(Pocket-lint) - Renault was one of the first companies to come out with a fully-fledged electric car. The likes of the Zoe and the Nissan Leaf dominated that first-gen space, seemingly a good step ahead of the mainstream in offering electric driving. That's one of the reasons why the Zoe is one of the top selling European electric cars (EVs).
Renault's position with the Zoe was to offer an affordable city car, but separated the cost of the car and lease of the battery, so there was a two-tiered approach. That meant that the Zoe was relatively cheap as EVs go, but then you had to pay a battery lease too, which soon added up.
Now it's an all-in approach, which sees the Zoe starting from just over £26k and swelling to over £30k for the top-of-the-range option. But all these cars have the same battery pack - and that's the Zoe's strongest selling point.
The Zoe has always been a small city car. It was on the roads before many smaller city cars started to appear so it neatly falls into the sort of entry-point for electric cars. You can go smaller with the Seat Mii electric, for example, but the Zoe now finds itself flanked by cars like the Honda e and the Mini Electric.
Therefore it's a fitting time to give the Zoe a smart new design. It's more angular and attractive than the previous version, which now looks a little soft. But it's great that you've got things like back doors - something the Mini doesn't stretch to - although it's unavoidable that the rear bench doesn't give your passengers a lot of space once they're in, especially if you're squeezing in three people.
Instead you have a respectable boot space, big enough to be useful at 225 litres, expanding to 338 with the rear seats folded, meaning that there's space for you to stash all your shopping or school bags, while the front seats are spacious enough.
There are three different trims of Zoe, pictured here is the top-of-the-line GT, although the exterior differences are minimal. All have strong shoulders and ripples in the bonnet, giving a sporty feel to things. It looks as though the aim was to reform the previous design with a slightly more aggressive take - and to many that will add appeal.
You'll have to opt for the Iconic or GT to get alloy wheels and escape the slightly budget look that the Play wheels bring, but otherwise, from the outside, all the options look similar - and we think it's a great-looking compact car.
Where those different trim levels really have an impact in inside. The immediate thing you'll notice is that the GT gets a larger display in the centre of that car, with a 9-inch screen compared to the 7-inch of the Play and Iconic trim. That's a handsome addition, adding some techy appeal, although the Iconic can also get this display for a £800 charge.
The quality of the interior has had a lift over the previous versions of this car too. There's still a mix of materials with plenty of harder plastics, but it fits the car's positioning. On the GT trim there's synthetic leather mixed with recycled fabrics resulting in a quality finish; step down a trim and its fabrics for the seating.
We like the addition of fabrics to the door lining, giving a premium lift where sometimes you'd just find plastic - although it doesn't go anywhere near as far as the Honda e in creating a unique interior feel.
One oddity is that the media controller sits on a stalk on the steering wheel that's mostly hidden from view. That means you have to take a hand off the wheel to notch the volume up or down and you're basically doing that blind. We've seen some cruise control stalks in this sort of position before and we can't help feeling that media control is going to be more frequently used than the cruise controls that get pride of place on the steering wheel on this type of car.
Returning to the technology story and there's support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay via the USB sockets, should you want access to those systems. That might be more appealing for those looking at the Play level of trim so you can use Google Maps Navigation or Waze, but once you move up to Iconic you get satnav included - and it's pretty good, with nice clear directions and a map that's easy to read.
The large 9-inch display of the GT is easy to use too, although once you dig through a couple of menus you'll find it's not overloaded with functionality. It covers the basics well enough, but it's surprisingly light on details related to things like battery consumption, which work so well on, for example, the Kia e-Niro.
The driver display is digital too, allowing some customisation - but not a huge amount. It doesn't really take advantage of the fact that it's digital. The Zoe hangs onto a leaf logo that fills and empties to reflect how "green" your driving might be - but we're surprised that this doesn’t make its way to the bigger screen to give you a larger interpretation of your driving, efficiency, and so on.
Battery life and range
The great thing about the new Renault Zoe is that all models come with a 52kWh battery. That's generous - the Mini Electric has 32.6kWh, the Honda e has 35.5kWh - so if you're looking at the cheapest Play model, you're getting great range for your money.
We averaged around 4.5 miles per kWh, which comes in at about 238 miles - which is exactly what Renault's stats claim you'll get from the GT. It's worth noting that was a mix of urban and motorway driving, and mostly with the air-conditioning turned on, but with an unloaded car. Still, that's good performance in our books.
While all the models have the same battery, there are different motors (80 or 100kW) - which changes the performance accordingly. The Play only gets the 80kW motor, the GT only gets the 100kW motor, the Iconic gets the options. Naturally, the more powerful motor is going to offer slightly more spritely performance, cope better with a more heavily loaded car - but also potentially drain the battery faster if you have a heavy right foot.
But what is strange is the charging setup. Most EVs give pretty much all models the same top charging rate, but on the Zoe you have to pay more to get access to 50kW rapid charging - and even then that's not hugely fast considering that 100kW charging is pretty commonplace - and you have a fairly big battery to charge here.
The fastest charging is not available on the Play trim at all and it's a £1000 option for the Iconic or GT.
It's worth considering: if you don't have any capacity for fast charging, the Zoe only offers 22kW AC charging and that's going to be a limitation if you have any aspiration to drive longer ranges. If you don't opt for 50kW charging, you don't even get the CCS connector - it won't support DC charging at all.
So like all things, you have to consider how this car will be used. At one end of the scale it's great value for the range, while at the other end it's more limited for long range driving unless you pay for faster charging.
On the road
The Renault Zoe is a fun car to drive. It's incredibly easy to drive too, once you get used to the fact that there's no "park" button. Pretty much all automatics have a park button in some form, or a park position on the drive controller, but here you have reverse, neutral, and D or B.
These two drive modes are also commonplace on electric cars, with D offering some regeneration when you lift off the pedal, but not a huge amount - you'll still have to use the brake, so it basically drives like a regular automatic would.
In the B mode you get stronger regeneration, which essentially enables one-pedal driving, meaning you can lift off as you approach a stop and know you're putting power back into the battery rather than wasting the energy as heat through the brakes.
Driving the GT delivers those speedy EV sprints; the 100kW version is spritely with ample power to get you off the line and give you some oomph when you have to overtake on the motorway too.
It's generally a tranquil experience, but at low speeds you'll hear the outside hum designed to alert pedestrians to the fact that an electric car is moving around. There's something satisfyingly futuristic about it though. It's also pretty quiet once you're out on the motorway - there's some wind noise from the mirrors, but other than that it's tyre noise and not hugely intrusive.
As a small car it handles very well, with the advantage of being small enough to park in tighter city spaces. There's rear parking sensors on the Iconic, with the GT getting a reversing camera too, so it's really easy to live with.
The second-gen Renault Zoe is likely to be popular with those looking for a compact electric car that offers the safety of long range. Compared to its immediate price rivals, it offers a lot more: longer range that Honda or Mini, longer range than the comparable Nissan Leaf.
But there are compromises: there's not a lot of space for the rear passengers and the lack of fast-charging (unless you pay more) is something you'll have to consider based against your requirements.
For many, the Zeo will be a great compact electric car with an important positive in that range.
Mini Cooper SE
The electric Mini brings with it the spirit of the conventional Mini - it's got that gokart feel to it, sporty and taut, while the interior gets all the quality you expect from the BMW-owned brand. But the downside is limited range due to the smaller battery.
The Honda e is the most refreshing design of pretty much any car on the road. It's so unique, it's a statement. It drives will and incorporates a lot of clever technology, but it again the limited range means that you need to not stray too far from a charger.