Renault ZOE review
The Renault ZOE makes the best case yet for electric cars as daily commuters and urban runabouts
From behind the wheel, the Renault ZOE feels much like a traditional combustion-engined supermini – albeit a quieter one. The things holding it back are key everyday practicalities like the limited range and the lack of recharging infrastructure once the batteries have delivered that range.
The ZOE is restricted to about 100 miles of mixed driving – when conditions are favourable – and latest versions have given up a significant advantage by dropping the ability to use 43kW rapid charge stations.
Still, there’s a lot to like about this all-electric Renault. It would especially appeal to families with two or three cars, as the ZOE would surely be the model they’d use for many of their daily errands.
Quite a few car makers have dipped a toe in the water of mass marketing pure electric cars, but Renault has jumped in with both feet over the past few years. The ZOE is the fourth model, joining the Fluence saloon, Kangoo van and tiny Twizy in the brand's zero-emissions line-up, and is the most convincing effort yet.
Renault fans will remember the ZOE name appearing on a trio of show cars over the years. The ultra-compact Zoe City Car Concept of 2005 was followed in 2009 by the larger Zoe Z.E. Concept, which evolved a year later into the Zoe Preview show car. The Preview gave a glimpse of the production ZOE that went on sale in 2013.
Renault’s ambition was to introduce a practical five-door hatchback with a quiet, smooth and green electric powertrain, well equipped interior and torquey town performance, all for a much more reasonable price than had been seen on other electric cars. Its main rival is the similarly priced and larger (yet not as well specced) Nissan Leaf.
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To achieve their ends, engineers took the basic architecture of the latest Renault Clio and then dropped a 65kW electric motor into the engine bay (the motor was upgraded in 2015 for extra range efficiency, although performance is unaffected). A lithium-ion battery lives under the seats, where you might ordinarily expect to find a fuel tank, and the suspension design is pure supermini with MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam rear axle.
Inside, the ZOE shares a great deal in common with the Clio, but the exterior designs are completely different so there’s no chance of confusing the two cars on the road.
Three models are available, two of which – Expression Nav and Dynamique Nav – are trim levels. Equipment is generous. The Expression Nav comes with R-Link voice-controlled sat-nav, climate control and keycard entry, as well as Bluetooth, USB and auxiliary connectivity, a four-speaker stereo, cruise control and electric front windows.
Dynamique Nav adds a hands-free keycard, rear parking camera, a remote interactive charging and climate control system, auto lights and wipers, plus upgraded interior trim and 16-inch alloy wheels.
The third option – Dynamique Nav Rapid Charge – gets the same spec, but features the ZOE’s original electric motor, which allows the car to be charged via 43kW rapid chargers, for greater convenience. Plus, models wearing an ‘i’ badge have been bought outright – a new option introduced in 2015 – while those without are run as part of Renault’s battery leasing scheme.
Engines, performance and drive
While the ZOE has a choice of two electric motors, both models deliver their power in the same way and share the same dynamic characteristics. You get 87bhp in normal mode and 60bhp in Eco mode whichever version you go for.
More important is the 220Nm of torque developed as soon as the motor turns, giving very sprightly acceleration off the mark – 0-30mph takes four seconds. However, push on and you’ll notice the ZOE runs out of puff, as it struggles at higher speeds and on steep inclines. It sprints from 0-62mph in 13.5 seconds, while the Nissan Leaf provides better acceleration past 40mph.
Just like in the Volkswagen e-up!, the ZOE’s conventional gear selector and handbrake mean the initial driving experience is refreshingly normal. You simply power up, select drive and accelerate away.
On the move, the ZOE’s steering feels more artificial than the VW’s and with 290kg of batteries to lug around, it’s a little inert compared with the e-up! (which is 254kg lighter). Body control isn’t dreadful, but it rolls a bit with those batteries mounted beneath the floorpan, and the Renault seems nose-heavy.
The ride is also generally composed, although it sends a thump through the cabin over larger potholes. Road noise is reasonable, but wind noise is intrusive at higher speeds. The grabby brakes make it hard to slow down progressively; a heavy regenerative braking system kicks in when you back off the throttle.
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Around town, the light steering and silent running make the ZOE nice and relaxing to drive, and while the light trim reflected in the windscreen of early cars, this was fixed from 2015 models onwards. It’s just a shame the issue of nasty blindspots created by those thick, sweeping A-pillars hasn’t also been addressed.
The two electric motor options deliver identical performance on the road, but that’s only half the story. The new unit introduced in 2015 provides significant advantages as steps forward in technology have helped improve efficiency – range has been boosted by nearly 15 per cent over the original ZOE unit.
So why is that old unit still available? The clue is in the model name: Dynamique Nav Rapid Charge. While the new R240 motor features increased range efficiency and faster charging times when plugged into the 7kW wall charger (supplied free to UK customers, and largely funded by a Government grant), its inverter/charger can’t handle the 43kW so-called ‘rapid chargers’ available at some public charging stations.
That leaves buyers with a choice. Pick the new motor for faster recharges at home – the ‘flat’ to fully recharged time is down to 3-4 hours from 7-9 hours. This is an obvious improvement, although the benefit may not be that relevant if you charge overnight while sleeping.
Other buyers may be better with the original-spec motor for its ability to ‘rapid charge’ at public charge stations – replenishing up to 80 per cent of battery capacity in as little as half an hour. Just bear in mind that the Dynamique Nav Rapid Charge model may well only be available while stocks last.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
As of 2015, there are two ways to get the keys to a Renault ZOE. You can now buy the car outright for around £18,500 after the £5,000 Government grant, with no battery lease to worry about. This is reasonable in isolation, although thanks to generous discounts a Nissan Leaf can be picked up for about the same amount. ZOE models bought outright are now set apart by an 'i' badge on the bootlid, apparently in an effort to bolster residual values.
Alternatively, it’s still possible to pay £14,000 for the car and lease the batteries for a monthly fee, although paying full price at the start should still work out cheaper as the battery leasing deal is costed against a usage plan. For example, drivers taking out a 36-month package with an annual mileage of 7,500 will pay £70 per month, while a 12-month/12,000-mile deal costs £113 per month. If you don’t use all your agreed mileage allowance, you’ll be paying over the odds for sure.
As with all electric cars, range is a big concern. Renault claims the standard (new) motor gives the ZOE a range of 149 miles under the comparative NEDC test regime, but says you shouldn’t expect more than 106 miles in normal driving – although this can fall as low as 71 miles in cold temperatures and with the use of lights and heating.
The Rapid Charge model (with the old motor) has an NEDC range of 130 miles, with Renault suggesting the real-world range would be 93 to 62 miles. Still, it’s not all bad. If you’re paying for the electricity, we reckon charging the car’s battery fully would set you back around £3.
In addition, as the ZOE has zero tailpipe emissions, there’s no VED, company car tax or congestion charge to pay, although if you take into account the carbon dioxide produced by making the electricity in the first place, the CO2 rating is around 54g/km. (Don’t read too much into the latter figure, however; hydrocarbon-fuelled vehicles do not have to factor in the significant CO2 ‘costs’ of drilling, refining and transporting fuel in bulk when their individual emissions are calculated, so it’s hard to make meaningful comparisons.)
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The ZOE comes as standard with a chameleon charger – so-called because it adapts to the power source it's plugged into. A home wall charger is provided free of charge for buyers (funded 25 per cent by Renault and 75 per cent by a Government grant), but those who require a traditional three-pin household charging plug have to pay an additional £495 (as of 2015).
A full charge from a domestic socket will take up to nine hours, but this three-pin plug could be useful for nights away from home.
Renault’s 4+ roadside assistance and warranty package helps minimise running costs as well, while a four-year servicing pack will set you back £299.
The ZOE has an impressively low insurance rating of group 14 or 16, depending on trim. The costs are kept down partly because of the car’s unambitious outright performance, and partly because the mileage expectations are so low.
Our experts predict the ZOE will retain 36.5 per cent of its value after three years, which means £9,649 of depreciation – a concern for private buyers. But 'i'-badged versions of the ZOE (those bought outright) may hold on to more of their new price.
Interior, design and technology
Still, the styling is all-new, and the ZOE is distinctive thanks to its neater light clusters, and a smoother exterior with few features to disrupt the airflow and cause unwelcome drag. Notably, it also has a high shoulderline and small window area designed to cut heat build-up and loss – important for reducing the demands on the battery-sapping climate control.
Other neat touches include the blue detailing in the headlights and tail-lamps, and the blue tint to the windows, while the oversized Renault badge on the front flips out to reveal the charging point.
Inside, the dash is carried over from the Clio, but instead of conventional dials, you get a stylish digital TFT display that shows range and speed, as well as graphics telling you whether the regenerative systems are pumping power back into the battery, or discharging it.
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Renault has tried to create a modern, minimalist feel with lots of light-coloured trim. Generally, the results are pleasing, but material quality doesn’t feel up to the standard of the Volkswagen e-up!, and we suspect the pastel cabin will be hard to keep clean if you regularly carry children.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The R-Link infotainment screen is standard on the ZOE. It includes sat-nav, Bluetooth and downloadable apps, although it’s a little fiddly to use.
The key interface is a seven-inch touchscreen floating in a central binnacle that’s designed to look like the latest tablet PCs, and will already be familiar to Clio users.
In the ZOE there’s an added level of functionality around the charging system. It works in sync with a phone app called Z.E. Interactive, which allows you to remotely control the battery charge scheduling and pre-set the cabin ambient temperature while the car is still hooked up to the grid – so you don’t waste precious battery power on cabin heat (or cooling) at the start of your journey.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
As a full five-seater with a 338-litre boot (that’s 38 litres more than in a Clio), the ZOE is a better choice than the Volkswagen e-up! if you regularly carry passengers and luggage. In fact, the packaging is so impressive that the car’s accommodation is pretty much a match for any supermini out there.
The ZOE doesn't come as standard with a traditional three-pin home charging socket, so buyers planning occasional longer trips away from home will need to fork out for it on the options list. At least Renault and its partner British Gas will fit a home wall charger for free if you’ve got a driveway or garage.
Failing that, the company offers a 25 per cent discount on renting a conventional petrol or diesel car from Enterprise, should you wish to drive further afield.
The ZOE is based on the same platform as the Renault Clio. But while it’s the same width and wheelbase, it’s longer and over 10cm taller – a result of packaging the battery under the back seats. The slightly bulbous exterior styling means the ZOE seems huge when parked next to the Volkswagen up!, although you don’t get that same impression once you’re in the driver’s seat, and the Renault feels compact on the road.
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The only slight quirk is that the seating position feels a little too high – again as a result of the need to place the seats on the top of the battery pack.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
There’s a decent amount of space in the ZOE for five occupants, and the rear seats will even accommodate six-footers on a short journey. However, the upright seating position means they may not be terribly comfortable for long. The driver’s seat is not adjustable for height (because of the position of the batteries), and although the steering wheel moves for reach and rake, some drivers have reported that it’s difficult to find the ideal seating position.
The rear seats don’t split when they fold down, and the location of the batteries beneath them means you don’t get a flat load area. Even so, there’s more boot space in the ZOE than in an equivalent five-door Clio – because of its extra length, the electric Renault offers 38 extra litres of luggage capacity, at 338 litres, and this expands to 1,225 litres with the rear seats folded. There’s also a lower loading lip that improves access.
Reliability and Safety
Renault uses the latest Clio platform for the ZOE and builds it alongside its more conventional stablemate in Flins, France. The electric model also shares battery tech with the Nissan Leaf. But with 60 new patents, this car is the most advanced EV we’ve seen so far from Renault.
The battery and electric motor technology has been rigorously tested, although drivers still worried about its longevity have the option of the leasing package. This means you get a replacement battery as soon as performance deteriorates below 75 per cent.
Drivers are clearly impressed with their cars, as they ranked the ZOE a superb fifth out of the top 200 cars to own in the Auto Express Driver Power 2015 satisfaction survey. Renault also fared well in the manufacturers’ chart of our latest Driver Power poll, moving up eight places to seventh position, while its dealers were rated a decent 12th out of 31.
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Safety shouldn’t be too much of a concern. The ZOE features six airbags and parking sensors, as well as ESC stability control, ASR traction control, CSV understeer control and Hill Start Assist. All of this helped the car achieve a five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating.
In case you’re worried about the possible safety implications of the 400V battery pack going wrong or becoming damaged in an accident, Renault says it covered most eventualities during its rigorous test programme. This included submerging the battery under water, firing nails into the casing and setting it on fire.
The leasing programme guarantees ZOE drivers a new battery if theirs falls under 75 per cent efficiency, but what if you’ve bought your car with its battery outright?
In that case, there’s a specific guarantee on the battery that provides five years or 62,000 miles of cover. If the unit falls beneath 70 per cent efficiency in that period, you’re eligible for a new one.
The warranty cover on the rest of the ZOE is a little more complicated, but basically Renault offers four years and 100,000 miles of protection on the ‘base vehicle’, and five years or 100,000 miles on the electric powertrain. Anti-corrosion cover is 12 years and paintwork is warranted for three years.
Nearly 140 dealers in the UK are equipped and trained to service Renault electric vehicles. Plus, to help keep costs down, the ZOE is offered with a fixed-price service plan providing four years or 40,000 miles of maintenance for £299. Inspections are required annually, or every 18,000 miles.