Setting: the Cotswolds, Laurie Lee country, with tight wooded valleys, perched cottages and cornfields in autumn stubble. It’s the gorgeous landscape the young Lee walked out of one midsummer morning in 1935 and headed for Spain.
Today, it is England’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, now a mostly unaffordable delight which outsiders can a least travel through and enjoy; worth protecting. Gloucestershire: stunningly lovely in sunshine with the beeches showing the first signs of colour change. It should make us think of global warming and cleaner motoring. Renault and Dacia were there recently, displaying just about every model they make.
Most are still petrol and diesel powered. All the Dacias are in this group. There are no hybrids. Renault has been putting its faith and fortune into electric vehicles – which will be all “we” will be allowed to buy after 2040 or 2050, they say.
Buyers of hybrid cars have been getting hefty grants to set against the higher purchase costs. Currently this is £2,500 but from November 9 it will be scrapped. The £4,500 grant for cars emitting less than 50g of CO2 with a range of at least 70 miles, will be cut to £3,500. Renault is leading the field. Today you can buy its electric large van, the Master, and a smaller van, the Kangoo. You can buy the Zoe five-door hatchback and the Twizy, a skinny micro-car seating one or two. I drove them all in the Cotswolds. Common points are stepless gearing: you are either going forward, back or stopped. All of them are zero emission (ZE) vehicles – that means no tailpipe or engine fumes. All but Twizy qualify for government grants.
The Master ZE has a one-ton payload. It is designed for local and “last-mile” deliveries carrying bulk, rather than bricks. Its range is officially 124 miles, with a six-hour battery recharge. Winter driving can reduce the range to 50 or 80 miles. It costs a lot – from £48,000 plus VAT. I took it on a 12-mile hilly loop, running empty. It was quiet and smooth. Top speed is limited to 62 miles an hour.
The Kangoo ZE is Europe’s best-selling electric van and it is easy to see why. It is affordable and is quiet and nippy. You can recharge in six hours or get 22 miles in an hour. Renault’s official payload is 640kg with a range of 170 miles (75 to 120 in winter). Price: from £18,346.
The Zoe is a bespoke hatchback, planned to be electric, looking like any other modern Renault but making no noise. The motor produces 106bhp between 3,000 and 11,300rpm and 166 lb ft of torque from 25 to 2,500rpm. This means you get an almost immediate and unbroken stream of power. The 0-62mph time is 11.4 seconds, with a sedate 84mph speed limit. The quoted range is 186 miles, with a winter range of 124 miles. Like the ZE vans it has a display showing predicted range. Like the vans, it gives no visible clue to its electric heart. Price, from £18,420 hiring the battery (from £49 a month), or £25,020 with the battery included.
Twizy is part electric motorbike, part car. It is too narrow to sit two abreast, so your passenger sits behind, with legs straddling the front seat. A one-seater cargo version with a tailgate is more practical for shopping and deliveries.
The sides are open but you can pay extra for “scissor” doors which swing up – flimsy things with see-through lower panels and no windows. Price: from £6,995 plus a £45 monthly battery hire charge. There is no grant because its range is 56 miles, plunging to 31 miles in winter.
The Twizy has a distinctive whine as it screams and bounces to 28mph in 6.1 seconds. Top whack is 50mph. Handy for short hops or taking along with your motorhome or yacht.
The final drive was part past, part future, dreadfully loud, a short drive of the Alpine sports two-seater coupe. It reprises the famous marque from Dieppe, a road and race legend in the 1960s. It was founded by a Renault dealer. Renault bought the company in 1973. A track version won the Le Mans 24 Hour race outright in 1978. This year the new Alpine won the LMP2 class. Its cred for a greener world is its lightweight aluminium construction. Prices start at £47,000 – if you can get one. The first batch sold out. It’s one of the few cars that will steal glances alongside supercars which cost three times as much. On the move it makes a symphony of burbles and howls from the engine behind the seats. The road grip and handling are perfect, accompanied by surprisingly comfortable suspension which allows a slight initial lean when you corner at speed. The 248bhp 1.8 litre petrol turbo drives the rear wheels of the 1103kg car through a seven-speed automatic gearbox. It delivers 0-62mph in 4.4 seconds and 46mpg.
◆ Renault is involved in two island projects which integrate green energy and energy sharing. Porto Santo, off Madeira, is the world’s first smart island. Zoe and Kangoo vehicles return electricity to the grid, while old batteries will be used to store the fluctuating power produced by wind and solar installations. A similar trial is taking place on Belle-Île-en-Mer, Brittany.