(Pocket-lint) - It's been a typical complaint of the modern electric car that - from the perspective of asking price - most are simply too expensive to make sense. As one of the leaders in the electric-mobility revolution, Renault has sought to challenge that notion with the new Zoe.
Almost exactly the same size as the firm's class-leading Clio supermini, the Zoe is a 5-door, 80-mile range battery-powered car which asks few compromises of its owner.
The boot is large, square and comparable with the Clio. The centre stack, screen and main controls are the same as Nicole and Papa's car too. There's space for five people on board - you can get a baby seat in the back quite easily (as we did, during our week with it) - and the Zoe looks normal, even appealing, with its fluid, sensual surface treatment.
Sure, the blue hue to some of the details and the plastering of printed circuit board graphics are a bit cheap and give the electric game away, but generally, the uninformed onlooker would be none the wiser as to this car's powertrain. So is the Zoe the way to go electric?
Renault Zoe review: Price bug
Back to that common bugbear: price. Our upper-middle spec Dynamique Nav model has an on-the-road price of £15,545. It's worth noting that, without the plug-in car grant the UK government throws your way, that would balloon to £19,945. An equivalent spec Clio (Dynamique Nav) can be had for £13,675 (but spec that Clio in a comparative diesel automatic flavour, and it's £17,275).
But take into account the factors that can really start to help electric cars make economic sense: tax is free, a full (80 mile) charge should cost you somewhere between £1-2 at home, you don't pay the C-charge in London, and in many cities you can park and charge an electric car for free, either on the road or in council-run car parks. Drive into a city everyday and normally pay for things like parking and you can quickly create a financial argument for owning an electric car.
To round off the financial sweepstake, if you choose to run an electric car on a business, the government will let you write off 100 per cent of the purchase price against tax. Although, they're increasing the benefit-in-kind on electric vehicles over the next few years which rather outweighs this benefit. It's currently five per cent on the Zoe, next year it will be nine per cent.
The Zoe, like some versions of the Nissan Leaf, throws a curveball into this mix, however. Whereas EVs like the BMW i3 and Tesla Model S simply charge you a price and send you off into the distance lock stock, Renault tethers you to a monthly battery lease "access charge". Basically, you own the car but not the battery - the idea being that, should you keep it long enough for the battery to degrade, or should you be unfortunate enough to suffer an issue - Renault will simply swap out your battery for a new one. There's a range of battery access charges and tariffs - dependent on mileage and contract length. Representatively, it's £70 a month for 3 years/7,500 miles per year.
Renault argue that, with the cost saving in fuel, etc., most drivers will still be better off than with a petrol or diesel. There's the option to skip this, and simply buy the battery with the car. But then this Zoe's purchase price jumps to £20,545.
If you're still with us, what complicates these matters even further is the fact that most people in the UK (between 80-90 per cent according to the latest industry figures) are choosing to lease or finance new cars, for two to three years with a low monthly payment. There are some good deals around on the Zoe (sub-£200/month). However, while researching this, we also noticed that you can have a Nissan Leaf or BMW i3 for a similar monthly payment - and the BMW stands out because it comes without that £70/month on top for the battery that Renault will take from you. With that in mind, we say shop around. And do your maths carefully.
Renault Zoe review: Maths lesson over
Spending 500 words explaining the intracacies of financials around electric car "ownership" perhaps goes some way towards explaining why we're still not seeing tens of thousands of the things flooding onto UK roads every month. But maths lesson over, what remains to be said about the Zoe is largely positive.
The car arrived with us fully charged and showing 80-miles of range. It was on our drive way during June, and despite Britain's tepid summer, the temperatures during our week with it were favourable to an EV. In a cold winter and with wipers, lights and heaters on, expect the Zoe's real range to drop into the 60-something mile bracket. A figure that might alarm those nervous about making the jump to an electric car.
After cost, range anxiety does still seem to be the major concern for most people with these kind of vehicles. You'll need to spend a good deal more (think four times as much) to buy a Tesla and its comforting 200+ miles of range, which begs the question, could you cope with the Zoe's smaller battery capacity and range?
It will depend on your circumstances. And there are multiple complicators in this mix too. As a rule of thumb: if the Zoe's going to act as your second car - say a foil to an existing petrol or diesel; and/or if you only ever commute a few miles each way every day - then a Zoe could well be perfect. As a single car, and to cover you on a wide range of trips types and lengths, you may find it more limiting.
It's worth noting at this point that Ecotricity's range of chargers are now present in nearly every service station along Britain's motorway network. And the Zoe is compatible with the fast-charge option, which will give you around an 80 per cent charge in 20-30 minutes. This was, until last week, free of charge. Now, unless you're an Ecotricity customer, you'll pay £6 for half an hour's worth of charge.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Renault's just created two range options. The Q210 motor can officially travel 130-miles on a charge (real-world the circa 80-miles we had). Or the R240 motor goes 149-miles (real world 90-95 miles). But, it gets complicated because while this Q210 can be fast-charged, the new and longer-range R240 can't.
Getting confused by all this, we just slotted the Zoe into our normal lives to see how we go on. Whereas we'd normally drive to an event 100-odd miles away, we simply took the train instead. But for commuting, local errands and trips to see friends 15-miles away at the weekend, the Zoe gave us no anxiety.
We simply plugged it into our garage 3-pin wall socket at night, with a full charge seeming to take about 10-hours (the time remaining is displayed on the dashboard during charging). You could also fit a unit to you house to fully charge the Zoe in around 4-hours - if you're a private buyer, then Renault will fit you one of these free of charge.
And while the range meter was slightly optimistic (we managed 69-miles on one charge), we did do a fair amount of dual carriageway work in the Zoe (at fast motorway speeds). Trim yourself back to 65mph, and the efficiency goes up. It was also pleasing to find that - when we did try a bit of eco driving - our 8-mile commute could be completed on just "5-miles" of supposed range.
Renault Zoe review: Stop and go pedal
The Zoe is a doddle to drive too. It features a normal, T-bar automatic gearshifter and two pedals. Simply pull the lever back into drive, release the standard pull-up handbrake and you're away.
The Zoe is fairly zippy off the line, too - you can surprise and embarrass many faster cars with its acceleration if you want. That's one of the things about electrics: they're often high torque.
Drive carefully and plan ahead and you'll only need to brush the brakes too. The regeneration - a feature of most EVs and hybrids, which means they start to brake themselves when you lift off the accelerator in order to recoup energy - is gentler than some electric cars we've tried, becoming more pronounced when you press the Eco button.
It rides nicely too. Small, 16-inch wheels with plump tyre walls and the weight of the battery down low in the structure means the Zoe is generally more settled than an equivalent Clio. And, if you want to, the low centre of gravity means you can hare round corners at a decent pace.
Our only real issue was on hills in stop-start traffic, where the gearbox didn't always behave like an auto (with built-in creep), meaning you occasionally roll back when moving off from a stop, unless you use the handbrake.
Renault Zoe review: Eco Clio
Inside, the Zoe is spacious for a supermini. The boot is almost family-car sized - it swallowed our buggy and a friend's weekend bags on the trip to the station, so there's plenty of room for shopping.
The flat floor in the cabin creates a feeling of space, but because the batteries are under the floor it does mean the seats are mounted higher than you might imagine; you feel perched on the Zoe rather than snuggled down into it. The trade off being that, with its deep windows, it's very easy to see out of, place on the road, and park.
The materials don't feel specifically cheap, but there is a slightly odd, eco-basic look about the Zoe cabin. It's less youthful than a Clio, despite sharing many parts. The white/beige/blue colour scheme is perhaps designed to reflect the Zoe's green car credentials, but somehow it isn't as appealing as many equivalent petrol cars - nor as futuristic as a BMW i3's interior.
It is relatively well equipped though. The centre "tablet" screen (shared with Clio and other Renaults) feautres a 7-inch touchscreen to view the reversing camera and TomTom Live Sat Nav. It's easy to use, but some of the buttons are a little on the small side to hit accurately when on the move.
You also get a DAB radio, parking sensors, keyless entry and start, USB connectors and Bluetooth, cruise control and speed limiter. Though we'd like to see heated seats standard, so you can minimise the cabin heater use requirement in winter, which zaps battery energy.
The Zoe also comes with various EV-related functions to make your life easier and help you maximise efficiency - things like pre-conditioning and charge scheduling. Some of these things can be controlled through the dedicated Renault ZE app on your phone.
In a world of Teslas and BMWs that tend to steal the electric car limelight, the Zoe - along with its cousin the Nissan Leaf - tend to be the foregotten pioneers of the electric car revolution. Importantly, then, the Zoe feels well engineered, enjoyable to drive and - although the interior has a certain eco feel - not an unpleasant thing to be in.
Our week with the Zoe proved, as you might expect, that this car is not for everyone though. Yet within certain parameters of use, an electric car like this asks you to make precious few compromises or behavioural changes compared to a petrol or diesel car. And it could quite easily save you money too.
You'll note we've so far failed to mention that potential benefit of no tailpipe emissions too. We query Renaults "zero emissions" mantra - because electricity in the UK mostly comes from carbon-intensive gas and coal powerstations. But at a local level, you're exposing yourself, the car's other occupants and the environments you drive through to much lower levels of pollutants than a combustion engine car.
Which brings us full circle back to where we started: price. We applaud Renault for bringing a fully-fledged EV to market that is within the financial reach of the many, rather than the few. However, as the incentives market changes, as other manufacturers offer tantilising lease deals to sell their own cars, and as Renault continues to charge for the leasing of the Zoe's battery, you need to do your maths carefully to be sure that buying one stacks up. That not withstanding, the Zoe is proof that most people have little to fear, or lose, from jumping into the electric car revolution.