Renault Zoe: Shooting stars

The latest Renault Zoe is a fine electric car but its zero-star safety rating is impossible to ignore

Renault Zoe

EVERYBODY is at the electric car game these days, but most of them are slow-coaches compared to Renault, writes William Scholes.

Its Zoe model was a properly pioneering car, arriving in 2013 shortly after the Nissan Leaf and just before the BMW i3.

Where the i3 was a future-forward tech-fest with carbon fibre in its construction, funny rear-hinged doors, a radical interior and love-it-or-loathe-it styling, the Zoe had a more conventional template.

It took the form of a five-door supermini, and was built around a Renault Clio platform that had been heavily modified (there were bits of Megane under there too) to facilitate the transition from petrol and diesel engines to battery power and an electric motor.

Unsurprisingly it looked not unlike the Clio, though it appeared taller, thanks to the batteries being accommodated under the floor.

What wow factor there was came from its battery-electric drivetrain and the fact that it could travel a reasonable distance on a full charge and was affordable.

When it went on sale in the UK in 2013, the Zoe cost £14,000 and had an official laboratory-tested range of 130 miles. Renault, with pleasing candour, made clear that equated to a real-world range of "between 62 and 93 miles depending on driving style and weather conditions".

Its motor developed 87bhp and 162 lb ft, and the battery capacity was rated at 22kWh.

Fast forward to today, and the electric vehicle market has changed beyond all recognition. The original weird looking Nissan Leaf has been succeeded by a second generation easier-on-the-eyes version and, despite still looking like car of the future, the BMW i3 has been discontinued.

There is a whole bunch of new small EVs on sale today, as well. There's electric versions of the Mini, Fiat 500, Peugeot 208 and Vauxhall Corsa, for example, Honda's dinky e, the excellent Kia e-Niro and, moving up a little in size, Volkswagen's ID3 hatch.

Renault Zoe

But the model that concerns us today is the latest Renault Zoe. All those models just mentioned are their makers' first efforts in this part of the market - the Zoe (like the Leaf) is a mature product, something with years of sales and development already behind it.

You can easily see just how quickly EVs have developed by comparing the vital statistics of the Zoe you can buy in 2022 with the original car.

Today, you can have your Zoe with either a steady 107bhp/166 lb ft or a punchier 134bhp/181 lb ft motor, badged R110 and R135 respectively.

Either way, the battery is now a 52kWh unit - more than twice the size of the first version - and range has swelled to an 'official' 239 miles. Renault reckons that should be good for 233 miles in summer and 150 miles in winter, depending on driving style, temperature and other "factors" ("Factors", you quickly discover, are a big part in determining how far your EV will go on a charge... I got just under 200 miles).

We'll gloss over the Northern Ireland charging network on this occasion - we've covered its inadequacies previously - but if you're able to plug in your Zoe to a 7kW wallbox at home, you should be able to fully charge the battery in nine or 10 hours; or overnight, in other words.

Sadly, the £14k price of 2013 has also inflated. Zoe models start at £27,595 these days - and that's after the government's £2,500 plug-in car grant has been applied - for a R110 Iconic (The Zoe has many fine qualities but it's safe to say that 'Iconic' is doing a lot of heavy lifting there).

Another £1,000 brings you the keys to a R110 S Edition, while the top-of-the-tree GT Line + starts at £30,495.

That those are class-competitive prices is more a commentary on the general inflation in car prices than on the Zoe itself - yes, reader, cars have got expensive...

Renault Zoe

That battery and motor hardware is draped in a body that is an unashamed evolution of the first Zoe's couture. And why not? It's a smart-looking, inoffensive small hatchback, no more and no less. Anyone after more pizazz would be better looking at the Fiat, Mini or Honda - though that trio sacrifice practicality for style.

The Zoe gives you a very useful 338 litres of boot volume (growing to 1,225 litres if you drop the back seats), five proper doors and a back seat that can accommodate normal sized adult humans. It's a useful small family car, in other words, albeit with a major caveat, which we'll come to later...

Anyone travelling in a Zoe will find it feels well built from decent materials. Interior fixtures and fittings are familiar from the latest Clio, which is a positive - that car is a big upgrade on the cheap and cheerful ambiance of earlier efforts.

There's a large portrait-orientated touchscreen in the middle of the dashboard, clear digital instruments in front of the driver and a general sense of improved quality - in how the heater controls operate, how the steering wheel feels in your hands, and so on.

Renault Zoe

The view out is clear, enhanced by a driving position that is higher than you would find in a petrol engined alternative. I appreciated the largish door mirrors; many new cars seem to have smaller items which might be more aerodynamic but aren't as useful as they might be for the more prosaic business of actually seeing what's going on around you.

I also liked the seat trim, which looks like a nice cloth and leather combo, and is in fact made from recycled materials, including plastic bottles and seat belt off-cuts. It's all about sustainability these days.

On the road, the Zoe is nippy in the pleasing way we're getting used to with EVs, zipping away from the traffic lights and stop signs in a whisper-quiet uninterrupted gentle wave of torque. The 0-30mph time is as little as 3.6 seconds, with a 0-60mph time of 9.5 seconds. It's no hot hatch - it runs out of puff too quickly for that - but, honestly, in normal everyday driving, it's point-and-squirt responses are good, clean fun.

You can slot the 'gear' selector into a 'B' mode, which dials up the effect of the car's regenerative braking and once you dial into it - it's rather intuitive - you can drive the Zoe on one pedal, harnessing the 'engine braking' effect of lifting off the accelerator to slow and stop the car. Mastering this technique is one of the pleasures to be extracted from driving an electric car.

The Zoe handles cleanly and predictably, but the steering is rather feel-free for it to be described as 'fun'.

So, the Zoe is competitively priced, goes far enough on a charge for most purposes, looks well and is nice to drive.

What's the catch, then? Safety, in a word. Renault has a distinguished tradition in the Euro NCAP crash tests - in 2001, the Laguna was the first car to be given a five-star rating, for example - and realised that family buyers in particular were more concerned about how their car would protect their passengers and children than they were about almost anything else.

When the first Zoe scored a five-star rating in 2013, it was firmly in that tradition of safe Renault family cars.

Something has gone wrong with this newest Zoe, however. Each of those five hard-earned stars has been shot down in the latest iteration of the Euro NCAP tests.

When the organisation published its results last December, they gave the car an impossible to ignore zero-rating. Since Euro NCAP started in 1997, only two other cars - both ancient by comparison and both Fiats, in the form of the Panda and the Punto - have ever performed so poorly that they merited no stars.

Euro NCAP says that a zero-star rating means "meeting type-approval standards so can legally be sold but lacking critical modern safety technology".

The Zoe's 43 per cent score in the 'adult occupant' section of the test is the lowest seen in 11 years. An airbag to protect occupants in a side impact is no longer fitted, raising the risk of a head injury, the crash test watchdog said. It was also marked down because active safety systems, including autonomous emergency braking, aren't standard - though Renault says that will be offered on cars from now on.

It's a bizarre misstep for Renault, but one which it should be able to improve if it upgrades the Zoe's standard safety equipment and Euro NCAP re-assess the car.

Until then, despite the Zoe's other qualities, it is hard to recommend.

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