Renault Zoe: Leading the electric vehicle charge

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AT THE launch of the new all-electric Renault Zoe in Lisbon the other week, the French head of PR took journalists through a Powerpoint presentation proclaiming a new dawn in motoring. She showered us with facts. It’s the fourth addition to Renault’s ZE portfolio, which includes the Fluence, Twizy and Kangoo. Design process began back in 2008. Range is 93 miles and 87 per cent of trips made in Europe are less than 40 miles. Special “Chameleon” charger box can charge it to 80 per cent in half an hour.

“And here,” she declared, “is the Zoe’s competition.”

The slide was blank. Gallic humour aside, she had a point.

With an entry price of half a Nissan Leaf – £13,995 (plus £70 per month for the battery), a stylish appearance and gutsy performance right up to motorway speeds, there isn’t another electric car quite like the Renault Zoe on the market right now.

There’s a reason for that. Renault says it’s because the company is an eco-friendly trailblazer. A more cynical observer might say it’s because the technology and infrastructure don’t yet exist to make an electric car a truly viable option, and Renault is silently whirring up a blind alley. But I’m not a cynical observer. Yes, this car is a non-starter for a lot of people. People who don’t want to own more than one car. People who like going for long drives. People who don’t have a garage or a driveway where they can plug it in. But likewise, a Lamborghini Aventador isn’t going to tick all the boxes for people with kids, shopping bags, creaky knees or a modicum of good taste, and it seems to do all right.

Throughout the media launch of the Zoe, we were repeatedly reminded that this is a “real” car. Not a concept, not a gimmick, not a blind alley. And they’re right. It is a real car. A real car with real costs.

That £13,995 figure is for the entry-level model, after a £4,000 government discount is applied. The £70-per-month battery rental only applies to those who do less than 7,500 miles a year – it gets more expensive if you do more, or if you do a lot of fast charging, which wears out the battery more quickly. On the bright side, it’s still a lot cheaper than a Nissan Leaf and you get a 7kW charging wallbox installed for free by British Gas. This wallbox can charge the Zoe to 100 per cent in eight hours, and will probably cost you around £3 in electricity. For that, you get what Renault says is a real-world range of up to 93 miles. The officially tested range in optimum conditions is 130 miles, but Renault doesn’t even pretend that a consumer will ever come close to this.

There are three trim levels to choose from – the entry-level Expression, the Dynamique Zen and the Dynamique Intens. I drove the Zen model (£15,195), because you can’t get enough zen when you’re driving in Lisbon.

The sparse, dazzlingly white and light grey fascia is supposed to create an unfussy, relaxed environment, but when the sun hits it and it all reflects off the inside of the windscreen, I was anything but relaxed.

There’s an integrated air freshener set into the fascia on the passenger side. If you press it, a magnificently engineered tiny drawer of fragrance slides out with a hypnotic soft eject you will never, ever tire of. Underneath it is a cheap and nasty plastic glove box door which rattles you in the shins when you open it. I think they blew the budget on the air freshener.

The seats – in the Zen’s case upholstered in special allergy-friendly material – are comfy enough, but the solid, imposing headrests limit over-the-shoulder visibility. There’s plenty of room for driver and passengers alike, and the 338-litre boot capacity is good for the city car segment.

Starting the Zoe is as easy as it gets. Put a foot on the brake, press the big start button, and then look around gormlessly until you remember there isn’t any engine noise and the thing’s actually ready to go now. With this in mind, the driver can select three different running noises for the car to emit to avoid “alarming pedestrians”, as Renault puts it. One sounds like the Millennium Falcon, one sounds like a disruptor beam from Star Trek and one sounds like someone three doors away doing the hoovering. None of these things, you will note, sound like cars. Scotsman Motoring’s humble suggestion is that Renault offers more realistic and recognisable sounds for Zoe owners to download via the car’s R-Link multimedia system – which already offers the ability to use a variety of downloadable driving and leisure apps. Our suggestions for soundtracks include Throaty Maserati Gran Turismo, Out-of-control Cement Lorry (to put the fear of God into cyclists) and 1987 Fiat Panda With Broken Exhaust and Screechy Fanbelt. You’re welcome, Renault.

The 65kW, 87bhp motor, which delivers 220Nm of instantaneous torque, makes for a delightfully quick getaway at the lights. It doesn’t stop there, though. It motors all the way up to around 60 or 70mph before it really feels like it’s starting to run out of puff, or electrons or something, but it can go all the way up to 84mph, although there is a definite sense of “this thing isn’t designed for this” above 65mph.

The Zoe makes for a particularly smooth, comfortable ride in urban settings. Lisbon’s cobbles melted away into insignificance while pootling about the city, and one would imagine all but the most yawning of Scottish potholes would be absorbed fairly well. Handling is, at points, nice and secure, thanks in part to the 290kg, 22Kwh battery sitting underneath the chassis which gives the car a low centre of gravity. The Zoe turns into corners assertively, but that comfortable suspension allows the chassis to wallow and roll a little if you’re cornering at speed. Meanwhile, the car’s specially developed Michelin tyres, which are specifically designed to reduce friction and therefore increase efficiency, are, erm, specifically designed to reduce friction, so aren’t the grippiest.

Braking is a strange affair. Slam the foot down and it stops just like other cars. But gentle dabs result in Renault’s clever regenerative braking technology coming to the fore, as engine and pads combine to slow you down while also harvesting some of that energy to put back into the battery. Maybe it’s something a Zoe owner would get used to after a while, but after two days in Lisbon, a significant sample of UK motoring journalists reported several hair-raising close encounters with the car in front as the car didn’t come to a halt quite as early as expected.

The Zoe is indeed a “real” car, in that “real” cars can never be perfect, but with that low entry price, good performance and decent range, it will certainly be the first truly viable electric option for a lot of people. In that respect, Renault does indeed seem to be miles ahead of the competition.

VITAL STATS

CAR Renault Zoe

PRICE From £13,995 (plus £70 per month battery lease)

PERFORMANCE Max speed 84mph; 0-62mph 13.5 secs

RANGE 93 miles