What is it?
It’s a battery-powered Renault – a prototype, in fact, for the first of four all-electric models from the French company that will be coming to the market in the next three years.
It’s called the Kangoo Be Bop ZE, and the car it prefigures will be the Renault Kangoo Express, a small battery-powered van due to launch in early 2011, which will be among the first mass-produced electric cars in the world, if Renault has its way.
And here’s the important part: this car’s 60bhp, lithium ion electric powertrain will serve, sometimes in a slightly different tune, to power all four of La Regie’s new zero emissions breed. If this powertrain is good, therefore, it could change the way mass-produced cars are powered forever.
What’s it like?
Quite ordinary in almost every way but in the noise it makes.
Which, coincidentally, is exactly how Renault wants it.
The Kangoo Be Bop ZE accelerates to 62mph in around 13sec, hits 81mph flat out, and has a 62-mile range, but the last figure in that list should increase to about 100 miles before it hits showrooms. Renault says it should go far enough between charges to satisfy the daily requirements of 90 per cent of European drivers.
If you want to go further, you either have to find a three-phase high-speed charging station, which will restore your range in between 20 and 30 minutes, or go to a ‘quickdrop’ station to swap your depleted battery for a fresh one. That process should take just three minutes, says Renault, and also assures us that, come 2011, the network of both ‘charging stations’ and ‘quickdrop centres’ will be fully developed in the UK.
There’s a discreet beep when you turn the ignition key in this car, but nothing else tells you it’s running. Move the gearlever down to D – there’s no gearbox as such, just a reducer gear on the 13,000rpm electric motor. Now prod the accelerator though, and you’ll move away up the road more briskly than you might expect.
The high-torque-at-low-rpm characteristic of the electric motor means the electric Kangoo’s quite an urgent performer up to about 45mph. Thereafter it progresses towards its top speed increasingly slowly; this car is much better suited to urban running than motorway work then. It goes like a big diesel around town and a small petrol on multilaners.
Quietness is what dominates this car’s driving experience. It must be twice as refined from a mechanical perspective as a petrol-driven equivalent, probably three times as quiet as a diesel, and there’s also less noticeable noise from the chassis than you’d guess. But it goes about its business with a distant, quietly intriguing turbine whine that’s unlike any noise a combustion engine ever made; it certainly sounds fruitier than a milk float’s hum.
Each of Renault’s four forthcoming electric models will have its own handling manners, but this Kangoo proves that they shouldn’t necessarily feel slow or heavy-laden, despite having 250kg of batteries on board. The car steers, rides and corners just like any other small Renault – and that’s more than acceptably well; it’s even reasonably entertaining to zip around town in.
Should I buy one?
Well, probably not this very one, but the electric Kangoo certainly reflects pretty well on the three all-electric passenger cars that are coming to a showroom near you. Using this powertrain, you can imagine that Renault’s battery-powered supermini and it’s two-seater urban runabout will be about as compelling and complete car small cars get.
Here’s the snag: they will also be quite expensive. Renault is aiming for prices commensurate with like-for-like mid-range diesel models, but that’s taking into account government subsidies on electric cars that, in the UK, could run to £5000. The city car, then, is unlikely to be available for less than £10,000; the supermini’s likely to cost £16k, and the Prius-sized saloon a little over £20k. Which is fine, provided the UK government’s promise of cash incentives on electric cars isn’t just pre-election bluster.
There will also be the additional cost of leasing the batteries; you didn’t expect your electric Renault to have batteries included, did you? That’s estimated to be between £100 and £200 a month. So you’ll need to do a good 10,000 miles a year in order for one of these cars to make financial sense. Which may prove challenging at first in a car capable of only 100 miles between charges, and with a still-developing charging network.
Zero emissions motoring for the masses is now within touching distance, it seems - and on this evidence, it’s something to look forward to.