By Jonathan Crouch
Imagine roads free of engine noise and pollution. And a car that travels them silently, frugally and stylishly, yet one you can afford that's practical enough for family use. A distant dream? Or an actual reality in the form of this car, Renault's pure electric model, the clever little ZOE, first launched in 2012. Does it make sense as a used buy? Let's find out.
At the turn of the century, Renault bet all its chips on the battery-powered sector and made a £4 billion investment in new models - to remarkably little effect. There was the crazy Twizy city scoot, the boring mid-size Fluence Z.E. and also pricey Z.E. versions of the Kangoo and Master vans. All of which generated about as much popular interest as Brighton Beach on a wet weekend. The only Renault EV we thought showed some promise was this ZOE, a handsomely styled supermini launched in 2012. High pricing and low driving range from the little 22kWh battery initially held the car back, but the French maker persevered, continually improving it as battery technology developed through a series of incremental updates. A more efficient R90 electric motor was introduced in 2015, a gutsier Z.E.40 battery arrived in 2016 and an even more powerful 80kW R110 electric motor arrived to drive it in 2018. A further update with a Z.E. 50 52kWh batter arrived in 2019, but it's the earlier models we look at here.
What You Get
Choosing all-electric motoring is radical enough, without having to be faced with wild and wacky styling that marks you out on the High Street as an extravagant early adopter. With this ZOE though, the company got the look just about right, rejecting futuristic early design sketches in favour of a smart but very stylish look penned by Spanish designer Jean Semeriva.
The front end features the familiar big Renault badge, but because the lack of an engine means that it doesn't need to be surrounded by a huge gaping grille, the stylists were given licence to create a smoothly striking face. There's no practical need for a wide front air intake either, but it's there anyway, creating a smiling appearance with dimples either side housing daytime running lights that sit below swoopy headlamp units, each fitted with seven separate lights.
Like the fourth generation Clio this car was based upon, there's a wheel-at-each-corner stance and beautiful finishing, summed up in the way the two swage lines on the flanks run through the rear door, giving the side of the ZOE real shape and tension. In fact, everywhere you look, there seems to be a detail to catch the eye. The blue tinting you'll find on the headlamps and rear glazing. The beautifully integrated charging socket at the front, with its Z.E. diodes. The transparently finished rear lights with blue concentric rims that turn red only at night or under braking. And rear door handles that carry stylist Semeriva's personal signature in the form of his thumb print. Yes really.
So it looks the part outside. What's it like indoors? Whatever your interior colour preference, the cabin emphasis remains the same, focused on two areas. First there's the floating centre dash panel that houses the R-Link multimedia system's 7" colour touchscreen. And second, there's a trendy sliver of an instrument binnacle in front of the driver, a TFT screen that replaces the traditional analogue dials with a digital speedo, along with state-of-charge and range indicators, plus an econometer which shows if the vehicle is using or recovering energy at any given time. Being able to integrate almost all of the controls into these two areas means the rest of the dashboard can be refreshingly simple. In fact, there's not much more to get to grips with. Heater controls, electric windows, mirror adjustment and that's pretty much it, all pretty straightforward.
Inevitably, because the battery pack is mounted beneath front and rear seats, you have to sit fairly high up in the car, which is why, unfortunately, it's not possible to have a height-adjustable driver's seat. Still, the wheel has enough adjustment for reach and rake to ensure that most will be able to find an acceptable driving position. Nice touches include the beautifully finished gear shifter and the chromed door pulls, while on plusher models, the seat fabric was treated with Teflon so it's water and stain resistant.
As for back seat space, well it seems as if it might be a bit restricted at first glance, for the rear doors feel a bit short from the outside, a by-product of this car's relatively compact 2,588mm wheelbase. Once inside though, there's more room than most superminis can offer: in fact, if you had to squeeze in three adults in a car of this class, you'd want the model in question to be a ZOE, for the lack of any kind of central transmission tunnel means that the middle perch is a much more viable place to be than is usual in the supermini segment. It goes without saying that three children will be quite comfortable.
Which brings us to the boot - and why it's so big. But then it would be. This car's built upon a chassis that would normally have to package in a fuel tank and a bulky internal combustion engine, space now more compactly occupied by an electric motor and a set of batteries. Plenty of room then for a hefty 338-litre cargo area that's double the size of that offered in other small all-electric cars from this era like Peugeot's iON and Citroen's C-ZERO. More pertinently, it's also more than 20% bigger than the kind of luggage bay you'd find in a conventional Fiesta-sized supermini from this period. It's a similar story if you fold the rear bench down. Unfortunately, for some reason it doesn't 60/40 split-fold, but compensation lies in the revealed 1,225-litres of total carriage capacity, that's 265-litres more than you'd get in, say, a Ford Fiesta.
What to Look For
Most ZOE owners we came across were pretty satisfied, but inevitably, some issues were thrown up by our survey. Let's start with the usual things - check for minor bodywork scratches and the usual city scuffs. Most of the other issues we came across related to electrical problems like broken heaters and issues with the air conditioning. We've come across issues with the front wheel arch liners rubbing against front brake hoses which in a few instances have caused leaks. You should get a low brake fluid warning light to alert you of this issue before it becomes a problem. Your Renault dealer can tell you whether the appropriate remedial work to correct this was carried out.
There were a few other recalls which we need to brief you on. Some models made between July and October in 2017 may have been fitted with the wrong accelerator pedal. And models built between July 2015 and April 2017 may have an issue with the pin the parking lever in the gearbox breaking, allowing the car to roll away. Some early ZOEs had a light coloured dashboard that reflected poorly in the windscreen: Renault retrofitted an alternative darker shaded dash part which solved this problem. Find out whether the previous owner bought themselves a regular 13 amp charging cable for use with a 3-pin plug - Renault didn't supply these from new and this lead is really useful to have, even though charging using it takes ages.
(approx based on a 2016 ZOE ex VAT) Day to day consumables for the ZOE are in line with what you'd expect. A wiper blade will cost around £9. Front brake pads sit in the £21 to £28 bracket for a set. Front brake discs sit in the £68 bracket. A door mirror glass is around £18.
On the Road
So what's it like behind the wheel? As ordinary as a pure electric car can ever be is the answer, which certainly was Renault's aim. Buyers must feel comfortable in making the seismic step into this new electric world and in a ZOE, you will be. The battery pack runs beneath front and rear seats, forcing an elevated driving position in a cockpit lighter and airier than the usual supermini norm but all of that's rather pleasant and once you've adjusted, you'll be quickly feeling right at home, provided you've no objection to digital displays. Only when you place your keycard in the slot, then press the brake pedal and the starter button to bring the car to life do the differences of all-electric motoring begin.
If you're new to it, apart from the uncommon sight in a supermini of an automatic gearbox, the first of those differences you'll notice is the near silence: there's merely the faintest hum from the electronics. Just as well you've a big 'READY' display on the dashboard, otherwise you might wonder whether the car is as ready to go as you are. It is.
Plonk your foot on the loud pedal and you're hurled forward in hot hatch style. In 2012-2015-era models, a 22KWh lithium-ion battery sits under the floor powering a 65kW AC electric motor which puts the equivalent of 88bhp through the front wheels - rather quickly. Where a petrol or diesel engine's pulling power must build gradually as you accelerate, here, in contrast, all 220Nm of torque arrives at once with just the merest brush of the throttle pedal, rest to 30mph dispatched in just four seconds. To be fair, things tail off a bit beyond this point as the heavy one and a half tonne kerb weight begins to tell, but rest to sixty in 13.5s is still a respectable figure and the top speed is rated at 84mph, which means you won't be embarrassed on any British road. Unless you run out of battery charge of course. That could create a few red faces.
Now we won't deny that you can develop a bit of a fixation with this issue. 'How far will it go between charges?' is certainly the first question anyone will ask you when you tell them you've switched to pure electric motoring. Initially with this car in 22kWh form, Renault quoted a 'real world' range that they said could be anywhere between 62 and 93 miles, depending upon time of year, the type of roads you're using and of course most of all, the way that you drive. We'd suggest that you try and stretch to a post-2015-era model fitted with the gutsier Z.E. 40 40kWh battery, which boosted achievable driving range to around 150 miles. As for charging, well using the 7kW Wall-Box that will need to be installed at your home as a purchaser, you'll be able to charge a 22kWh ZOE up from empty in 3-4 hours - though longer may be required depending on the kind of supply you have. The later Z.E. 40kWh version will take a little longer.
To maximise range, you'll need to make good use of the driving aids Renault has provided to help maximise the distance you can travel between plug-in sessions. A lovely Energy flow meter shows you how the car is powering itself - and also recharging itself during the regenerative cruising and braking phases. There's an 'Eco' button down by the handbrake that offers a restriction in engine power and a slightly sluggish throttle response in return for a 10% range increase. And you can analyse your driving performance and gets tips to improve it via an 'eco2' function in an R-Link infotainment system that can produce efficiency 'Trip reports' on each journey.
We have to say that once you've adapted the way you drive to suit this car's all-electric remit, you start to forget the range issue and notice some of the paybacks that come with milk float mobility. Refinement for example. It's true that if you cruise at the legal limit - which this car will do quite happily - you do notice wind and tyre noise, but that's mainly because they're accentuated by the silence elsewhere. In fact, this Renault is quieter than a Rolls Royce, with noise levels at normal driving speeds, say between 25 and 50mph, that are measured at between 60 and 65 dB - that's two to three times less than a conventional petrol or diesel supermini with equivalent power.
Below 25mph, this car is of course even quieter, which might present a hazard if you're coming up behind unsuspecting pavement folk. To make them more aware of your approach, you can switch on what's called the 'Z.E. Voice', a function offering you a choice of three different whooshy sounds known as 'Pure', 'Glam' and 'Sport', all apparently developed in association with organisations for blind and visually impaired people. Should that be insufficient to stop an errant pedestrian straying into your path, you'll need to have mastered the rather curious snatchy feel of the regenerative braking system which relies on conventional friction - brake pads against discs - to stop the car only in the very last part of the braking phase, making smooth application of the anchors something that requires quite a lot of practice.
Though the supermini platform the ZOE rides upon is the same as a MK4 Renault Clio, it feels nothing like that car - mainly because it carries over 300kgs of extra weight, most of that of course due to the substantial bulk of the lithium-ion batteries that sit beneath the floor. That's one reason why the car crashes a bit over low speed bumps, though another more influential contributing factor might well be the unyielding sidewalls of the Michelin Energy E-V low rolling resistance tyres. All of this is less noticeable once you get up to speed and on faster roads, you'll find that the ZOE actually handles poor surfaces quite well.
Where we've most noticed the weight of this car is around faster bends. We'd actually expected it to handle quite well given the central placing of the weighty battery pack and the usefully low centre of gravity that brings with it. True enough, there's actually quite a lot of mechanical grip. You'll need to be brave to explore it though, for if you ignore the over-assisted steering and rather unwisely start throwing this Renault about, you'll discover lots of body roll and very soon come upon the limits of the skinny eco Michelins. Of course, you don't buy an urban-orientated all-electric car to drive in that way, but should you be running late around twisting country roads and need to press on a bit, well, you'll need to bear all this in mind.
Back in town though, you can't deny this to be a car that fulfils its primary design objective quite brilliantly. It's one of the very best urban vehicles we've ever tried, easy to drive, eerily quiet, simple to park and quick off the mark. It goes further than most other electric models and feels a good deal more versatile too. As a second or third car, you could really make a case for it.
Electric vehicles tend to promise much but deliver precious little. Here's one that's very different. If you have a place to park and charge it, cover under 90 miles a day and are sufficiently organised to remember to charge the thing, there's nothing spacious yet supermini-sized that adds up better on the balance sheet than this Renault ZOE. Yes really. Of course, not everyone buys their small car on a balance sheet basis. But even if you don't, it's almost certain that in choosing a supermini, you'll be wanting it for shorter trips most of the time. From which point, assuming you're not reliant on a single vehicle as your only source of family transport, it's hardly such a big step to decide that yours could be a short range car all of the time. In other words, yours could be an all-electric model, just like this one.
Precisely this one in fact. In pure electric terms, there isn't really anything else in the supermini-sized class from the 2012-2018 era worth considering. Which in terms of competition, really leaves only the petrol/electric hybrid and frugal diesel superminis that will cost you about the same to buy but when all's said and done, will set you back far more to run. The ZOE feels as if it was designed to excel at city and suburban driving and it does exactly that. Relaxing and refreshingly clever, it doesn't promise anything it can't deliver - and the look and feel it offers is arguably more special than some cars costing twice as much. We'd suggest that you limited you perusals to the post-2015-era Z.E. 40 40kWh model with its greater range. And if you can, you'll find much to like here.