When it comes to pioneering electric cars in Britain, the Renault Zoe often doesn’t get the kudos it deserves.
The Tesla Model S, at one end of the scale, and Nissan Leaf at the other, are often held up as leading the charge for early-adopters, but the Zoe is something of an unsung hero that deserves plaudits for bringing pure electric cars to the UK mass market too.
As an affordable (by electric car standards) and practical family hatchback, the Renault Zoe did as much to promote electric vehicle ownership in Britain as the luxury Tesla and Nissan’s heralded Leaf, which won European Car of the Year back in 2011.
Choice in the small electric car market has stepped up a gear recently, with Peugeot, Mini, Fiat, VW, Vauxhall and Honda all joining the party, but Renault has also been busy refining and improving the Zoe - and extending its range to 238 miles. So, what is it like to drive and live with? Simon Lambert spent a fortnight with a Zoe to find out.
The Renault Zoe was launched in 2013 and swiftly became a hit with electric car early adopters, thanks to its competitive price and familiar small car feel.
A roomy five-door, five-seater hatchback with a well laid out interior, the Zoe is comfortable and practical. Beyond being battery-propelled it’s in no real way out of the ordinary; unlike the futuristic stripped-back, big-screen dominated interior of a Tesla, for example.
Early versions of the Zoe were powered by a 22kWh battery that was good for a real world range of about 93 miles.
Over the years, Renault has updated the Zoe and in 2016 introduced a 41KWh battery, before upgrading that to the current 52kWh battery in 2019, which has a quoted range of 238 miles under the WLTP test (the latest standard to measure the emissions and fuel efficiency of new cars in).
That should be more than enough to keep all but the most range-hungry happy – and the Zoe now comes with a 50 kW rapid charging option too, which means it can go from 15 to 80 per cent of battery in 54 minutes.
An updated Zoe last year saw a sharpening up of the exterior, a new interior and the addition of a 135 hp, R135 motor with 52 KWh battery and 50 KW fast charging capability
The Zoe comes in three specifications, starting at £26,995 after the £3,000 government plug-in car grant: Play, Iconic and GT Line.
Both Play and Iconic get you the R110 version of its battery-powered motor, with 110bhp, as standard. GT Line starts at £30,495, including the grant, and gets the R135 motor with 134bhp and an improved interior with a higher spec.
Working out what a Zoe would cost you to own used to be a trickier prospect, as previously there was the choice to pay a monthly fee to lease the battery or pay more for the car and the battery outright. That is no longer the case, battery leasing has been axed and a Zoe comes with just one simple price.
Renault does now chuck in a 7kW home charger wall box though with the car, which is a handy perk.
The Renault Zoe that I tested was in top-of-the-range GT Line R135 Z.E. 50 specification, with the £1,000 50kW rapid charge option and a £500 Winter Pack, which added heated seats and steering wheel, to deliver an on the road price of £30,120 after the £3,000 grant.
Simon Lambert with the Renault Zoe that he spent a fortnight testing
It was decked out in metallic Celadon Blue paint, a colour that suits the Zoe.
The subtle revisions to the Zoe’s exterior styling that Renault made last year included a new front bumper, refreshed LED lights and some chrome-style detailing.
This was very much a case of gentle evolution rather than revolution but they brought the Zoe’s look up-to-date and it is a handsome small car.
It’s not as small as you think, however, was one of my first impressions. The Zoe isn’t just an electric clone of a Clio: it is higher riding, 12 centimetres taller and slightly longer but a little bit narrower than its petrol-powered cousin.
Inside, the Zoe is roomy and while last year’s refresh also brought a totally new interior, there’s still a fair amount of black and grey plastic and half synthetic leather and half fabric seats in GT Line specification that look reasonable but don’t add much of an air of luxury.
Nonetheless, the interior is well laid out and doesn’t look cheap.
It doesn’t set the world on fire but the Zoe has a certain charm – something that’s long been the hallmark of all decent small French cars.
‘Wait until you have to do a journey in the cold and wet, with the lights and heating on.’
That paraphrases comments that regularly appear on electric car reviews when we discuss range.
And it’s a fair criticism, the quoted range of many electric cars can drop heavily when the temperature does.
However, if you really need to eke it out then there are some things you can do, as I found with the Zoe.
Leaving the house early one cold, damp and dreary October morning, I got in the car and had a bit of range anxiety that made me think twice about the drive.
The Zoe was showing 51 miles of range and I needed to do a 31 mile journey to the office in London.
That should be fine, but was definitely a little too close for comfort, particularly as the traffic didn’t look great.
Setting range anxiety to one side, I decided this would be a good test of the Zoe – and that I would use the Eco mode which should guarantee my trip.
I set off from my house – initially treating myself to a blast of heated seats – with heater, lights and radio on for the whole journey.
The Zoe got to the M1 roughly equal on miles driven and range, then ate up a bit more range at the start of the motorway journey. ‘Uh oh,’ I thought.
But then things turned round: it started doing more miles than range used – and when I got to London that stepped up a notch.
Some mental calculations on how far I still had to Kensington High Street meant any range anxiety started to slip away.
By the time I arrived, the Zoe had won the challenge. I had driven 31 miles but it had used 25 miles of range, leaving 26 miles still on the clock. Bravo.
That charm comes out in spades behind the wheel of the Zoe. It’s a long way from being a hot hatch - so don’t expect too much in the handling stakes - but it is a hoot to drive.
Over the fortnight that I spent with the Zoe, I used it for driving around locally in Hertfordshire, a few blasts along some favoured B roads, and the daily 30 mile commute from home to This is Money’s offices in High Street Kensington – a route that includes some B and A road driving, a decent stint of the M1 and then the slog through North West London.
The battery sits under the Zoe’s floor – something that can usefully keep electric car’s centre of gravity low – but there’s not the flat handling of a Tesla here.
Instead, the Zoe rolls around like an old school hatchback – but that combined with its nippiness makes it good fun as you barrel down a country road.
The steering’s hardly razor sharp, but the Zoe is entertaining to thread through the bends and has adequate power for accelerating where needed.
As with all of the best hatchbacks, you can get into the spirit of enjoying a good road.
With the R135 motor the Zoe has 135 horsepower and 245Nm of torque and a decent turn of pace.
The 0 to 62mph time is a respectable 9.5 seconds, but like many electric cars the Zoe feels quicker under acceleration than the figures suggest.
In more typical driving than the benchmark sprint, 0 to 30mph is dispatched in 3.6 seconds and 50 to 75mph in 7.1 seconds.
The power delivered straight to the front wheels with just a single gear means the Zoe zips out of corners, feels brisk from a standing start and easily matches the traffic out of a junction or joining the motorway.
Switch from standard Drive to B mode and the Zoe’s regenerative braking system kicks in, meaning that it decelerates when you ease up on the accelerator – feeding braking energy back to the battery.
Renault says that this can ‘preserve your driving range and enjoy one pedal driving’.
I wouldn’t rely too much on that one pedal driving claim unless you fancy ending up in the back of the car in front, or on top of the next roundabout, but once I got used to B mode it became my chosen method of driving. It adds to the Zoe’s feel of being a fun momentum car to drive.
The Zoe is a handsome small car and updates tp its looks since its launch in 2013 have been evolutionary rather revolutionary
Away from interesting roads, the Zoe is a relaxing place to be behind the wheel. Visibility is good and around town it is small enough to manoeuvre easily and nip into traffic gaps when needed. On 16 inch wheels it was a firm but comfortable ride.
Driving on London’s increasing number of 20mph limit roads, many of which are main thoroughfares where for those of us with 30mph limits ingrained in our psyche, 20mph just doesn’t feel natural, one of the Zoe GT Line’s features came in handy – the speed limiter.
I have friends who have managed to pick up speed camera tickets at a mere 23mph, so I’m conscious of how easy it is to slip up. Sticking the speed limiter to 20mph means the car won’t go above that and keeps you on the right side of the law – even if it does mean the odd fellow motorist right up your backside.
On the motorway, the Zoe feels comfortable and cruises easily at speed – like a much larger car than a family hatchback. It easily eats up long journeys and a couple of hours behind the wheel is no problem.
The new Zoe also has a range of safety features bunged in, alongside the speed limiter and cruise control, getting lane keep assist, lane departure warning, traffic signal recognition and blind spot warning.
Inside the R135 GT Line specification Zoe are synthetic leather and fabric seats and an interior mixing plastic and fabric. It is well laid out and comfortable but not luxurious
With the battery under the Zoe’s floor, it doesn’t take up any cabin or boot space and the extra height and fairly high seating positions in the front and back create a roomy feel inside.
The interior has been upgraded on the Zoe and although the GT Line gets part recycled material and part synthetic leather upholstery, that's on some seats that are comfortable but flat and fairly nondescript - and have no height adjustment. The mix of plastic, faux leather and fabric makes the Zoe pleasant enough inside, but won’t have you rushing to show off to the neighbours.
However, at a time when car dashboards and interiors regularly put style over substance, the Zoe’s is refreshingly well thought out.
The centre of the dash gets a mix of switches for the things you regularly need and three nice big dials for the heating.
The electric gearshift has a very simple choice of reverse, neutral, drive, or a nudge across for the B regenerative braking mode. Tucked in front of that is handy storage tray with wireless phone charging potential and two USB slots.
A 9.3 inch touch screen sits in the middle of the Zoe's dashboard, with switches and dials beneath and the simple electric gear shifter
Behind the steering wheel is a 10 inch digital cockpit display that can be customised
The dials are a 10 inch digital cockpit display, which is well laid out, easy to see through the steering wheel in all positions and can be customised to your preferred options: the most obvious being the speedometer, map, and energy and range data trio.
In the middle of the dashboard the GT Line car gets an upgraded 9.3-inch touch screen, while lower down the range a 7-inch touch screen is standard. It’s easy and intuitive to use and the Zoe swiftly passed the ‘can I easily connect my phone?’ test.
There’s plenty of leg room in the back of the Zoe and adult passengers will be comfortable enough back there. The boot is roomy and rear seats fold down and split for practicality.
With the rear seats flipped down and parcel shelf removed, I easily fitted my bike in the back – handy for having to cycle back from my home town’s only public charger while I left the Zoe there for a few hours.
The Zoe’s charging port is tucked under the Renault badge on its nose and getting hooked up is simple.
With the 7kW wall box that Renault bundles in with the car, the battery will charge from zero to 80 per cent in 7 hours (plug it into a standard three-pin plug and you will wait 30 hours).
Those using public chargers can get some juice into the Zoe quicker, with a zero to 80 per cent charge taking four-and-a-half hours with an 11kW charger and 2 hours 15 minutes with a 22 kW charger.
The fast charger option on the GT Line R135 I had on test means that with if you can find a 50kW charger it should go from zero to 80 per cent in an hour. They aren’t abundant, but more of these fast chargers are appearing about Britain at the moment and so this is an option that’s probably worth taking – and will mean your Zoe holds its value better second-hand.
So, once you’ve got your Zoe charged, how far can you drive it? That’s the classic piece of string question for an electric car, as range can be heavily affected by conditions and driving.
On the WLTP test, designed to be more representative of real life driving that the former NEDC tests, the R135 50 Zoe has a quoted range of 238 miles. Renault admits that in winter this will drop to about 150 miles.
Overall, commuting into London from Hertfordshire each day, with a mix of A and B roads, motorway and city driving, I found the Zoe was doing about two-thirds to three-quarters of mileage in real life to stated range available: so a 31 mile journey one evening over an hour-and-a-half used up 44 miles of available range.
This was reasonably consistent whether I had a heavy right foot or not and that makes it easy to plan journeys in terms of range and any potential need to charge.
One morning, however, I did find myself questioning how tight a journey into the office would be and decided to give it a try with range-saving Eco mode on.
As I explain in more detail above, the Zoe delivered and the relationship flipped round, with the journey using up less range than miles driven.
The Renault Zoe is a testament to how far electric cars have come in a relatively short time.
When it was launched in 2013, you really needed to be a committed early adopter to be willing to live with a range that would swiftly run out, at a time when public charging was a challenge.
Buy a new Zoe today – with its 238-mile range - and get the free home charging wall box fitted and unless you regularly do 100 mile-plus journeys then you’d probably notice very little practical difference to running a conventional petrol or diesel car.
You’ll need to do a bit more planning if you head off on a long journey, but if the Zoe is a second car alongside a bigger main family car – as many will be - that easily solves the problem.
For those doing local journeys and commutes, average driving might mean just one or two overnight charges a week.
What you will notice if you run it with a home charger is that you start saving a considerable sum compared to the cost of filling up with petrol or diesel.
But that brings us back to the elephant in the room with electric cars – even affordable ones like the Zoe – they are expensive to buy in the first place.
The Renault Zoe GT Line R135 Z.E 50 that I tested is the top spec version, but with the 50kW rapid charge option and winter pack added, it is a £30,120 car after the £3,000 grant.
That’s a lot of money for a small car; considerably more than a petrol hatchback will set you back and you have to question if the interior is quite up to £30,000 car standards.
The good news is that the Zoe should hold its value well, maintain that premium over the petrol car and if bought outright, when it is time to sell it on it should be in-demand second-hand.
Most new cars are bought on finance, however, and once you start looking at monthly PCP costs, and then factor in the fuel and tax savings, you can look at the price of getting one with rosier spectacles.
What you’ll get in return is a fun, nimble, comfortable and spacious family runaround that's also greener than most.
Renault Zoe GT Line R135 Z.E 50
Price: £28,620 (after £3,000 grant)
Price as tested: £30,120 (after grant)
Options fitted: 50 kW DC rapid charge £1,000; Winter Pack £500
Motor: R135 100 kW electric
Battery: Z.E 50 52 kWh
Power: 134 hp
WLTP range: 238 miles
CO2 emissions: Zero
0 to 62mph: 9.5 seconds
Top speed: 87 mph
Charging: 0 to 80% @ 50 kW in 70 mins | 0 to 100% @ 7kW in 9 h 25m
Warranty: Car - 5-year, 100,000 miles | Battery - 8-year, 100,000 miles