From a distance, the 2015 Renault Zoe might look like just another small car, but it is the exact opposite of that. This the flagship of Renault's Zero Emissions family that includes the Twizy, replacing internal combustion with electricity in a package designed to appeal to European buyers. If that fills you with joyous thoughts of saving the polar ice caps from melting, stick around for the full review and find out what Zoe can do for the environment.
The immaculate conception of this car began back in January 2008, when CEO Carlos Ghosn announced at the Davos Forum that a range of four electric vehicles was being planned. It seemed too far-fetched at the time, but by 2009 a preview model was ready, and we learned the French were serious. The concept adopted extremely radical styling, but market studies later revealed it would have been too perplexing for buyers, so they switched to a conservative look previewed at the 2010 Paris Motor Show. By 2012, the production car we know today was ready and started being available in France (only 48 sold that year).
Does it make sense in 2015? To begin with, let's examine how practical the Renault Zoe is. After all, you can't help any emperor penguin colonies if you can't even do a week's worth of shopping in your car with a single trip. This is a strong point for the Zoe, as the battery packs have been installed under the seats, instead of in the trunk like on most plug-in models, and there's no exhaust system. Those two factors result in a sizable boot capacity of over 330 liters, making this car more practical than a Ford Fiesta and comparable with a Skoda Fabia.
However, because the rear seats are much higher up than they would normally be, folding them flat reveals a huge lip. Because of the limited driving range, we don't expect the Zoe will be used to go on vacations, so that's not such a big deal. But a tall load lip means you have to lift your groceries a bit higher.
For €20,700, which is the minimum you need to pay for this EV
, you could buy a well equipped Volkswagen Golf or Opel Astra. Because of the complexity of the powertrain, Renault couldn't invest in a high-quality interior, so the Zoe feels more like a quirky €15,000 from behind the wheel. The Cabin of the Zoe is a mélange of parts from Clio and other Renault models.
Because the batteries are under the seats, you sit higher than normal.
This gives you a commanding view of the road.Elderly drivers will enjoy, but some youngsters might criticize. The fact that the steering column is angled at nearly 45 degrees to the vertical plane is another thing keen drivers won't like. Still, it goes with the relaxed theme of the car and the leather-wrapped wheel seems to be pulled straight off the Laguna sedan.
The seats themselves are as comfortable as sofas and their Z.E. embroidered headrests give them a somewhat futuristic appearance. If you are concerned that they will blue jeans or food will stain them, know that a Teflon coating applied to the fabric of the seats should make them easier to clean. Renault knows that the Zoe will not appeal to every kind of buyer, so they've made sure that the folks who are considering an electric car will not be put off by the interior.
On our test model, everything was covered in a combination of white and light beige. Some of the plastics are hard, especially on the doors, but the white surfaces are so beautiful we would want them in our house. The accents are done in Renault's typical colored chrome to remind you now and then that you are driving something eco-friendly. This might sound strange, but the overall impression of the cabin is that of a middle-aged man wearing a flax summer buttoned shirt with white trousers, a metal strap watch and moccasins. So relaxed, so fancy!
The infotainment system is the same R-Link with built-in TomTom navigation as you will find on the Clio or Captur, right down to floating console design and the placement of the air conditioning unit underneath. Unfortunately, the engineers didn’t integrate the R-Sound fake engine exhaust app that would have let us replicate the sound of a motorcycle, a Clio RS V6 or the Nissan GT-R though the speakers. It would have been especially amusing to use the 2038 Reinastella concept since the Zoe already feels like a UFO on wheels.
The traditional speedometer has been replaced by a very wide TFT display that tells you what speed you are doing, the state of the battery and if you are in drive or reverse. I don't think there's ever been a car where the speedometer cluster is less useful. It's almost like the top part of a smartphone screen. The Wi-Fi is on, right?! Good. Am I in gear or in neutral? I'm in gear… good.
The one downside to this lightly colored and airy cabin shows up on sunny summer days. We've heard no complaints from customers in Britain and the Scandinavian countries, where the sun is shy, but in our little corner of the world glare is a real problem. On sunny days, the windscreen reflects the whole dash and the fact that it's beige makes you think there's dust involved. This is by no means a niggle, as glare is uncomfortable and dangerous for driving. We would undoubtedly go for the darker interior with a black dash, but if the weather is always gloomy where you live, glare is not going to be a problem.
Renault has obsessively covered every nook and cranny with rubber seals. In combination with the lack of "suck, squeeze, bang, blow" under the bonnet, this results in a very relaxing driving experience. We used a sound meter smartphone app and recorded less than 60 decibels at 40 kilometers per hour. Journeys to or from work would be a lot more relaxing with the Renault Zoe, especially when there are no more gears to be changed. It's so quiet that even though the chime of the indicators sounds like the faint ticking of a clock, you can still hear it over traffic.
Trivia time: in May of 2010, a woman from Paris called Zoe Renault took legal action against the car company, stating the car could lead to her being mocked and ridiculed. However, a French judge ruled in favor of Renault.
And yet, as controversial as using a woman's name for an electric car is, Zoe's design is rather conservative. The transition from internal combustion to electricity is as massive as the invention of the microwave oven, but the French didn't want to rock the boat with their design. Their aim was for the car to be immediately accepted – after all, most of its customers are older and won't drive something that embarrasses them. The Zoe is a supermini with a difference. The quickest of glances immediately draws attention to the fact that the overall proportions of the vehicle are longer and taller than a Clio’s. Blue effects for the headlights and a blue dark-tinted windows immediately make it stand out. However, the tail lamps are the unique feature here, as they are transparent with blue concentric edging. Only when the brakes are engaged does everything turn red.
The front fascia almost looks like a gentle smile. It features dual halogen projector headlights with a slender design, between which sits a giant Renault diamond logo that doubles as the charging point. Below that is an oval grille, flanked by "dimpled" LED daytime running lights that give the Zoe a friendlier appearance.
Zoe had quite a few surprises in store for us, but the biggest one of them all was its dynamic nature. On paper, the electric motor produces only 88 horsepower, not enough for a 1.5-ton bucket of batteries. The press release states 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) takes 13.5 seconds, and the top speed is only 135 km/h (84 mph) because there's only one forward gear. Critics of electric mobility will jump to the conclusion that EVs are heavy, slow and not fun to drive. However, they are wrong, at least as far as the Zoe is concerned.
The electric motor produces the maximum 220 Nm (162 lb-ft) of torque almost instantly, in less than one-hundredth of a second. You can't get that with an internal combustion engine. What's more, Zoe needs only four seconds to reach 50 km/h (31 mph) from a standstill. Hit the "gas" pedal and watch your passengers reach for the grab handle in fear. The EV doesn't feel like an 88 horsepower car; it seems more like a small hot hatch with around 130 hp, like the Suzuki Swift Sport or Twingo RS.
The overall sensation can be compared to the linear acceleration of an elevator or an amusement park ride.
We've praised the throttle response, but handling isn't bad either. By placing the battery under the seats, Renault has lowered the center of gravity. Renault engineers took a Clio platform, brought it down by 35mm (1.4 inches), widened the tracks by 16mm (0.6 inches) and increased torsional stiffness by 55%. The steering system feels a little more precise than we've come to expect from the Renault, partly thanks to the use of Clio 3 RS linking rods and a power steering motor from the next segment above. The gear shifter has a rewarding clunk when put into drive. Knowing it's not going to be used a lot, Renault have turned its top into a display piece for the prominent Z.E. logo, placed under a piece of clear plastic.
You can hardly feel that you are carrying over a quarter of a ton in batteries while driving around town. However, it can feel gutless while going up a steep hill or above 80 km/h (50 mph). The Zoe is stable when cornering but shows problematic tendencies when it comes to stopping. Because 59% of the weight is on the front axle and the rear uses drums, the car pitches forward aggressively when maximum brake force is applied.
Coping with most bumps like a mature, well-damped car, the Zoe will never make those nasty creaking sounds. However, the simple rear axle setup means going over speed traps feels like the suspension is being yanked out.
From a crash safety point of view, the Zoe has the same maximum Euro NCAP score as a Clio (granted in 2013). It's fully equipped with an Isofix mounting point and airbags. However, we seriously doubt the type of customer who buys an EV will ever go street-racing, and insurance data backs our theory.
To be honest, we could have said the Renault Zoe is made by Mercedes, smells like champagne and looks like a unicorn. The only thing people actually want to know is how long you can drive on a full battery, because range anxiety is the one major problem stopping people from going electric.
During our time with the French supermini, we were pulled over by half a dozen people who wanted to know the range of the car. It was like a perpetual deja vu. All of them were older gentlemen, possibly retired, who knew exactly what the Zoe was and that you had to pay a lease for the battery. It seemed like these VW, Audi and Saab drivers had experienced a lifetime of paying for gas and wanted the nightmare to end.
Once we told them that monthly lease starts at €79 and can go as high as double that, they all did a quick add-up of the numbers and said it's not worth it. Hello?! No electric car has ever made sense from a purely financial point of view, but the Renault Zoe comes very close, the closest we've ever seen.
Let's do the math too, and see what's what. For the battery lease, you're going to pay 12 times €79 (that's €948) per year and be allowed to travel 12,500 km (7,800 miles). Considering regular unleaded averages €1.5 per liter across most of Europe, that would buy you 632 liters of fuel, enough for a 12,640 km (7854 miles) journey with a car that averages 5 liters per 100 kilometers. So basically, you're spending the same amount of money, which is how Renault probably conceived the scheme in the first place. Lose mobility, but save the planet. Simple, right?
No. There are other unknowns that need to be added to this equation, ones that depend on where you live. For example, the electricity that you put into the car isn't free and producing from non-renewable energy sources does emit some CO2 (estimates put this at around 50 grams per kilometer). The upside is that there are fewer maintenance costs associated with electric vehicles. There is no timing belt, air filter, fuel filter or oil changes, so Renault says taking care of the Zoe is 20% cheaper than the equivalent internal combustion engine.
Charging is another problem. The car features a system called Chameleon that allows the Zoe to be replenished at any level of power. We used a normal home outlet and the charging cable Renault gave us. A full top-up was supposed to take 9 hours but, unsurprisingly, things weren't so rosy. With the battery still 69% full, the computer said it would take over 6 hours to reach 100%, so it's worth buying a home charger. Range remains the biggest elephant in the room. Renault's press statement claims the Zoe is the first electric vehicle with a homologated range of 210 kilometers (130 miles), according to the NEDC driving cycle. However, as we sat in Renault's parking lot before the test began, our car told us it had a range of 98 kilometers (61 miles) with a 100% charged battery. If you live in the city, that's the number you can expect.
How come the Zoe contradicts Renault's official numbers by more than half? Well, the trip computer predicts the range based on previous driving and in reality you can expect to cover between 100 and 150 km (62 and 93 miles), depending on driving style and weather conditions. There are ways in which you can maximize your usage of the battery, but they aren't fun.
For example, you can plan your journey ahead of time and look for the least congested route or activate the Eco mode to increase the range by up to 10%. This dulls the acceleration, limits the amount of power available and cuts the air conditioning to a minimum. However, we found this to be a very irritating and senseless way to drive. The regenerative braking system also takes some getting used to, but it's addictive in a green sort of way.
Essentially, by lifting your foot off the pedal, the electric motor is transformed into a generator and slowly drags away some of the speed, turning it back into electricity. Press the brakes lightly and the car makes even more power. Renault and Bosch collaborated to develop a system that quickly became addictive to use. An “econometer” indicates whether the vehicle is consuming or recovering energy at any given time. We like the maturity of the device, which didn't reward us with green leaves for good driving or any such nonsense like some Japanese hybrids do.
The Renault Zoe is not the type of car you will buy only because you want to save money on fuel.
However, that doesn't mean that it's not good value. Compared to the Volkswagen e-Up!, the French car is cheaper to buy, even if you factor in the battery, and immensely more practical because of the larger boot and more spacious cabin. We think it's also better looking, but perhaps the most important factor is that enjoyment one. Even though on paper the cars have similar specs (88 hp vs. 82 for the VW), only the Zoe has that rocket-like acceleration.
Its limited range means that we cannot recommend the Renault Zoe to the majority of readers. However, Renault is always searching for ways to make the car more appealing, such as a new electric motor being introduced in 2015 that's going to increase the official range from 210 to 240 kilometers. Some European governments offer incentives for electric vehicles, though the vast majority of sales are from France, followed by Germany and the UK.
€21,000 is a lot of money to pay for a vehicle with such limited use, but you do get a lot of standard equipment, including climate control and the R-Link system. Our Zoe Zen model cost €23,970 and brought features like a reversing camera, parking sensors, metallic paint and automatic headlights.
There are some applications for which an EV such as this one is perfect. For example, you could have a small fleet of electric mobility cars for your company. If the battery on one is consumed, you can use another Zoe. It also works as a second car for shopping or when your office is within certain city limits where only EVs are allowed.
Until nanotechnology gives us more power-dense batteries, EVs will remain a small niche. However, if you are looking to make the electric switch, the affordable and practical Renault Zoe is a great place to start.