Buyers of electric cars must be a brave lot. Faced with limited range, long recharging times, stratospheric prices and uncertain resale values, they are the implacable souls who say, “Bring it on.”
Now Renault has come up with a battery-powered car that might appeal to more than the small, early-adopter pool of wealthy masochists. Its new Zoe supermini offers reasonable range, a variety of faster charging options and – most crucially of all – a price tag that won’t make your eyebrows merge into your hairline.
Has the French manufacturer finally come up with an electric car to tempt ordinary, rational buyers? We headed to the Portuguese capital Lisbon for an intriguing first date with Zoe.
The Renault Zoe certainly has an arresting design, judging from the number of craned necks and double-takes our tests triggered on the streets of Lisbon. While Zoe shares some components with the current Clio and Mégane, all the visible bits are unique. They include appealing details like blue-tinted chrome, delicate, diamond-shaped rear lamps and a purposeful, hawk-eyed front end.
Inside, the cabin is bright and airy with big windows, pale plastics and light upholstery. Unfortunately the top of the dashboard is a little too beige for its own good, reflecting annoyingly in the windscreen in bright sunlight. Driving west towards a setting sun, the shiny pale plastic also bounced searing rays straight into the driver’s eyes. Zoe buyers will need to invest in a top-notch pair of polarising shades.
All Renault Zoe models get five doors and a deep and square 338-litre boot – that’s an impressive 60 litres more than the Ford Fiesta manages. Some luggage space is immediately lost to the briefcase-sized bag holding a thick charging cable, however.
In the main cabin the rear bench seat is noticeably raised, limiting headroom in the back. Anyone over six foot simply isn’t going to fit, while even the front seats feel a little high-set and don’t adjust up and down. The bulky lithium-ion battery is the culprit in both cases, forming a thick floor for the car stretching from the front footwell to the rear axle.
Performance & Handling
The Renault Zoe is no milk float. Like most modern electric cars acceleration feels brisk, instant and intoxicating, while the near-silent powertrain means the driver will need to keep a wary eye on the digital instrument panel to avoid speeding fines.
The electric motor provides 65kW (about 87bhp), yielding a ho-hum 13.5 second sprint to 62mph. However, seamless torque makes the car seem much more persuasive away from traffic lights. Even on faster roads, the Zoe can spring from 40 to 60mph with surprising ease, making overtaking manoeuvres safe and predictable.
Things fall apart in the bends, however. While the supple suspension is up for some fun, the light and elastic steering definitely isn’t, and the eco-biased Michelin Energy E-V tyres can’t summon much cornering grip before wailing and sliding into understeer. Upgrading to optional 17-inch alloys will bring grippier Primacy 3 rubber, but will cut the car’s already limited range by 10 per cent.
Braking feels a little odd. Rather than simply stopping the car, the pedal’s primary role is to stuff as much energy as possible back into the battery. Zoe’s electronic systems decide on the balance between conventional hydraulic stopping power and regenerative braking – that’s the electric-car equivalent of engine braking. The mix varies according to speed and how urgently the brake has been stepped on. The result is a lifeless pedal, and a deceleration profile that is never dangerously unpredictable but is never quite normal either.
Economy & Environment
Few cars are as green-tinged as the Zoe, with zero tailpipe emissions and – according to Renault – no more than 54g/km of CO2 emissions even if energy used is traced all the way back to its source (for the UK’s grid, that is).
Under official test-cycle conditions, the 22kWh battery will provide 130 miles of range between charges, though Renault more cautiously quotes 90 miles in mild weather, falling to about 60 miles in winter. The cabin heater is a highly efficient heat-pump design rather than a glorified hair dryer – essentially, air-con run in reverse – but no amount of engineering cleverness can get around the fact that batteries simply don’t like the cold.
Substantial brainpower has been spent on creating a “Chameleon charger” that allows Zoe to hook up to a variety of power supplies when it’s time to replenish the battery. A domestic 3kW wallbox will take up to nine hours to fill a flat battery, while the highest-rated 43kW fast chargers can provide an 80% charge in under an hour. During our test drive, a 22kW charger took range from 43 miles to 90 miles while we stopped for a three-course lunch.
Equipment & Value
There are three trim levels on offer – Expression, priced from £13,650, and Dynamique Zen or Dynamique Intens, both at £14,750. Those prices come after a contribution from the government’s Plug-in Car Grant, claimed on the buyer’s behalf by Renault. The maker also throws in a wallbox for free (within limits – if your grounds are measured in acres you’ll be asked to make a contribution). Orders are open now, and potential buyers should note that a modest price rise is due from 5 April 2013.
Owners will also need to pay £70 per month to lease the battery, under a 36-month contract capped at 7,500 miles. Higher mileages and shorter commitments cost more.
All Zoe models arrive well equipped for this size of car, with the base Expression trim including a seven-inch touchscreen, voice-controlled TomTom satnav, USB and Bluetooth connections, climate control, cruise control and rear privacy glass.
The two Dynamique trims bring 16-inch rather than 15-inch steel wheels, keyless entry and startup, the ability to monitor and control recharging via a smartphone app, an uprated stereo, auto lights and wipers, the ability to download apps to the car (for example a text-to-speech function to read out emails from your phone), a leather steering wheel and rear parking sensors.
The Intens version gets a rear parking camera and darker interior trim (though sadly still with a pale dashboard top), while the Zen model enjoys anti-stain Teflon upholstery and an upgraded ventilation system.
Major options include 16-inch alloys with eco tyres at £400, 17-inch alloys (for the Dynamique cars only) at £310, and metallic paint at £495.
Buyers also get four years of special cover that includes free servicing up to 48,000 miles, a full warranty up to 100,000 miles, and roadside assistance for breakdowns – including flat batteries.
Any worries about battery lifespan are mostly Renault’s, given that it leases rather than sells the battery. Owners can demand a replacement if capacity falls below 75 per cent under a lifetime agreement, while the rest of the powertrain is covered for five years.
Renault has a good reputation for safety and all Zoe models come with an electronic stability system as standard, plus traction control and a system designed to reign in understeer. Crash-safety body EuroNCAP awarded Zoe its maximum five stars, with an overall score of 82% – among the top results in the supermini segment.
The battery has been strongly built and sits inside the passenger safety cell, well away from front and rear crumple zones. It also includes a failsafe system designed to cut the power if anything untoward happens. According to Renault, tests included fording waist-deep water and hammering nails into the floor, among other unlikely scenarios.
Renault has largely succeeded in its goal of producing an electric car that might compete on level terms with conventional opposition. Owners must be prepared to compromise on range, and give up a little agility, but there are very few other drawbacks. And on the plus side, Zoe drivers will enjoy all the benefits of a highly refined supermini that’s quick, quiet and very easy to drive.
Model tested: Renault Zoe Dynamic Intens
Engine: Synchronous electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery
Power: 65kW / 87bhp
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 13.5 seconds
Top speed: capped at 84mph
Driving range: 60 to 90 miles per charge
Price: from £13,650 after government grant (£18,200 before grant)