Piers Ward22 March 2013

First Drive: new Renault Zoe

TG drives the new Renault Zoe. A supermini that is the company's flagship electric car...

Renault Zoe

What is it?

The Zoe is Renault's flagship electric car.

It might seem odd to describe a supermini as a flagship, but bear with me. Up until now, Renault's electric cars have been compromised. Either because they're too weird (the oddball Twizy) or because they were never really conceived as being an electric car from the start (the simply awful Fluence).

But the Zoe is different. The supermini-sized vehicle was designed from the outset as an electric car, so the packaging and styling reflect that.

See more pics of the Renault Zoe

This thing holds the key for Renault's electric car sales. Renault is pinning 4billion Euros worth of development on the electric vehicle range: if the Zoe bombs, that's a lot of wasted money.

OK, so if it's a flagship, has it got a better range?

Er, afraid not.

The official range is 130 miles, but Renault freely admits (and fair credit to it for being honest) that the realistic figure is 90 miles. That can drop away to just 60 miles in winter, when you're more likely to be using energy-sapping equipment like lights and heaters. In other words, the Zoe will give you range anxiety, just like all other electric cars.

Admittedly, Renault has fitted a clever charger to the Zoe. One plug-in point on the car (underneath the badge on the bonnet) will work with all sorts of power levels. We should point out, though, that at the moment it's not possible to charge the Zoe from a normal plug socket. This will change at some point in the future, and Renault is including the installation cost of a wall charger (about £500) in the price of the Zoe, but don't say we didn't warn you.

In terms of charging times, it varies according to the amp rating of the socket you're plugging into. A single phase, 16-amp plug will take 9 hours, but a three-phase, 63-amp will reach 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes. The wall charger takes three-and-a-bit hours to completely re-charge the Zoe.

And you can download apps for your phone so the car will tell you remotely how long it has left before it reaches full charge. You can also pre-set it to cool or heat the cabin before you get to it, again from your mobile.

Speaking of the cabin, is the interior any good?

For the most part, yes. Like the exterior, it looks futuristic, and the quality of the materials mostly feels good, even though they're not soft-touch plastics.

And because the Zoe's batteries are all mounted below the floor, there are few packaging compromises. The boot is large, the rear seats are spacious. Having said that, the charging cable is stored in a bag in the boot. Surely Renault could have found a neater solution than that?

All Zoes come with R-Link, Renault's new multi-media display. It looks a bit like an iPad perched on the dash and is simple to use. There are all sorts of Renault apps for it, and it controls everything from the TomTom sat nav to your phone to the radio. It's also got loads of eco info, including what the external pollution levels are like.

Alright, alright - enough of the gadgets. Does the Zoe actually work?

If you mean does it function as a car, then the answer is largely yes, barring the obvious range issues. This is Renault's best electric vehicle.

On paper, though, things don't seem very exciting. The single electric motor generates 88bhp and 162lb ft, which doesn't sound like much in a tubby, 1,468kg car. And the 0-62mph time of 13.5 seconds isn't exactly scorching.

But on the road, it's a nippy little thing and feels quicker than the figures suggest. It's obviously happiest around town, where the instant hit of the electric torque is felt best, but even at motorway speeds, the Zoe keeps up with other traffic easily.

The ride over sharper bumps is a bit thumpy, but it's mostly comfortable. And obviously totally silent. Well, for the most part. Renault has developed ZE Voice, a system that kicks in below 18mph to make sure that pedestrians can hear you coming. In the cabin, it sounds a bit like a droid in Star Wars but I'm not sure it works that well. Well, not if the rather startled lady we nearly flattened is anything to go by...

See more pics of the Renault Zoe

And here's the larger problem with the Zoe - that near miss was the most exciting thing that happened on our test drive. Because the Zoe isn't fun. Even by the usual sensory-deprivation standards of electric cars, this is a transport solution rather than a fun thing.

Hmmm, so should I be thinking about buying one?

It depends.

As far as electric cars go, then yes. It's reasonably priced (£13,995 - £15,195 including the government electric car grant) and the batteries cost from £70 per month to lease. The Zoe does everything you expect of an electric car.

But if you're at all interested in cars as living, breathing things, then no. Saying it's Renault's best electric car is damning with faint praise. It's a white good, an automotive equivalent of the washing machine. Surely a designed-from-the-outset electric car is an opportunity for the manufacturer to do something slightly more... interesting. Not as bonkers as the Twizy, sure, but with low volumes sold to early adopters they might as well do something completely mad and create a new way of thinking about ‘the car'.

Now share it...

What do you think?

This service is provided by Disqus and is subject to their privacy policy and terms of use. Please read Top Gear's code of conduct (link below) before posting.