If highway speeds kill range, leaving St. Jérôme illustrates the flip side: puttering through the 'burbs, the indicated range actually goes up over the first few kilometres. Another teachable moment: Nearing my destination, NissanConnect doesn't list a charge station there. When I arrive (with 8 kilometres of range remaining), I learn why: A Kia Soul Electric beat me to it. Fortunately, the driver is done in five minutes. When it's my turn, the charger shuts down after 35 minutes because the Leaf is fully charged. After being billed $5.89, I need to reload my card; it's quickly done online through my smartphone.

Baie-de-Maskinongé to Quebec City: 169 kilometres

A 102-kilometre straight shot down Autoroute 40 gets me to a quick-charger in Deschambault. Sheet ice is again a hazard around the charger. A 31-minute boost gets the SoC up to 92 per cent for $5.03. That's plenty for the final 67 kilometres to the Quebec City Hilton, where the sole dedicated charger is already occupied by a Tesla. The valet finds me a 110-volt outlet instead.

It's taken nine hours to travel 440 kilometres. That's about twice the time it took to drive 480 kilometres from Mississauga to Gatineau on gasoline.

DAY TWO

Quebec City to Gatineau: 460 kilometres

Morning surprise: After 10 hours charging at 110 volts, the SoC is only at 71 per cent. Fortunately, my plan calls for a stop after only 50 kilometres. I get there just before a local family of four arrives in a 2014 Leaf. They are happy to patronize Tim Hortons while they wait.

Long story short, the drive to Gatineau requires three more charging stops at intervals between 75 and 136 kilometres. It's a fine day, with temperatures heading up to 11 C, though a stiff headwind is eating into my range. My best leg is the one skirting Montreal, where freeway speed limits are as low as 70 or 80 km/h. After 97 kilometres, the car still shows 56 kilometres of range remaining.

A final 40-minute recharge brings the SoC back up to 100 per cent and a promised 173-kilometre range – and it's only 136 kilometres back to Dormani Nissan in Gatineau. What could possibly go wrong?

Something did. Was it the headwinds? The long uphill stretches of Autoroute 50 that seemed to lack any corresponding downhills?

I wasn't rushing, and the HVAC was turned off, yet that promised range evaporated with alarming rapidity. One-hundred and thirty-six kilometres later, I virtually coasted into the dealership, with the SoC and range so low that the displays had gone blank several kilometres previously.

So, Quebec's Electric Circuit works. You actually could drive long distances in an average electric car, if you had to – and if you had the time. After all, safety experts recommend taking a break every two hours on long trips. What is needed are more EVs that can actually go at least two hours at highway speeds. Meanwhile, paradoxically, an EV's range is still best in the situations where you need it least: running around the city, close to home.

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