Not all EV braking is created equal.
When I drive an electric car for the first time, I’m always struck by how different it is from EVs that I previously experienced. More often than not, what separates them is not how they accelerate or handle – but how they brake.
In the last couple of months, I’ve been able to get behind the wheel of these six EVs:
- 2019 Hyundai Kona Electric
- 2019 Audi e-tron
- 2018 Nissan Leaf
- 2019 Tesla Model 3 Performance
- 2017 and 2019 Chevy Bolts (The 2017 model is my personal ride)
The idea is to maximize the amount of energy you put back into the battery in the braking process. But the makers of these EVs take very different approaches.
Brakes Like a “Normal” Car
The brake-feel of the Audi e-tron and Hyundai Kona EV is aimed at familiarity with conventional drivers. It’s not that one-pedal driving is impossible. But it takes some work to set things up via a buried menu mode in the Audi or by using steering-wheel paddles in the Hyundai.
If you just step on the brake pedal in Audi e-tron or Kona EV – respectively up to 0.3 g and 0.25 g – then the energy will be regenerated. Beyond those levels of force, friction braking is employed to bring the car to a stop.
This approach has a definite effect on how the car feels on the road. If you’re traveling above a few miles per hour in these vehicles, and you take your foot off the accelerator, these vehicles coast just like you would expect from a conventional car. You almost never experience the grab of the regenerative brakes to slow you down.
It would have been easy for Audi and Hyundai to offer a mode or setting to give EV drivers an accessible option for one-pedal driving. They decided against it because they believe consumers don’t like to slow down too fast without using the brake pedal. Besides, they believe, you can get the same level of regen energy (and added range) without changing the drive feel.
Strong Regen Braking But It’s Comfortable (And Easily Controllable)
Meanwhile, based on a few days behind the wheel of the Model 3, I believe that Tesla sets the gold standard for EV braking feel.
If you use the Normal setting for regenerative braking, you promptly slow down – but it’s not too fast. It feels smooth and natural. There’s no stickiness and presumably a maximum amount of energy is regenerated.
Tesla Model 3
Critically, Model 3 drivers also have the “Low” option. That switches the braking to a conventional feel – something like I experienced with the Audi e-tron. I preferred Tesla’s Normal setting, but it’s nice to have two simple choices.
My Chevy Bolt is similar, with some key distinctions. With the Bolt in Drive, the regenerative feel is moderate, roughly equivalent to what I experienced in the Model 3 in Normal mode. I’d say the Model 3 in Normal slows you down a little faster than the Bolt in Drive.
However, the Bolt offers an L gear (or a single function steering-wheel paddle). Use either one, and the Bolt comes much more quickly to a stop. As with the Model 3, the Bolt’s two simple choices provide all the options you need. In fact, in my car, I’m constantly shifting the Bolt into L for higher regen and back to D for longer stopping distances. The ability to toggle with the gear shifter is easier than changing the Model 3’s screen-based setting.
A Feeling of Brake Resistance Rather Than Control
My least favorite braking experience was with the 2018 Nissan Leaf. Yes, it provides the ability for one-pedal driving by using the “e-pedal” button on the console. But I repeatedly had a sense of needing to push through the brakes rather than modulating the speed with the single pedal.
The feeling of resistance was most pronounced at low speeds, when backing out of the driveway or finding a spot in the parking lot. From my perspective, the calibration is off. Even when other cars – like the Model 3 and Bolt – are utilizing strong regen, they don’t feel stiff after a stop and at low speeds.
2018 Nissan Leaf
Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst at Navigant Research, explained the Nissan e-pedal system to me. “Nissan uses the brake actuator from stability and traction control,” he said. “Even if you don't touch the brake pedal, it will automatically apply friction brake force.”
Abuelsamid contrasted Nissan’s brake approach with how General Motors feeds some current to the Bolt’s brakes to electronically control the regen feel at low speeds. “The potential advantage of GM’s approach is you are not transitioning from one mode to another,” he said. Instead, the Leaf’s transitions from regen to friction braking create “the potential for the handoff to have a little bit of hiccup.”
If you drive one or more of these cars, let us know if you agree with these observations. And tell us which approach you prefer.