Review: Renault Zoe electric car
At last, an affordable, practical, decent looking e-car. WOOT
To argue that the electric car has already failed is farcical. To date only one mass-market EV from an established car maker has been launched in the UK: the Nissan Leaf. Even I’m not fully convinced by the Leaf. I think it’s too big, too ugly and too expensive. A revised, cheaper, longer-range Sunderland-built model will address some of those failings, but I can’t see it changing my essential feelings towards it.
No, in my opinion the only two cars that will fly the flag of the e-car in a convincing manner in 2013 are Toyota’s Prius Plug-in hybrid and Renault’s new Zoe BEV. If in two years’ time global sales of these two are still piss poor then, and only then, will I discuss the “failure” of the e-car.
Renault's Zoe: bang up to date
My initial impressions of the Zoe were gathered over the course of a two-day test in and around Lisbon on roads that looked like they had last been repaired just before the Romans pulled out. Naturally this also meant I was driving a left-hand drive car so I can’t guarantee the ergonomics of the right hookers we’ll get in the UK.
The Zoe is based on the same shared Nissan-Renault platform that underpins the new Mk. IV Clio. So everything is bang up to date and as safe as any other car in its class right down to the five-star Euro NCAP rating. The platform should also be a clue that the Zoe is a size smaller than the Leaf: a largish B-class rather than a C.
For drivers, the good news is that out on the open road, despite only having a 65kW (88bhp) electric motor, the Zoe feels both quick and responsive. More importantly it feels light and agile which is quite an achievement when you remember that there is a 290kg battery pack slung beneath the cabin.
A fine looking motor
The top speed may be limited to 84mph but the Zoe accelerates up to it briskly with no fuss or drama. The actual 0-62mph scamper takes 13.5 seconds but in real world driving the 220Nm (162 lb-ft) of torque that’s available from the off makes it feel faster than that.
Compared to the driving experience of the Renault Fluence or the Nissan Leaf, the Zoe is a big step forward. It’s just so much more fun to throw around the bends. It’s also completely silent. There’s not a hint of motor whine and road noise is well suppressed. Even by EV standards this is a very refined car.
While silence may be golden for the occupants the same is not true for pedestrians, and certainly not the aged, the hard of hearing or the plain inattentive. With this in mind the Zoe can generate three different sounds when under low -speed acceleration, any of which could double as the sound of a starship’s drive engines in a budget sci-fi movie.
One small EV, one huge ocean
Unlike the visually challenged Leaf, the Zoe looks as good as it goes. Sharing a clear family identity with the new Clio it strikes an appealing balance between contemporary small car chic and EV futurism. In my opinion it’s one of the most interesting cars on the road alongside the Citroën DS3.
Like the Clio, the Zoe is only available as a five-door, but the rear pair are designed to be as close to invisible as possible with the handles hidden away in the C-pillar. The curious ridged pattern on the door catches is the thumbprint of the Zoe’s designer, Jean Sémériva.
Inside the cabin, the crisp and modern design ethic is continued, though I struggled to see the supposed influence of the shape of a wind turbine blade in the design.
The dash is again Clio-esque but none the worse for that, and the seats are simply superb. I’ve never parked my backside on anything this comfortable in a B or C class car. All-round visibility is good too, making the Zoe very easy to drive down the narrow twisty lanes that crisscross Lisbon.
To drive the Zoe is little different from any other car with a good automatic gearbox: just get in, push the start button, snick the console-mounted gear selector into D and away you go. The dash is very easy to understand and mercifully devoid of excessively patronising eco signage.
Looks like a three-door but has five
For navigation, entertainment and Bluetooth telephony, the Android-based R-Link touchscreen telematics system has been carried over from the Clio.
R-Link is a GSM-connected system and in the Zoe it also supports the My Z.E. Connect and My Z.E. inter@ctive (sic) systems, which let you monitor and, in the case of inter@ctive, manage your Zoe remotely through either a web browser or a smartphone app.
Interior space for both people and kit is generous and a major advance from the Fluence, which has a compromised boot thanks to the vertical battery pack designed to work with Better Place’s quick-drop robotic battery swap docks.
Electric blue exterior detailing shows its an EV
Renault’s engineers told me that the Zoe has been designed with one eye on quick-drop so adding it as a feature in a mid-life refresh wouldn’t pose too many problems should the need arise, though the system won't be compatible with Better Place’s existing stations.
Under the large Renault diamond on the Zoe’s schnoz is the now standard Type 2 power connector. It’s what Renault calls a Chameleon charger, meaning you can connect it to a 3kW, 22kW or 43kW power source for standard, accelerated or fast charging.
The second and third options will charge the Zoe’s 400V, 192-cell, 22kWh battery from near flat to 80 per cent of maximum capacity in 60 or 30 minutes, respectively. I’ve not tried a 43kW charger but the 22kW unit I used in a multi-storey car park in Lisbon worked exactly as advertised.
Don't need no steenkin' petrol pump
The standard test cycle maximum driving range of the Zoe is 210km but, as Renault makes clear, this is as irrelevant as an ICE car’s fuel consumption figures. Renault’s actual quoted range is between 100 and 150km.
Every time I pushed the On button on a charged Zoe I was shown a 125km (77 miles) range. No matter how I drove, the combination of distance covered and distance projected never dipped below that. Careful driving and use of the power-limiting Eco button saw the combined projection rise to over 145km (90 miles).
So despite the smaller battery pack my experience was that in everyday driving the Zoe has pretty much the same effective range as Nissan’s Leaf: around 75 to 80 miles. A reliable indication of touring range is of course key to lessening range anxiety, and Renault seems to have cracked the problem with the Zoe. What you see on the dash is what you get.
The Renault Zoe in pictures
The 'Chameleon' charging socket is bang on the nose, under the logo
Some handy 22kW chargers in a Lisbon parking garage
A nice interior
The Zoe's R-Link system matches the one in the Clio
That's the thumbprint of the designer, Jean Sémériva, on the rear door catch, not a duff moulding
Not so much room in the back, mind...
If you want to venture further afield, all Renault main dealers will soon have free charge points installed. I don’t have a breakdown of how many will get the faster 22kW and 43kW units though I suspect most will at least have the former. Incidentally, since the Leaf fast-chargers on Nissan forecourts use DC rather than AC, you can’t use them to charge up a Zoe.
Looking to the longer term, Renault’s battery lease scheme includes a clause that once the maximum recharge capacity drops below 75 per cent, or if the battery ever becomes “non-operational”, Renault will fit a new one. The strikes me as a major advantage over the Leaf and removes the potential worry about lifetime battery degradation.
Cabin is airy and bright, the seats very comfy
When the time comes to sell your Zoe, the battery lease is simply picked up by the new owner.
To help maximise range, Renault has cooked up a three-part system called Range OptimiZEr, which includes a new and more efficient regenerative braking system when compared to the one in the Fluence, a heat pump that compresses and so heats air to warm the cabin, and new low-resistance Michelin EV tyres.
Whatever the energy saving characteristics of the tyres they seemed to have no untoward effect on ride, grip or handling, I’m pleased to report.
The boot is a good size. Oh, and note the details in light cluster
The cherry on the Zoe cake - and arguably its most important feature - is that it is genuinely affordable. In the UK the entry-level model is yours for £13,650 after the British government's plug-in car grant. On top of that you’ll need to find £70 a month for the cheapest 36-month battery lease. That’s equivalent to just over 50 litres of unleaded at pre-Budget prices.
Those numbers make sense to me. Assuming you pay cash on the nail and cough up the first 12 months’ battery lease, you will still have change from 15 grand which is the same as you’d expect to pay for a similarly sized five-door hatch with a petrol engine under the bonnet.
The usual Doubting Thomases will by now no doubt have started to howl and moan about what they see as the Zoe’s and, indeed, every other EV’s fundamental impracticality. Quite why, I don’t know.
The display is simple and non-patronising
If you need a car that can travel further than 75-odd miles, the Zoe is quite obviously not the car for you. Bitching about it makes as much sense as complaining that you can’t get a three-seat sofa and five fat blokes in a VW Up. Of course you can’t, so don’t buy one.
The same goes for people who question the practicality of EVs because they happen to live in a place where they can’t have the (free) wall-mounted 13-amp charge box installed. That’s not a problem for me, or my neighbours, or most of my friends, or a lot of other people. If it’s a problem for you, that’s just hard luck.
The Reg Verdict
As you should have surmised by now, my time with the Zoe left me impressed. Stylish, refined and a hoot to drive, it’s a cracking little car and, thanks to the pricing structure, buying one isn’t out of the question. Clearly a public charging infrastructure a little less medieval than the one in the UK would be handy, but even as that stands I could live with a Zoe on a daily basis as my only car and leaping between Renault dealers’ chargers makes it possible to venture even further afield.
Of course, this review will no doubt draw the usual flak from libertarian yahoos who seem to object on principle to any product even partly inspired by the need to try to reduce the all too obvious causes of climate change. But much to their chagrin, and that of EV-haters in general, the Zoe makes a very convincing case for itself. Not a convincing case as an EV, mind - a convincing case as a car. ®