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First drive: Renault Zoe raises EV bar

What’s in a name: Although a play on the acronym for zero emissions, Renault says the Zoe moniker is derived from the Greek for life.

Enjoyable, innovative, affordable Renault Zoe demonstrates rate of EV progress


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11 Mar 2013


STARTING with a 125km indicated range, we tried everything we could to drain the Renault Zoe’s battery during a circuitous 75km route around the hilly Portuguese capital Lisbon – and failed.

Despite driving with a level of enthusiasm normally reserved for dedicated sportscars, we arrived at our destination with around 40km remaining.

Our ‘reverse range anxiety’ left us with just 20km less on the battery than most of our colleagues but during a half-hour snack stop it had been restored to 95 per cent capacity using a 32kW three-phase charger.

The next day in a different car, we completed a 20km journey on suburban roads that wiped just 10km from the Zoe’s range, aided by activating the Eco setting that is claimed to increase range by 10 per cent as it reduces power output, top speed and winds back the air-conditioning – but we found the Zoe no less drivable for it.

With front suspension borrowed from the Clio, the Megane donating rear suspension and steering components originating from the sporty third-generation Clio RS, the Zoe also delivers a great driving experience to go with its reluctance to consume electrons.

There is plenty of French charm on offer too, from the cute styling and purposeful four-square stance to the airy and attractive – if a little plasticky – interior, adding up to make this the most emotionally appealing EV to date.

Interested? Unfortunately the Zoe is not yet confirmed for this country, but Renault Australia managing director Justin Hocevar is keen to get his hands on it after ditching the frumpier Fluence ZE sedan when Better Place failed to deliver on its battery swap ambitions.

“The two barriers in Australia are the lack of charging infrastructure and lack of government incentives,” he told GoAuto at the drive event.

Were the Zoe to get the go-ahead for Australia, Mr Hocevar expected the price to be in the high $20,000 to low $30,000 bracket, with a monthly battery lease fee of around $80.

Customers wanting to buy the battery outright can expect to pay an extra $8000.

Even then, the Zoe would represent the most affordable EV in Australia, below the Mitsubishi i-MiEV that looks like an anachronism in comparison to the French car.

Mr Hocevar said a starting price of around $25,000 – theoretically achievable with the help of government subsidies – would make the Zoe a real volume proposition in Australia.

Fingers crossed then, as the overwhelming consensus among international media present at the Zoe drive was that it is the best driving affordable pure EV yet, taking top spot over the impressive Nissan Leaf.

We liked the Zoe’s pin-sharp, direct, well-weighted steering that perfectly complements the instant response of the 65kW/220Nm electric motor – that latter figure being just 20Nm down on the hair-raising Clio RS hot hatch.

It is just perfect for nipping around the city and fun to boot, with decent levels of grip from the special Michelin Energy EV tyres on the wet roads we encountered as fickle, occasionally tempestuous weather rolled in off the Atlantic.

One of the biggest breakthroughs for us was the natural feeling brake pedal, a revelation compared with the traditionally wooden braking of electrified vehicles caused by the kinetic energy recovery setup that struggles to match the progressiveness and fluidity of an internal combustion car’s purely hydraulic system.

Our only gripe with the Zoe’s brakes was that an extra prod of the pedal was required to bring the car fully to a stop, which we presume was due to the transition between regenerative and purely hydraulic braking, but it is a small pay-off.

The soft and compliant ride allowed for a bit of body-roll in bends but it was never nausea inducing and the Zoe exhibited admirable composure, even on slippery uneven cobblestoned streets criss-crossed with Lisbon’s many tram tracks.

As we have come to expect from EVs, the Zoe picks up speed with verve, carving up city traffic with a punchy four-second 0-50km/h sprint that makes reaching the front of the pack easy, while getting up to a 100km/h highway cruise takes a respectable 13.5s.

Drivetrain quietness and refinement are also a given, which normally leads occupants to notice road and wind noise, but these were both kept to acceptable levels, resulting in a relaxing drive.

Pedestrians are warned of the Zoe’s otherwise silent approach by a choice of three “Zoe Voice” synthesised engine notes that range from ethereal and ghostly to futuristic and assertive.

We found the interior comfortable – even in the reasonably spacious rear – thought the stain and water-resistant Teflon coated hemp-like seat fabric attractive and liked the embossed zero emission logo in the ceiling.

The 338-litre boot easily swallowed a full-size suitcase, a medium suitcase, two carry-on sized cases, a laptop bag and a suit carrier, with room to spare for the charging cable – far better than the Clio RS we drove earlier that day.

Also impressive was the dashboard design that features clear, crisp graphics on the digital instrument display, the excellent and simple to use R-Link infotainment system and a large soft-textured panel resembling the shape of a wind turbine blade edged with classy chrome.

Only the cheap and thin looking hard dash-top plastic spoiled the show, something Zoe product chief Aurelien Subsol admitted was a compromise made to preserve budget for the technology that sets the car apart from the pack.

We were willing to forgive Mr Subsol for the dash plastics as the technology, such as a ‘chameleon’ charger that can accept power from AC, DC single phase or three-phase outlets, meaning lower cost charging points are more easily installed, aiding infrastructure development.

Other innovations include a reverse-cycle air-con system that both heats and cools the cabin, doubles as a temperature regulator for the air-cooled battery, maintains 40 per cent humidity in the cabin to reduce the skin and eye drying effect and automatically recycles the filtered cabin air if outside air pollution is detected.

On up-spec models there is also a cabin air ioniser with aromatherapy scent diffuser that can either stimulate or relax occupants and all Zoe interiors are certified by German authority TUV for their anti-allergy properties.

According to the official New European Driving Cycle the Zoe’s 22kWh, 290kg battery is a record 210km but Renault advises the real-world range is more like 120-150km.

The Zoe can accept a whopping 43kW electricity hit through the plug point behind the large Renault diamond grille badge, resulting in an 80 per cent battery top-up in just 30 minutes, making longer journeys a realistic proposition provided such charging points exist along the route.

An extension of the touch-screen R-Link system’s quick-thinking TomTom sat-nav feature informs the driver of whether the programmed destination is within battery range, can direct them to recharge points along the way or set to find the closest plug-in spot.

Charging the Zoe can be remotely managed using a smartphone app or via a computer, both of which can also use mains electricity to achieve a pre-set cabin temperature in time for a planned departure, which extends battery range as the air-con system has less work to do once on the move.

Blokey Aussies may be put off by the feminine name Zoe, which Mr Subsol said was derived from the Greek for life and is clearly a play on the car’s Zero Emission status but it demonstrates that EV technology is coming on in leaps and bounds.

The Zoe is a desirable little car that moves the EV game forward, addressing some objections to electric vehicles while featuring innovations that would add value to internal combustion cars, let alone electric ones.

We would love to see them quietly plying the streets of Australian cities but we sense that unless Canberra does the right thing, we will be denied access to some genuinely innovative and exciting vehicles that have the considerable side benefit of reducing urban pollution and CO2 emissions.

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