Good: Great battery range, good looks, enjoyable to drive
Bad: Fairly basic interior, battery purchase is expensive
Price: from £17,845 plus battery rental, after the Plug-in Car Grant
Four years after it first arrived, the Renault Zoe electric car still looks like a remarkably fresh design. Partly that’s down to its appealing mix of full curves, crisp creases and cute details, and partly it’s because there aren’t that many of them about. There are only about four thousand Zoes in the whole of the UK, and it’s hard to get tired of something you hardly ever see.
The latest generation aims to address that rarity by fixing what is still the biggest stumbling block lying in the path of EV sales – limited range between long recharges.
The Zoe originally came with a 22kWh battery capable of providing a real-world range of between 62 and 106 miles, depending on driving style and the warmth of the weather. From January, however, it has gained a much bigger 41kWh battery that will manage 124 to 186 miles. These big-battery Zoes are labelled ZE 40 to mark them out from the less capable cars, which remain available in entry-level trim. The Zoe ZE 40 is, as Renault is very keen to point out, the longest-range EV on sale in the UK that doesn’t have a Tesla badge (and a Tesla pricetag to match).
Bigger batteries help to combat so-called range anxiety – the fear that the battery won’t see you safely to your destination – but that worry feels less onerous today than it might have done when the Zoe first arrived in 2013. Recharging infrastructure has improved in leaps and bounds over the past few years, as EV numbers have grown and charging networks have become more viable commercial ventures. Finding a functioning socket along your chosen route is no longer the logistical nightmare it once was, though you will have to pay for the privilege.
Helpfully, Renault says it is working on a ZE Pass smartphone app that will provide access to lots of different competing charger networks, so that Zoe owners won’t have to travel with a pocketful of smartcards. It’s still a work in progress, alas, but the idea of universal access and a single consolidated bill at the end of each month sounds like a very appealing one.
Of course many EV owners never experience range anxiety because – in common with most petrol powered supermini drivers – they very rarely tackle long journeys. The Clio could drop easily into the lives of millions of UK families that have a driveway (for easy home charging) and currently run a pair of internal combustion cars.
Many electric car converts have bought their EV as a second car and quickly found it becomes the first choice, mainly for reasons of convenience. The first winter provides a good incentive to rethink priorities, with the ability to warm the car up remotely, while it’s still plugged in, rather than scraping at ice on a winter’s morning.
Many other EV attractions came leaping to mind as I sampled one of the new ZE 40 cars. The Zoe offers more than a pretty face, with lively acceleration and instant urge when you need it, plus buttery smooth throttle response at every speed. It gets up and goes where you point it like a well trained hound, only without the smell, dog-hair or slobber. The range prediction of 165 miles when first switched on in the middle of a freezing February was extremely welcome, of course.
Several things besides the battery appear to have improved since I first drove a Zoe in 2014. The eco-biased Michelin EV tyres seem to have a lot more grip than I remember, and the brakes feel much more linear in the last phase of slowing to a halt, without the tendency to grab at the last yard and bring you lurching to a stop. They now feel, well, completely normal.
Plus of course you can now lope along for an hour enjoying yourself and still have 100 miles left in the battery to get home again, or to reach wherever it was you were supposed to be going.
There’s also an Eco mode button to eke out an extra 10% in range, and an efficient heat-pump heating system comes as standard. Heated seats are an option.
As a result of all of the above, it’s now much more enjoyable to drive the Zoe along a wintery country road without fear that you’ll visit the hedgerow, and also much more comfortable to guide the car through the urban slog of a traffic jam.
It will probably be a lot less fun trying to work out all of the various Zoe configurations, which are enough to make your brain whimper.
For starters, you can’t pair the new, bigger battery with the most basic trim level, called Expression. Entry level cars must still make do with just 22kWh and the reduced range that comes with it. If you want the ZE 40 battery you must opt for the better equipped Dynamique or Signature trim levels.
In effect this hike in trim level has amplified the cost gap between the small and large battery. Opting for 41kWh over 22kWh will cost at least £4,450 extra if you buy the Zoe outright, or £3,490 if you decide to lease the battery.
You’ll also pay £10 per month extra to lease the 41kWh battery compared to the 22kWh version. There’s a sliding scale that varies with annual mileage from £59 to £110 per month for the ZE 40 cars.
Prices for the ZE 40 editions start at £17,845 with battery leasing or £23,445 when bought outright (after the Plug-in Car Grant). That means the extra cost of deciding to own the 41kWh battery is £5,600 – a tidy sum that is sufficient to pay for about four to eight years worth of battery rental depending on your choice of tariff. (Incidentally, the cost of buying the 22kWh battery outright is £5,000 on top of the £13,995 price of the entry level Zoe).
Bewildered yet? You still have to choose between the R90 and Q90 powertrain. The R in R90 stands for rapid, and it can recharge at up to 43kW, given a suitable charging point, reaching 80% from flat in about an hour and 40 minutes. The quick-charge Q90 edition, meanwhile, can get to 80% in as little as 65 minutes, but comes with some added wrinkles. Firstly, the Q90 has been so thoroughly optimised for high power charging that it actually takes an hour longer than the R90 version to recharge at home. And secondly, the Q90 costs an extra £750.
I suppose I ought to cut through this mire of options and tell you which Zoe is the best bet?
Firstly, I’d rent the battery. Only about one in ten Zoe buyers buy outright and it’s easy to see why. The upfront cost of buying the battery is substantial, whereas the monthly fees aren’t too onerous and any problems with the battery remain Renault’s to sort out forever. The company pledges to fix or replace any battery providing less than 75% of its rated capacity. So all in all, lease seems a better long-term bet.
Next, I would cross off the entry level 22kWh car. It might be OK if you intend to use the Zoe to potter around doing the shopping and the school run, but it’s depressingly basic inside and the range will never take you very far.
It’s trickier to decide between R and Q because it really depends on how often you intend to arrive at motorway services in the middle of a long journey in a hurry in your small electric car. I’d wager not very often, but I might be wrong.
Also, bear in mind that the ZE 40 battery is actually pretty capacious, so an hour at a rapid charger may not fill it to the brim but is probably going to add 100 miles even with the slower of the two charger options. In other words, I’d tend to go for the cheaper R90 option and put up with marginally slower progress on those occasional long trips.
Trim? Personal taste and budget will decide this question for you. The jump from Dynamique to Signature is £2,050, which buys leather upholstery, a Bose sound system, a reversing camera and prettier alloys.
My spec would be the ZE 40 Dynamique R90 with battery rental. A lovely little EV that is simply the best bet for chasing Teslas on a budget.
Update, 27 March 2017: Renault has announced that owners who currently lease a 22kWh battery will be able to upgrade their Zoe to ZE 40 specification – gaining the benefit of increased range as well as a factory fresh set of new cells. There will be a cost to upgrade, however, though Renault hasn’t yet announced specific details. That’s one more big reason to rent rather than buy the Zoe’s battery.