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Bespoke battery-powered supermini aims to advance the cause of electric cars at the mainstream end of the market

If there is to be a global transition from combustion-engined to electrically powered cars, it has not thus far proved quick, smooth or particularly profitable for the car makers leading the field - so can the Renault Zoe change that?

Prior to the Renault's arrival, the most viable EV to have undergone the Autocar road test so far is unquestionably the Nissan Leaf, yet it has proven a tough sell – limited not only by the inherent range dilemma although the Nissan Leaf has been increased to 150 miles, but also by an initially high asking price that pigeonholed it as an early-adopter extravagance rather than a truly mass-market car. 

The Renault Zoe has more conventional styling than the bonkers Twizy, but is more visually appealing than the conservative Fluence

Renault's involvement in EVs is now extensive. Underwritten by the billion-pound investment made by the Renault-Nissan Alliance in an EV programme, the brand publicly kicked off its ZE (Zero Emissions) programme with a series of concepts that included a preview of the Renault Twizy

The commercial Renault Kangoo ZE van and saloon-shaped Renault Fluence ZE entered production first, in 2011. The Fluence faltered due to the financial collapse of its battery swapping network, but the Kangoo was named Van of the Year in 2012.

With the Renault Zoe, the French half of the Renault-Nissan Alliance is attempting to break through. Its car, conceived as electric from the outset rather than adapted from a combustion-engined model, is supermini-sized.

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It has broadly similar range and performance to the Nissan Leaf but, like most of Renault’s EVs thus far, will be part-sold and part-leased via a battery rental scheme. Which means that, with the continued assistance of the government’s EV grant, the Zoe can actually be had for supermini money. Although the end of 2016, saw the Zoe get a facelift which saw the standard 22kWh battery joined by a 41kWh version and a 250 mile range.

So is the Renault Zoe a potential tipping point or a car still hamstrung from the outset?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Renault Zoe rear

Early designs for the Zoe were far more radical than the car you see here. Renault says the first sketches for the Zoe were made in 2008 and set about reinventing the car. 

Later, it realised that customers have grown quite accustomed to cars as they already know them and, presumably, an accountant figured that using existing architecture would be a financially smart thing to do, so the production Zoe is loosely based on the same platform that underpins the last-generation Renault Clio, albeit clothed in what is, to our eyes, a more distinctive, prettier skin.

The original concept was a thinly veiled version of the production version of the Renault Zoe

This means that the Zoe has a steel monocoque with space for major mechanicals where you’d expect them – under the bonnet, where an engine would normally go (which is where the motor and associated electrics are sited) and beneath the rear seats, where a fuel tank would usually be (and where, under the floor towards the rear, you’ll find the batteries here). 

Front suspension is by MacPherson strut, as in the Renault Clio, but with a beefier, Mégane-sourced front subframe, and at the rear there is a torsion beam, with coil springs all round. 

The electric drivetrain adds a fair amount of weight to this B-segment car, which tipped our scales at 1465kg, and we’ll come to the effect of that in a moment.

The weight is biased slightly towards the nose, unsurprisingly, because that’s where sits the charging unit, the power controllers and the 87bhp or 90bhp synchronous electric motor (depending on which trim you choose), which drives the front wheels.

INTERIOR

Renault Zoe interior

You sit a bit higher than the modern supermini norm in the Zoe and there’s no base height adjustment on the seat. You get a decent range of adjustment on the steering column, though, as well as competitive headroom and legroom and decent cushioning under your backside. 

Most of the cabin architecture is derived from the Renault Clio’s, with the fascia plastics given a dash of lighter colour for a point of difference. The R-Link multimedia system’s seven-inch touchscreen in particular reminds you of Renault Clio, as does the shape of the steering wheel, the air vents and the centre console. Does a special car like an EV deserve a more special ambience? Maybe.

We'd recommend going for the basic Expression models of the Zoe

In front of the driver, in lieu of normal instrument dials, is a thin TFT colour display showing remaining battery life and range, a digital speedometer and the usual trip computer functions. It’s all very intelligible and there are colour graphics to tell you when the battery is regenerating or discharging.

Farther back, there are fewer packaging compromises than EV early adopters might be used to. The 338-litre boot is deep and can be enlarged by flopping down the one-piece rear seatback. Passenger space in the second row is also very competitive. In terms of space, the Zoe is as usable as any supermini.

There’s a hint of apparent cheapness in one or two places, though. The way that the doors ping as they close and the thin, loose boot lining seem unwelcome vestiges of an attempt to cut cost or weight. Or both.

As for the standard equipment level, there are three to choose from Expression Nav, Dynamique Nav and Signature Nav. The entry-level models get 15in steel wheels, cruise control, climate control, and a Chameleon charger, alongside Renault's R-Link infotainment system complete with 7.0in touchscreen display, TomTom sat nav, USB connectivity and Bluetooth. 

Upgrade to Dynamique Nav and you'll find 16in alloy wheels, auto lights and wipers, keyless entry and go, DAB tuner, rear parking sensors and a 41kWh battery, while the range-topping Signature Nav adds numerous bronze accents, electronically folding door mirrors, reversing camera, heated front seats and a Bose sound system to the alredy burgeoning package.

We’d also welcome a neater storage solution for the car’s charging cable than a simple cloth bag – such as the Chevrolet Volt’s smart underfloor recess. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Renault zoe engine bay

The natural strengths of an electric motor satisfy the typical requirements of a supermini quite well. As a rule, cars in the Renault Zoe’s class don’t drive long distances and don’t get much motorway use.

They’re short-hop, predominantly urban-environment runarounds – and so they see the sort of service that the Zoe serves best. Although the upgraded battery and 250 mile range seems to suggest that the 2017 Zoe may be more capable of cross-country sojourning than its predecessors.

The Zoe's capable of 0-60mph in 12.3sec

The car is blissfully easy to operate: insert keycard, press start button, engage ‘D’, press accelerator. There are no gearchanges to worry about. Speed is acquired easily from a standstill and performance feels instant and peppy up to about 40mph.

Low-speed refinement is excellent, too, but better still if you turn off the car’s ‘ZE Voice’ – a low-speed warning to pedestrians that makes the Zoe whine quietly as it speeds up and slows down below 20mph.

Above 50mph, the Zoe begins to feel a bit underpowered. On the motorway it’s decidedly exposed – vulnerable, even. But that’s because, above 60mph, the electric motor is producing less than 40lb ft of torque and peak power is tailing off. The Nissan Leaf is a much less limited performer at these speeds. But the Nissan Leaf is also a bigger and more expensive machine.

A standard Leaf will also take you slightly farther between charges. Not much – probably only 10 or 12 miles, and only since Nissan’s recent update of its EV. Still, the Zoe’s average range of 80 miles should be entirely acceptable to both battery converts and average supermini drivers. Although the ZE 40 is capable of surpassing the most powerful Leaf by nearly 100 miles, hypothetically.

Which brings us neatly back to where we started this section: superminis tend to be short-range cars most of the time. It may not be a big leap to declare that yours could easily be a short-range car all of the time – especially if it’s a second or third car. And the Zoe is certainly a talented, easy-driving short-range car.

RIDE & HANDLING

Renault Zoe cornering

We’ll keep this section brief because of greater importance is the one that follows. In short: here’s where you’ll most feel the extra weight in a supermini chassis – and also where you’ll most notice the effect of the economy tyres.

The all-up kerb weight makes the Renault Zoe drive without much of the pep and verve that you’d expect from a small car. It rides flatly but feels leaden and wooden, and although it steers with pleasing weight and response, there’s no excitement here. 

The Zoe doesn't roll much but it could be better damped

We suspect that the body’s mass – which feels, in short, like you’re driving a Renault Clio with five aboard – would better absorb low-speed lumps and bumps, too, but here’s where the economy tyres, which help keep the range up, take their toll.

Because up to 30 percent of energy used to propel a car can be lost through movement in the tyre sidewall, eco tyres like these Michelins have stiffer sidewalls. That’s good for economy but less so for ride quality, and it leaves the Zoe’s compliance a few notches short of a regular Renault Clio’s and a further distance again behind the class best.

Don’t misunderstand us: it’s still some distance from being uncomfortable, but you’re always aware that the Zoe is carrying more girth than it might.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Renault Zoe

Famously, it is at this end of the road test where the critical trajectory of most electrically powered cars stalls and falls away. Put simply, EVs, although very cheap to run, have proven far too expensive to buy for mainstream appeal. 

Renault has sidestepped the detrimental effect of a higher asking price by offering the car with a competitive sticker – as low as £13,995, with grant, for the entry-level Expression Nav model – and transferring some of the overall expense to a battery rental plan.

Avoid the Renault's larger wheel options as they can reduce the range slightly

Like a mobile phone contract, the cost of this is figured monthly, and by term length and usage. So for three years and 10,500 miles, Renault will relieve you of an additional £85 every month. 

This is potentially a better option than buying the whole kit and caboodle, because although it introduces a fixed running cost, it simultaneously removes the anxiety of buying and owning a continuously degrading lithium ion battery. (It is guaranteed to reproduce at least 75 percent of its original charge capacity and can be exchanged for a new one at the end of the contract.) 

Also included in the price – together with TomTom sat-nav, climate control, cruise control and Bluetooth – is the installation of a 7kW wall charger at your home. This will fully refuel the battery in three to four hours, via the Zoe’s seven-pin socket.

Thanks to the Chameleon charger tech, it’ll be quicker still from a fast-charging post, where a 43kW supply will deliver an 80 percent charge in just 30 minutes. 

The problem – and it’s a significant one – comes when you are stranded somewhere between the two. Renault has opted not to include any way of charging the Zoe from a standard three-pin socket. It insists that, as using a conventional domestic outlet would take 12 hours and most people are expected to replenish their battery at home anyway, such a set-up would be redundant.

We heartily disagree. Even if the manufacturer is right and no Zoe owner would dream of driving long distance to stay at a friend’s overnight, removin

VERDICT

A longer range, a shorter charge time, a cheaper cost: these are the promises that seem to accompany every electric car to market. The reality is that incremental improvements – although significant – have yet to liberate the EV from second or third-choice status. Although the new raft of EV cars led by Tesla's Model S plus 300-mile range and the facelifted Zoe's 250-mile promise are close to changing this stance.

And even where there appears to be significant movement – in the Zoe’s price – there’s the not insignificant rental cost of the batteries, which would cover at least one tank of gas all on its own. 

Ford's diesel Fiesta is still a better purchase

But the case for the Zoe – as with all EVs – isn’t solely about numbers, except as a way to dodge company car tax or the congestion charge.

Overall the Renault is pleasing to drive, quiet, classy and, leaving the electric thing to one side for a moment, a stylish and desirable-looking small car.

If you think that you can find room in your life for an EV, with all of the associated limitations and freedoms, you’ll find none better – or better priced – than the Renault Zoe.

But if you’re unsure, it probably won’t win you over. In that case, more conventional eco-focused hatchbacks, like the EcoBoost petrol or turbodiesel Ford Fiesta, will probably prove a more appropriate and viable choice.

 

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

Renault Zoe 2012-2018 First drives