A week with Zoe
The Renault Zoe might be a small car, but it’s making big waves on the Irish market. The fully electric supermini currently offers a range of 400km from a single charge, which is more than any other mainstream electric vehicle out there at the moment. Renault themselves will tell you that that figure is unlikely in real life, and that much like claimed fuel economy figures, you can shave about 25 per cent off that straight away. Even so, a 300km real-world range is a remarkable achievement, both for Renault, and the electric car movement.
Electric range is something that has been rapidly creeping up as carmakers rush to come up with alternatives to the fossil-fuelled cars that they soon won’t be allowed to produce anymore. In fantasy NEDC figures, it beats the trail-blazing Nissan Leaf’s current 250km, the Hyundai Ioniq’s 280km, and the latest Volkswagen E-Golf’s 300km.
Sure, Tesla could probably put up an argument now that they’re here, but while their entry model starts at €88,000, the Zoe can be yours for less than €24,000 (after VRT relief and the Government’s SEAI grant). It’s safe to say that puts it within the reach of a lot more people.
Our resident car tester Sinéad recently spent a week with one to see what ‘living electric’ is like on a day to day basis.
I collected the Zoe on Monday evening. I had just come out of a 2.0l turbo-charged Volkswagen Golf R, a not so environmentally-friendly petrol-powered hot hatch, which with its 180g CO2/km, and colossal €750 motor tax penalty for same, was an entirely different animal altogether. I had accepted this.
I’ve had limited time with EVs before. I spent a week with the Nissan Leaf, and a couple of days with the last Volkswagen E-Golf. I enjoyed them both, but at the time they felt like novelties. It was before all this talk of the death of diesel, and Governments starting putting dates on the end of fossil fuel and ‘some day’ became ‘one day, soon’.
All of this was on my mind as I powered up the Zoe. It’s push button start, naturally, and the cute and friendly little pings on start-up were welcoming and cheerful. The blue lights that flashed around an altogether normal looking cabin were the same. Think Disney’s WALL-E. This electric future wasn’t so scary. Silently, I pulled away.
184km was the message on the range monitor which replaces the petrol gauge on a normal car. It hadn’t been charged to full capacity. Still, my commute home was less than 15km from the collection depot. I considered myself safe enough. Alas, most of that journey consists of Dublin’s notoriously congested M50 motorway, so what should be a 15 minute trip took forty minutes. The constant stop-start along with window wipers and ramped up air-conditioning meant I arrived home with less than 130km ‘on the clock’. I put the Zoe to bed and pledged to look at it with a pair of fresh eyes in the morning.
Looking out at the driveway the next day, I thought the little Zoe looked quite at home. It doesn’t look too different from your typical Supermini. The lack of exhaust pipe and fuel cap are the obvious giveaways, but it’s strange how the eye doesn’t miss them. The Renault Lozenge on the bonnet hides the charging socket. It’s cute as a button, and surprisingly spacious inside.
The boot, at 338 litres, is actually larger than the Ford Fiesta, the Volkswagen Polo and the Nissan Micra. As for backseat passengers – taller adults might struggle a bit when it comes to knee room, but for the kids who are more likely to be passengers back there – it’s perfectly fine. There’s also two isofix anchors for childseats.
I fired it up again. The WALL-E noises made me smile, again. 115km left. Hmm. Had it been cold last night? I hadn’t even thought about charging it. There are two types of people in the world – those who don’t let their phones, fuel tanks, and fridges go below 50 per cent, and those who only think of such things when they’re down to five per cent and eating slices of ham and a yoghurt for dinner. I unfortunately fall into the latter.
Still though, I live in a Dublin suburb, which fortunately isn’t usually more than 20km from anywhere I need to be. I had a video shoot that day less than five minutes away, and it was at a car dealership. Maybe there would be a charger on site.
There wasn’t. 98km left on the clock and still not worried. I stopped off at my sisters on the way home to let her kids meet ‘WALL-E’. My six-year-old nephew Killian is a well-seasoned backseat tester at this stage. I helped him into his booster seat and fastened him up. He had enough room for his legs to ‘breathe’, but not enough to kick the seats. Result. We headed towards the park and I picked his little brain. ‘Do you notice anything different about this car to the other cars we drive?’ Silence in the back. And silence is the answer. ‘It’s very, very quiet’.
Disaster strikes. I wake up with a sore throat that makes it feels like I’ve swallowed razor blades. And aches and pains that could give the man flu a run for its money. I won’t be driving today. Much like I wouldn’t be concerned about finding a fuel station if I had a quarter tank of fuel left in the middle of the week, I don’t care about charging the car either. I only want to charge myself, preferably with Nurofen and some chicken soup.
Much of the same. But by the evening I could muster up the strength to at least get out on to the driveway to have a more thorough look around. Getting in this time, I appreciate its nice, raised driving position (I am at death’s door, remember), but it’s a good thing I do because it’s not adjustable for height. Not a concern for me, but taller or shorter drivers might find that annoying.
The cabin layout is very simple, minimalistic and quite obviously built with weight-saving (and planet-saving) in mind. Despite this, it’s surprisingly useful, with lots of handy storage areas; a large glovebox, and doorbins wide enough to fit a large bottle of water (or a flask of lemsip today).
Like all new cars it’s heavily focussed around a touchscreen infotainment system, which is equipped with Satellite Navigation as standard, as well as Bluetooth for smartphone integration. A handy little thing, easy to make your way around with some cool driving stats and a map that will tell you where your nearest charge points are.
Time to check that actually. I had planned to charge the night before but since I’m not an owner, I don’t have a charge point installed at my home. I had gotten around this before by using the 3-pin adapter that came with previous EVs I had on test. It’s not ideal having an extension cord hanging out of your letterbox overnight, but it did the job. Anyway, the Zoe doesn’t have one. It’s an optional extra. I have to bear in mind that this is not going to be an issue to the person who goes out and buys one, because they’ll have a charger. But I don’t, and now I have to look for a solution. But there’s tonnes of chargepoints around, right? Twice as many as there are EVs, right?
That may be true, and those stats look great on paper, but when I went to look for my closest one, I was disappointed to see my only option was the local shopping centre, situated on the other side of town. It was also closing in a half an hour, which would leave me sitting in a carpark for the remainder of the time it took to charge, which was going to be at least a couple of hours. I wasn’t well enough to do that. I couldn’t help but think how much easier it would be to just go and fill up the tank.
I’m feeling better but terribly guilty about how little driving I’ve done in the Zoe. Today we’re going for a long spin. Motorways and B-roads, to see how it copes on every surface. You’re getting tested today, Zo. But first, juice. I decide the shopping centre is my best option, but it’s Friday morning and the place is thronged. I approach the dedicated EV parking zone (four spaces) and at first it looks like my luck is out. Four Leafs, believe it or not. It’s the most established model I surmise, and suddenly, one pulls out. He looks at me as he does and studies the badge to make sure I’m not a chancer in a planet-polluting petrol, and once he’s satisfied, gives me that knowing nod of approval that EV owners like to give each other. I pity the fools still circling this carpark I think as I pull in, face first to the charging point. Cables out, lozenge popped, card swiped, and we’re done here. Into the shopping centre I go, but it’s only a matter of time before I ring for lift home to do some work before I start spending money I don’t have. This electric thing is supposed to save you money, after all.
I arrive back two hours later and she’s raring to go. 284km on the clock this time, 100 per cent charged according to the range monitor. Happy days.
I make my way out of the suburbs, appreciating the ease of the automatic transmission and the seamlessly quick power uptake when you do get a chance to put the foot down. The thing about EVs is, while they may not look that powerful on paper (the Zoe has the equivalent of about 92hp), the power delivery is almost instant. There’s no delay while the engine processes what it is you want. The Zoe can get from 0-50km in just four seconds, which with no engine vibration or gearshift, makes taking off from standstill feel a bit like being sucked down a tube. That might sound unpleasant, but it’s not. In fact it’s the opposite. It feels novel, and inexplicably fun.
Off up the mountains I go on my usual test route towards Wicklow’s Old Military Road. The roads are windy and steep and gradually start to become a little bit rougher and less polished. The Zoe’s chassis has been specifically designed to suit the character of an electric car. The suspension is geared towards comfort, so that only the harshest of potholes disturb the peaceful cabin. Yet it still holds a corner well and that seemingly endless supply of immediate, silent power continues to put a smile on my face. It isn’t endless though I have to remember, and I notice the range start to drop a bit quicker as I continue to force it to pull me up hills and do mindless laps of the countryside. Maybe I’m having too much fun. I get to the peak of my route and even though I’ve still got well over 100 kilometres to spare, a voice in the back of my mind is reminding me how far away from a fuel station, much less a charging point I am. I turn around and start to descend, and that’s where a little magic called regenerative braking starts to happen. As I gently press the brake to slow down around blind corners and lay off the accelerator completely on my descent, gradually those kilometres begin to reappear. By the time I get to the bottom I’ve clawed back almost all of the ones I spent climbing. So bar the kilometres spent getting here, my Friday mountain jaunt has basically cost me nothing. Result.
With 170km to spare when I pulled in yesterday, I haven’t bothered charging it. I can’t anyway without the cable, but how and ever. Again, there’s a bit less than that on the clock in the morning. The day is spent doing errands, and showing a few sceptics around my new battery-powered buddy. My petrol-headed brother-in-law describes himself as allergic to EVs. Batteries are for toys. He’s not a fan of the styling for a start. ‘Too girly’. I roll my eyes and take him for a spin anyway. I say nothing and let him try not to enjoy the nippy silence. Eventually, he concedes. ‘It really goes, doesn’t it?’
Sunday is Sunday. I’m off duty and Dublin are playing Tyrone in the All-Ireland Semi-Final, and that’s all that’s occupying my mind to be quite honest. Zoe’s going back in the morning though and I’m conscious that it would probably be courteous to send it back fully charged, so as not to have the next journalist waiting around for hours while it does. I head back down to the shopping centre and my luck is out this time. The four spots are full, and there’s a car waiting. You’ve guessed it – another Leaf. I’m antsy now, if Zoe makes me miss this game, that might just damage our relationship beyond repair. I skulk around doing laps for another ten minutes and watch Leaf lady in front of me give up and drive off. More fool her as I see a man approach. I know when I see him that he’s an EV owner. Don’t ask me how, and I won’t get into stereotypical descriptions, but I just know. And I’m right. He gives me the look as he pulls off, and I give it back.
It’s been an odd week and I feel confused handing Zoe back that morning. I usually have a clear cut idea in my head by now about whether I would, or wouldn’t recommend this car to a friend or family member. But the truth is, I still don’t feel I know enough. Buying an electric vehicle is as much a lifestyle choice as it is a choice of vehicle. I don’t think a week has been long enough to judge that reality. I’d like to know what it’s like when you do have a home charge point and don’t have to go to a shopping centre to rejuice. I’d like to see more options than going to a shopping centre. I’d like to know that even if I’m buying the longest range vehicle on sale at the moment, and that something new won’t be out next year with double that range.
That’s where I am on the EV thing in general at the moment. I would very much like some more time with it to see if I can’t quash these concerns and give the whole-hearted thumbs up I so desperately want to give to the Zoe because in my opinion, for the price point, it appears to be the best option on offer at the moment.