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First Drive: 2013 Renault Zoe [Review]

by Ronan Glon

Europe\'s Nissan Leaf rival is available for the price of a standard economy car in France.

In a move that furled eyebrows across the industry, France's Renault has eschewed gasoline- and diesel-electric hybrid drivetrains in favor of vehicles powered exclusively by electricity. For the past few years, the automaker's much-publicized Z.E. (Zero Emissions) lineup has consisted of the Fluence sedan and the Kangoo van, two vehicles converted from internal combustion to electric drive, plus the funky Twizy two-seater. The fourth - and, for the time being, final - member of the lineup is the Zoe, which was previewed by a concept at the 2010 Paris Motor Show and introduced this year.

With the exception of the aforementioned Twizy, which is not legally considered a car, the Zoe is the first regular-production Renault designed as an EV from the get-go. It will not gain a plug-in hybrid drivetrain, a small-displacement range-extender or an internal combustion engine. In this aspect, it is similar to the Nissan Leaf, but the two vehicles were designed independently and do not share any mechanical components despite Renault and Nissan's tie-up. Economies of scale be damned, apparently, although their platforms are very distant relatives.

Less outer-worldly-looking than the Leaf, the Zoe's front end is inspired by the design language that is seen on all recent members of the Renault lineup. Trim bits on the body and inside of the headlights as well as all emblems on both ends are blue, a colorful touch to make the car instantly recognizable as an EV.

The Zoe's profile is simple and clean thanks in part to rear door handles hidden in the C-pillar. Out back, the tail lamps are transparent and again fitted with blue trim, while a discreet Z.E. emblem badge explains to other motorists why the car has no gas flap.

Specifications sheet

Based on Renault-Nissan's B platform, the Zoe is slightly smaller than the Clio, Renault's bread-and-butter model, but about the same size as a Chevrolet Sonic. The Zoe offers 11.9 cubic feet of trunk space with five passengers aboard, or 43 cubic feet with the rear seats folded out of the way.

Under the hood lies a compact electric motor that makes 88 horsepower and 162 lb-ft. of torque. Linked to a lithium-ion battery pack mounted under the passenger compartment, the motor sends power to the front wheels via a single-gear reduction gearbox that essentially drives like an automatic. Although the car weighs a hefty 3,236 lbs, it accelerates from 0-62 mph in 13.5 seconds, about as quick as Renault's diesel-powered Captur crossover, and reaches a top speed of 83 mph.

In a mixed European cycle, the Zoe has a maximum range of about 130 miles when driven conservatively in the right road and weather conditions, putting it ahead of the Leaf by 22 miles. "Perfect" conditions are tough to meet, so Renault admits that the actual range that most drivers will experience varies between 62 and 93 miles. The car is fitted with a patented Chameleon charger that adapts to all kinds of power supplies: An 80 percent charge is available in just 30 minutes by using a quick charger, or it can be topped up overnight with a standard wall-mounted charger.

The front suspension is borrowed from the Clio, while the rear suspension is lifted from the Mégane parts bin. The rear axle has been beefed up in order to cope with the 640 lbs. battery pack.

In its home country - France - the Zoe carries a base price of €13,700 ($17,900) once a €7,000 ($9,100) tax break is factored in. For comparison, a Nissan Leaf stickers for €25,990 (about $34,000) including the same incentive and base Clio retails for €12,900 (roughly $16,800) . That puts the Zoe in the econobox price bracket, but there is a catch: The batteries must be leased from Renault for about €80 (about $104) a month. Furthermore, most buyers will write a one-time check for the installation of a home charger.

Life aboard

Inside, the dashboard follows the example set by the exterior and offers a clean and uncluttered design. The instrument cluster has been replaced by a high-definition TFT screen that displays how much energy is left in the battery, the remaining driving range, the car's speed and the outside temperature. It also functions as a trip meter and an odometer.

Lifted from the Clio, the tablet-like center console pod incorporates a seven-inch touch screen, two air vents and the climate control knobs.

All Zoe models come standard with Renault's R-Link infotainment system regardless of trim level. Controlled by a seven-inch touch screen mounted on the dash and buttons on the multi-function steering wheel, it functions an infotainment system with Bluetooth, internet connectivity, a voice recognition system and about 50 applications that enable passengers to look up a phone number, read the news, search for a nearby restaurant or find the closest charging station.

R-Link also gives a detailed breakdown of the car's energy consumption by displaying how much electricity is being used and how much is left in the battery pack. Finally, it works with newer smartphones to enable the driver pre-cool or pre-heat the cockpit to 71.6 degrees.

Zoe is well-equipped: Keyless entry and start, power windows and stability control are standard.

At the wheel

With just 88 horsepower on tap, the Zoe is not exactly a powerhouse, but immediate acceleration makes it feel considerably quicker than it is. The torque is delivered instantly, smoothly and quietly, three attributes that are scarcely used in the same sentence at this price point. Getting up to speed is a breeze due to the linear acceleration, and it feels just as stable and comfortable as a similar-sized car powered by a gas-burning four-banger. The Zoe is certainly no Autobahn cruiser, but it comfortably holds freeway speeds.

With a regenerative braking system designed with input from Bosch, the car decelerates almost as instantly as it accelerates, the tradeoff being that it recovers nearly all of the kinetic energy created while coming to a halt. The brakes stop the car almost instantly and dosing the pedal takes practice, often at the risk of frightening other motorists.

Since the motor is totally silent, a speaker beneath the bumper emits an artificial noise up to 18 mph. Beyond that, the noise emitted by the Michelin low-rolling resistance tires is enough to warn pedestrians and other drivers that a car is coming their way.

An Eco mode turned on at the push of a button on the center console saves energy by limiting the car's top speed to 55 mph. Pressing the accelerator pedal to the floor overrides the system if extra power is temporarily needed.

Leftlane's bottom line

Size-wise, the Zoe slots beneath the Leaf but it offers a similar amount of technology and a better driving range for a considerably lower price. With the golf cart-sized Mitsubishi i-MiEV trio written off as a outdated relic from the early days of EVs, the Zoe is hands down the best regular-production electric passenger car for sale in Europe. Simple and functional, it's better built than one would expect from a car priced in the low teens - it's an electric people's car if there ever was one.

However, that doesn't make it the ideal mode of transportation for everyone. To offset the price of renting the battery pack from Renault, the Zoe's ideal buyer is someone who fills up their tank at least twice a month yet drives less than the maximum range each day. The Zoe makes sense as second car to commute to work in, or to run inter-city errands with, but keep something with a gas tank in your driveway if you're inclined to venture far from home.

Words and photos by Ronan Glon.

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