CC has had lively discussion over the last few weeks touching the subject of alternative fuels, triggered by the VW emission scandal. One subject that has come up several times is the use of all electric power in urban environments. In Europe, the undisputed leader in this technology is Renault–Nissan, with the Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf respectively. The Leaf will be familiar (or at least known) to US readers but the smaller Zoe is not sold outside Europe.
The Zoe is actually part of the Renault Clio supermini family, and shares the basic structure of the conventional Clio, on a platform that was designed with an all electric version in mind. Power comes from a 22kWh lithium battery pack, located low in the floorpan, where you might expect to see a fuel tank. That keeps the centre of gravity low, but the car still weighs in it at almost 1465kg, around 3300lb. Under the bonnet are the motor and charging control systems. The boot is a competitive size, as is the interior accommodation for four. This battery drives an 87bhp, 162lbft motor, driving the front wheels. Front suspension is MacPherson struts and the rear is a torsion beam with coil springs.
Style wise, the car is completely separate from the Clio externally, and to me anyway, at least as attractive as the good looking Clio, although with a softer impression, helped by the grille less front and the blue touch to the lights. Inside, there are many familiar Renault switches and details, and the centre stack housing the touch screen and some controls is pure Clio. In the most commonly seen and promoted white, the car almost has an Apple vibe that may not be entirely unintentional.
Charging the car is by plug in only; there is no hybrid option and induction charging isn’t here yet. As usual, there are variations in charge rate based on the supply available, ranging from specially installed domestic 220V systems to three phase charging points. Charge times are nine hours at home but the thee phase 63amp chargers can get you 80% charged in 30 minutes. Renault offer a fast charger that is compatible with a domestic supply also, charging the car in around 3 hours.
Although I haven’t driven one – I’d love to try it – reports suggest that the driving experience is better suited to the urban environment than to an open main road or motorway. To start it, get in, belt up, insert the key (actually a credit card sized and shaped keycard), press a button, engage “D” and depress the accelerator. Being electric, the torque is of course immediately available and the low speed refinement is impressive. Nothing there to frighten any one.
Above 50 mph or so, however, the electric motor’s producing a lot less torque and power is dropping away. Speed increases here are harder to achieve and take longer, which may limit the use the car gets there. But that’s missing the point.
This is a car for the urban environment. It has a range of 80 miles or so on a charge, which is sufficient for several days for many urban users. This, with the ease of use, the fact it avoids some inner city congestion penalties (in London, for example, the Zoe and anything like it are exempt from the central zone congestion charge scheme) and the class competitive level of capability in many areas make it valid choice for many users.
Relative costs are always difficult to assess, but in the UK the car costs around £14,000 (after a Government grant of £5,000) and Renault lease the battery for another £85 – say two tanks of fuel – per month, for a car with sat–nav, cruise and Bluetooth. That’s comparable with a similarly specified Clio and I can certainly see the attraction of the Zoe as a second or third car for a city dwelling household, and a safe choice for young drivers perhaps. Factor in the attractive style and non aggressive image to help seal the deal?
We know two things about electric cars – the battery range is going to get better (the Zoe’s big brother the Nissan Leaf has already moved to a v2 of its battery) and the price is going to come down as usage and volumes increase.
Perhaps, on this evidence, we shouldn’t be too pessimistic but may be permit ourselves some optimism?