20.12.2019Renault Zoe Z.E.50 first drive
Having been the subject of a raft of updates during its time since launch, the Renault Zoe now enters what is pitched as its third generation - though truthfully it’s really only the second. A refreshed design, substantially upgraded interior, and new battery & motor combination make for significant changes for the electric supermini. We tested the new Renault Zoe Z.E. 50 at its launch in Sardinia.
Review by Chris Lilly
There is a choice of two motors for the Zoe - the existing R110 motor and a new R135 unit. The latter was fitted to the test car, producing 100 kW (135hp). This affords a 0-62mph time of 9.5 seconds, and a top speed of 87mph. Performance is as brisk as the numbers would suggest, particularly at low speeds - though that is to be expected with electric motors. The instant pick-up and large amounts of torque available mean that acceleration from a standstill or at low speeds is as quick as just about anything on the road. It is at higher speeds where the additional power found in the new R135 motor can be felt. Acceleration from around the 40-50mph mark up to speed limits is noticeably improved, and the engine feels as though it’s still got more to give when sitting at the legal limit. Although there were no stretches of motorway on the test route, I would expect the new Zoe to be even more comfortable than before when sitting at 70mph. Around the small towns and villages scattered across northern Sardinia, and the winding country roads that span between them, the Zoe acquitted itself well. Big elevation changes were shrugged off, and the little Renault felt perfectly at home in the rural environment. Although designed as and suited to life as an urban runabout, the Zoe performs particularly well on tight and twisty country roads. Accelerating, holding a pace up a steep climb, and keeping up with traffic were of no issue, while overtaking slower moving items such as buses or motorhomes was easy enough - even uphill.
The Zoe feels almost identical in terms of driving dynamics to its predecessor. It’s to be expected really, as Renault made no mention of revised suspension settings. The only real changes to the Zoe’s powertrain are to the motor and battery, which are a little heavier, but not enough to notice on the test drive. I’d wager that driving the new model back-to-back against the old one, you’d be hard pushed to tell which was which in terms of handling. There’s no issue with this, as the Zoe is well set up. It’s comfortable and easy to drive, with light steering and suspension that soaks up a hefty amount of punishment served up by poor road surfaces. The roads in Sardinia were good on the whole, but some resembled the pockmarked roads found in the UK, and the Zoe breezed over the imperfections on the most part. The flip side of this is that there’s quite a bit of lean when cornering, and the little Renault will let you know that its bulk has shifted. There’s a definite sense of turning the wheel and then the steering getting heavier up as the car sits over the outside springs. There’s nothing untoward or unusual about this, and it does make for a comfortable and relatively refined drive. If you want compact EV driving thrills however, you’d be much better off with a BMW i3. Grip is good and the steering is precise - if lacking in feedback - though in terms of traction, dry roads in late summer weather will surely have helped. However, the low-rolling resistance nature and increased power would suggest that more slippery conditions would see that traction lessened. It’s something to be tested when the new Zoe hits UK roads later this year anyway.
This latest Zoe is definitely a new model, even if the styling changes are subtle at most. New lights, front bumper & grille, and rear light clusters give the game away, but this is intentional. Renault wanted to keep the general look of the Zoe familiar to customers from the feedback it got - and the outgoing model is hardly looking like a stale and old design. It’s a good refresh and sharpens the Zoe up for this next set of changes. The rest of the design remains identical to before, largely because the platform the Zoe is built on remains the same. Everything else has changed in terms of motor and battery, but the core architecture is identical, meaning the dimensions inside and out are carried over. Interior space is very good in terms of load area, with a surprisingly large boot for its class. Rear seat space is enough for four adults, but those in the rear had better be shorter than average if spending any time in the back. Sitting behind the driver’s seat, I found my head hitting the roof, though my legs had an inch or two of space at the knees. I’m long of body and short of leg however, so others of average height or taller might find slightly different issues. Anyone six foot tall or more will not want long in the rear anyway. The driver and front passenger have no such issues, though I find the driver sits high up. Because the seat is above part of the battery, you can’t get any lower. However, there are no head room issues, it’s simply a preference of mine to sit low-down.
COMFORT & CONTROLS
Renault has spent a lot of time and effort on the cabin. Although the same space as before, just about everything else has changed - and for the better. The driver gets a new steering wheel and instrument display, both of which are excellent. The digital instruments allow for a range of different display options and the graphics are sharp and easy to read. The wheel is of a much better design and a good size, with all the controls placed on the spokes, where previously elements were added on a stalk behind the wheel. The driver also has a new centre console to play with, as the previous drive select lever has been replaced with a stubby digital rocker switch. It looks good and works well, though a neutral or park button would be more helpful. I found myself accidentally selecting reverse when parking up and taking the Zoe out of drive, rather than notching it into neutral. The Zoe does however automatically put the car in neutral, and apply the parking brake, when you turn it off, so it’s more a matter of habit in making sure the car is correctly parked up than a necessity. The interior is able to feature some nice recycled fabric on the seats and dashboard. In fact, the photos and samples on display make it look as though the textile-based trim is preferable to the synthetic leather on the test model. That’s no comment on the quality of the latter, but on the interesting materials used on the former.
MPG & RUNNING COSTS
Although there have been a number of changes to the new Zoe inside and out, perhaps the most important is the new, larger capacity 52 kWh battery. This takes up the same physical space as before, but improvements in packaging and chemical design mean Renault has boosted the capacity from 41 kWh to 52 kWh. The effect of this is a boost in the official range to 245 miles on a single charge. That’s for the lower-powered R110 motor version, though the more powerful R135 will still cover 240 miles on a charge. Testing on a launch, there is rarely a chance to really push the limits of the car’s range, but there are some calculations we can work with. The projected range on the car’s instruments at start was 224 miles at 100%. This is after a week or so’s testing from Europe’s motoring press, so the adjusted range figures may not be correct. It’s a good figure considering press drives tend not to be covered economically, with plenty of climbs and some pacy driving at times. The first leg of our test drive was 137km - 85 miles - largely following the coastline of northern Sardinia. It involved lots of windy country roads, passing through a few towns and villages en route to the stop. Here, we covered the distance with 32% of the charge, giving a projected range of 266 miles in summer weather over rural roads. The return leg took a different route of 89km - 55 miles - which saw us get back to base with 37% remaining after a total of 226km (140 miles). It’s a projected range of 223 miles on a charge - almost identical to the starting distance. This return leg climbed into the hills and mountains in the north of the island, before descending back to base. At the peak of the climb, the projected range was 183 miles after 120 miles covered. There was 44% charge remaining, with the final 40 miles or so effectively climbing constantly. Granted, this is in warm summer weather, about as clement as it gets in the UK, but a real-world range of more than 220 miles should easily be possible in these conditions, likely to drop to around 200 in winter. We shall get the Zoe when it arrives in the UK for a tougher test in colder temperatures, but the initial outlook is promising. To put it into perspective, the larger Nissan Leaf e+, with a bigger battery, will cover around 230 miles on a charge. Forthcoming rivals in the shape of the Peugeot e-208 and Vauxhall Corsa e - the first time the Zoe will have direct rivals - have ranges around the 200 mile mark. As such, the Zoe outstrips all its rivals in terms of range, and comfortably so.
There are a few new features to help the Zoe make the most or its range. The main one is a new B mode for the regenerative braking system. This allows for stronger brake regen than before, recouping much of the energy that would otherwise be wasted. It’s a good set-up that allows for reduced use of the brake pedal, but it’s not strong enough to effectively create the potential for one-pedal driving. Other systems such as BMW’s i3 allow for much stronger brake regen, while the likes of Nissan’s e-Pedal on the Leaf, and the selectable regen levels on the VW e-Golf allow for a more versatile set-up. Although it’s weaker than I had initially expected, it’s surprisingly effective, and is a definite improvement for the Zoe. Renault has added the option of a CCS inlet for rapid DC charging on the Zoe. This is the first time the Zoe has been available with DC charging capabilities, and is a £750 option from the middle trim level up. Renault’s Chameleon AC charging system is fitted as standard, allowing for charging via Type 2 charge points at up to 22 kW. The addition of a CCS inlet means that 50 kW DC rapid charging is possible. It’s a shame that Renault didn’t jump straight to 100 kW DC CCS charging, as this would keep recharging times under 30 minutes in most cases, and match its new rivals from Peugeot and Vauxhall. Instead, recharging times will be around 45 minutes for most rapid charges. There’s also a heat pump for more efficient air-con system, and an Eco mode button, which limits throttle response, but does very little else. After it quickly becoming clear that there was plenty of range for the test drives, we tried it out and then ignored it. With the current generation of EVs, it’s a handy feature when range is stretched, but most models have a day-to-day range that means iEco mode isn’t required much of the time. There’s also the option of synthetic leather for a greener interior, and Renault’s Z.E. Connected Services. This is Renault’s connected car system, which allows drivers to check on and control charging and pre-conditioning levels via a smartphone app, and plan journeys, amongst other features.
Renault has put its Easy Life trim ethos onto the Zoe range, which keeps things simple for buyers. There are three trim levels - Play, Iconic, and GT Line. These have an effect on the powertrain and charging available, as entry level Play is only available with 22 kW Chameleon charging and the R110 motor. Iconic is available with either the R110 or R135 motor and the CCS inlet becomes available as an option. Finally, GT Line is only available with the R135 motor, though CCS charging remains an option. The reasoning behind CCS as an option is to keep costs lower for potential buyers. It would have been good to have the entry level model available with the Chameleon charger as a budget offering, with CCS fitted as standard to the rest of the line-up. In terms of standard equipment, the Zoe comes with a bi-modal heat pump, Eco-meter, Z.E. Connected Services, LED headlights, air-conditioning, 10-inch drivers instrument display, 7-inch Easy Link infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, cruise control, automatic parking brake, front fog lights, and keyless entry. Moving up from Play to Iconic trim adds the 100% recycled fabric upholstery, Easy Link 7-inch display with navigation, wireless phone charging, a suite of safety systems, climate control, split rear bench, rear parking sensors, and 16-inch alloys. Top of the range GT Line brings in the excellent 9.3-inch portrait Easy Link display, additional safety systems, front parking sensors and rear-view camera, auto-dimming rearview mirror, tinted rear windows, and part-leather upholstery.
The Renault Zoe has long been a very good EV, but it was beginning to feel its age recently, as other electric models caught up on range and improved interior equipment. Renault has taken the Zoe’s weaknesses and improved upon them. Range is longer than ever, faster charging is possible, and the interior is a huge improvement over the outgoing model. It’s one of the best in the class now, which is important considering there are two new pure-electric superminis coming from Peugeot and Vauxhall as direct rivals in the next few months. The Zoe is now well placed to compete with them, and is one of the best value EVs on the market. It’s a model that could comfortably replace a petrol or diesel car for most households.
Model tested: Renault Zoe Z.E 50 GT Line
Engine / CO2: 100 kW electric motor / 0 g/km
Trim grades: Play, Iconic, GT Line
On-road price: From £25,670 Price as tested: £28,630 (full purchase prices & inc. PiCG)
Warranty: Three years / 100,000 miles
In the showroom: January 2020
Review rating: 4.5 Stars