The Renault Zoe is a full electric-vehicle with no internal combustion engine. This means that at no time are there any fossil fuels going into a tank, because it doesn't have one, and emissions aren't expelled from an exhaust pipe ... because it doesn’t have one.
It may sound futuristic and far-fetched but the reality is somewhat ironic. Back in the very early 1900s, a third of vehicles on the road were powered by electricity, which is the highest portion of any time in automotive history.
Fast-forward 113 years and it’s the revenge of the electric car. Long forgotten thanks to the abundance of fossil fuel and its commercial and practical benefits, has the time come for electric cars to be taken seriously? Will they once again claim 33 percent market share?
The Nissan-Renault alliance seems to think so, having poured over $5 billion worth of investment into electric vehicles. The alliance has hedged its bets on electric vehicles being the future of mobility and although that is yet to be realised in countries such as Australia, the rest of the world is showing very early positive signs.
In Lisbon, Portugal, where we arrived for the international launch of the Renault Zoe, there were 700+ public fast charging stations already built. In the European continent there are now 20,000 public charging stations, 50 precent of which were built in 2012. In the whole of Australia, we have less than half of Lisbon’s public charging stations and most of those are located at car dealers. This is one of many reasons the Zoe is not destined for our market until 2015.
The Renault Zoe is by no means the first mass-produced electric vehicle, with the likes of Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV and Nissan’s LEAF having been available in Australia for some time. New entrants, such as the Holden Volt, mean that electric cars are no longer just a passing fad, but a reality that is only getting better by the day. In saying that, only 47 private buyers bought an electric car in Australia last year with a further 206 being bought by governments and fleets.
As with any new technology, market acceptance and technical maturity takes time and at the moment, the Zoe is leading the pack. The all-electric Renault has the longest range of any mass produced electric car, coming in at an official 210km in the European test cycle, which means it has a real world range of about 150km.
To test this, Renault handed us the keys to a Zoe at Lisbon airport and we embarked on a traffic-infested city and freeway loop that measured nearly 80km. Previously we’ve had to abandon an electric car on the side of the road that promised 120km of real world usage but couldn’t even manage 70km – so we hoped not for a repeat.
Zoe is powered by a 65kW electric motor that produces a healthy 220Nm of torque. It goes from 0-50km/h in four seconds and, given it’s powered by an electric motor, there’s no need for the revs to build up so acceleration is instantaneous. The LG-made 22kWh lithium ion battery pack (22 separate modules) weighs 290kg and sits below the floor of the Zoe for better weight distribution efficiency.
Behind the wheel the Zoe is just like any other car. There’s nothing ‘out-there’ about it. You put it into D for drive and away it goes. If you didn’t know it was electric, you’d just think it was an ultra quiet petrol-powered vehicle.
What gives it away is the full digital display that shows you how many kilometres you have left before you need to recharge. It even highlights charging station locations (then programs them into the GPS) when you start to get a little low on juice. You can even use your smartphone to remotely pre-program the Zoe to begin charging at a certain time at night or to cool down or warm up the car before you get in; that way it can use the power from the grid to get the cabin to the right temperature without using its batteries.
It will indicate how your driving style is affecting battery depletion and try to provide some tips to improve your range (which Renault says can extend the battery cycle by up to 18 percent). A dozen graphic diagrams also show how battery power is being used and harnessed (via regenerative braking).
Around the hilly and poorly surfaced streets of Lison, the Zoe performed surprisingly well. The ride is compliant, thanks to the extra weight and the stiffer suspension (compared to Clio) while the steering, though weightless, is precise and suitable for a light car application.
Power and torque delivery is better than most cars of its size, meaning it gets up and goes really quickly. There’s instant torque from the get-go and acceleration only tapers past 120km/h. That's okay, because it tops out at 135km/h anyway...
We found it easy to manoeuvre and park – even in a city as crowded as Lisbon – and found the satellite navigation system to be one of the better ones we’ve tested, with almost seamless recalculations and spot on accuracy.
At speeds below 30km/h the Zoe makes a sound (from a single speaker placed in the engine bay) to warn pedestrians and other motorists of its presence. In fact, it has three distinct tracks (pure, glam and sport) depending on driving style, but they all reminded us of cheap sound effects from a sci-fi movie (probably one starring Christian Slater).
Regardless of the tones, this yet-to-be-regulated feature didn’t seem to do its job very well. On many occasions we slowly crept up behind unsuspecting pedestrians (okay, bit of exaggeration there) who for the most part were genuinely amazed that they didn’t hear our Zoe coming. So it’s not very loud and if you do somehow happen to hear it, you’re more likely to look up and search for that UFO floating around than look behind you.
After more than 50km of typically battery-sapping hard driving, the Zoe still had a 79km range remaining. For once, the claimed mileage seems accurate. Driving more sedately, we managed to achieve the last 30km of our route with the range only going down by 11km. In the end, we reached our half waypoint after almost 80km of driving, and still had about 68km left in the tank.
These figures are important because over 80 percent of Australians drive less than 100km a day, which means you can simply drive the Zoe to and from work as well as the supermarket, come home, plug it in to your wall charger overnight and drive away the next day. There’s really no need for fast-charging stations in public places. Renault happily admits that 90 percent of charging for its electric cars occurs at home.
The main reasons charging stations exist is to extend EVs’ range outside the boundaries of where they can be charged and address what many refer to as ‘range-anxiety’ – the fear that you will run of charge and be stuck on the side of the road somewhere. You can liken the thought to your iPhone, which also uses Lithium ion batteries, dying midway through a busy workday day – a breakdown moment in itself for some people.
We stopped for a 45-minute lunch in central Lisbon and in that time, our Zoe was plugged into a fast charging station that saw it back to life well before we were done. These charging stations are ideal to bring the battery to about 80 percent capacity (100km), but aren't suitable for a full charge (due to battery limitations). In reality, your home charging station will do the job from empty to full in about 6-9 hours, so you’d have no issues doing it overnight.
The Renault Zoe’s battery system can adapt to pretty much whatever power is coming in. From 3kW to 43kW, it doesn’t seem to matter. The Zoe has undergone more than 850,000km of testing (including in Australia). It has had its battery put underwater, been set on fire, nails have been hammered into the battery pack (yes, we're serious) and despite all this has posed no greater risk than a conventional car. It’s certainly not going to electrocute you.
The car is built in France and in its home market is available for just €13,700 ($17,500) after a healthy €7,000 ($9,000) government subsidy. Renault sells the Zoe but leases the battery (roughly $100 per month) to bring the entry cost down. The battery contract covers the battery’s health and Renault will replace any underperforming battery for the life of the car.
Overall the Renault Zoe joins the Nissan LEAF as the two main EVs that have real world practical applications. Neither are suitable as a primary vehicle but make perfect sense as a second car or city runabout.