Renault Zoe pictures and hands-on

BMW has announced its i3 electric car - and by all accounts it's a cracker. But there's another company that has its eggs heavily invested in the electric car basket right now: the Renault-Nissan alliance and launch of the Renault Zoe. It's got us more than a little excited.

For some time, if you've wanted an electric car and haven't been rich enough to afford a Tesla, there was only one direction to look in - and that was at a Nissan Leaf. But that commands an undeniably large chunk of cash.

READ: 10 days living with the Nissan Leaf

Starting at just £13,995 (after the UK government discount grant), the Renault Zoe is the model that could really kick-start the electric car revolution. Other than the ongoing thorny issue of drivable range - a potential problem for all electric cars - the Zoe asks you to make no real compromises over, say, a Ford Fiesta - or any equivalent petrol or diesel car for that matter.

It doesn't look too weird for a start. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that it looks better than Renault's just-launched Clio, to which it is distantly related. Better still, another common bugbear of electric cars - cramped cabins and a tiny boot - isn't an issue here either. Renault's designed the Zoe from scratch to be not just an electric car, but a car - so the batteries are all sandwiched under the floor rather than at the expense of needed space. Indeed the boot has greater capacity than a Fiesta's.

READ: Renault Clio (2013) pictures and hands-on

A quick recap: the Zoe doesn't cost a bomb, it doesn't look weird, it isn't a compromised space package. "It must drive like a dog," is what you're probably thinking? Well, no, it doesn't. As a way of getting around, the Renault Zoe proves to be a rather pleasant and strangely relaxing thing in which to cover ground.

If you've driven an electric car, the surge of speed low down - due to the electric motor delivering max torque from 0rpm - will come as no surprise. But the Zoe's refined nature and reasonable ride when even on bad roads are a bonus. The electric motor's got enough shove to make overtaking lumbering trucks on the average British A-road quite easy. Believe us, we tested it.

But it's the stress-free, chilled-out on-road experience that we most remember about our time in the Zoe. We suspect if everyone drove one that there'd be no road rage in the world any more.

Inside, you've got the tablet-like centre console that'll be familiar if you've sat in the new Clio. The Zoe gets the bigger, more advanced, R-Link touchscreen system complete with a navigation function that's designed to try and stop you running out of juice, too. It shows you where you can reach with the car's current range and even helps you find local charge points too.

Ahead of the steering wheel, the normal set of gauges is replaced by a long, thin TFT LCD screen detailing the battery charge and current speed. It's set up to show how efficiently you're driving and whether energy is flowing into or out of the battery. You can adjust this display to present information to you in numerous different ways too - a gimmick but a neat one all the same. It's a decent dashboard, but not a patch on the BMW i3's. But then it costs at least ten grand less than the new electric Beemer.

READ: BMW i3 pictures and hands-on

For what it is and what it costs, it's surprisingly hard to pick fault with the Zoe. We didn't particularly love the seats - they're fixed high (blame those batteries underneath) and are covered in a rather cheap material. We do wish Renault - and all manufactures of electric cars for that matter - would get over the light blue and printed circuit board graphics scheme. We get it already. And the materials inside are average at best for the typical B-segment car.

But beyond that, the Renault Zoe is packed with clever electric-only things to make your experience on board less stressful and to do everything it can to help you stop worrying about running out of juice. It's got a noise emitter which activates below 18mph so pedestrians who aren't looking where they're going can hear you coming. It features a heat pump - something normally seen on eco-houses. This works much the same in the Zoe, using a kind of "reversible" air-conditioning to warm the car up or cool it down as needed, without you having to zap the battery with the on-board AC.

You can, like most electric cars, "pre-condition" the Zoe - ie, tell it when you plan to leave and have it charge up using the most cost-effective charge time and voltage. All that while it heats up or cools down to an optimum cabin temperature when it's still plugged into the wall. Better still you can do all this from a smartphone app, assuming you go for the slightly more expensive Dynamique Zen trim level. As its rather extravagant name suggests that version'll set you back £15,195.

The crucial question is, how far will the Zoe go on a single charge? Officially it's quoted at 130 miles. But in the real world that equates to 90-100 miles according to Renault, assuming it's being used in the summer without using too much air con. Or 60-ish miles in the winter with the air con, lights and wipers on. We'd guess that range anxiety is still going to be a big issue for people - despite Renault equipping the Zoe with a "chameleon charger" that can be plugged into the wall normally for a 3-4 hour charge. On-street charging posts take around 4 hours, or there are the new "pathway charging" fast chargers, which will charge 80 per cent or more of the battery in just 30 minutes.

On top of the basic price, you'll also need to factor in an ongoing £70 a month that Renault wants for lease of the battery. That covers you if the thing fails, depletes its range during your time with the car and a host of other eventualities that will put the minds of worriers to rest. But, still, that's an extra £840 a year.

 

But all things considered, if there was ever a car to help you overcome your electric car prejudices, this is it. Particularly for the suburban, two-car family - where one car very rarely ventures beyond school run, supermarket and commute - where we think the Zoe could make a lot of sense. It might not have the wow of the BMW i3, but in the real world this Renault ought to be the car to really send the electric car big time.

What's more, we wouldn't just say this is a good electric car: it's simply a good car. You don't need to make excuses for it, it has genuine appeal and it could genuinely save you money too. Did someone say game-changer?



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