As ever, the prospect of electric motoring is a tempting one, but concerns over range, cost and usability remain, even in the latest of the genre, Renault's new Zoe.
In the Metal:
While Renault is keen to point out that the Zoe doesn't look like a geeky, sci-fi electric car and while it also draws obvious cues from the current (and very pretty) Renault Clio, there's no doubting that the Zoe is a distinctive, quirky looking thing. It's not so much the overall shape (which is conventional) as the little details such as the blue-tinged rear lights and the narrow, squinting headlamps either side of the oversized Renault diamond at the front.
Inside, the effect is similar - there's a lot of familiar and conventional Renault stuff going on but it's arranged and detailed in a way that makes it seem new and fresh. The centre stack, with the R-Link touchscreen, is lifted more or less as is from upmarket versions of the Clio, while the main instruments are taken care of by a long, shallow strip of TFT screen right in front of the driver, which looks very similar to that in the current Scenic.
The overall effect is a pleasant one though, highlighted by the fact that our Dynamique Zen spec car came with a light-coloured interior that feels more Apple Store than school-run. Quality is mostly very good, even if the doors are a little tinny and some of the cabin plastics similarly so. As with the Clio however, the Zoe is very comfortable, in spite of a rather high and perched-up driving position.
Because it has been designed from the outset as an electric car, there's no compromise in terms of finding space within the body shell for the batteries and electric motors. That means you get a big 338-litre boot, which is well above the average for the class and something that makes the Zoe rather more practical than the supermini norm.
As always with electric cars, the torque's the thing. While the single electric motor's 88hp would be entirely adequate in a small car like the Zoe, the diesel-like 220Nm of torque is what really grabs your attention. It's available in one big lump as soon as you step on the 'throttle' pedal (should we just start calling it a potentiometer pedal?) and as soon as you press, you go. It's quite exhilarating, in a way that the relatively pedestrian 13.5-second 0-100km/h time wouldn't suggest. I'd imagine more than a few Zoe customers will get done for exceeding in-town speed limits, too busy as they'll be enjoying that off-the-line surge.
Our test of the Zoe took place entirely under urban conditions and that's probably where it's going to be at its best. The steering is light, direct but rather free from feel and while that would count against it in dynamic terms, in town it feels fine and the Zoe is small enough to feel agile. It's also surprisingly sticky and resists body roll rather well - most likely a legacy of the fact that the batteries are all mounted low-down in the chassis, keeping the centre of gravity down too.
Something of a surprise, as well as a disappointment, is the ride quality, which is appallingly harsh at times. Surely a French car, and one designed to spend most of its time in town, should be smoother than this you would think? A quick glance at the spec sheet reveals the culprit though - a 1,400kg kerb weight thanks to all those laptop batteries. Keeping that kind of mass under control in the corners means stiff springs, unfortunately.
Still, all is pleasantly space-agey inside. And out too for that matter, as the Zoe emits an odd, but not unpleasant, hum at low speeds so as to warn heedless pedestrians that it's coming. It sounds rightly halfway between the natural hum of an electric motor and a sound effect pilfered from an old episode of Scooby-Doo. The possibilities for customising the sound, ring-tone-style, frankly boggles the mind...
As for the range, well it's a little hard to say just yet. Our route around the city centre wound on for a while but it wasn't actually all that long and extended periods were spent creeping along behind buses. For what it's worth, we started the journey with 105km of range on the digital clock and ended it with 95km, but covered far more than 10km. According to the NEDC test, the Zoe can go for 210km between charges, which makes it the most practical electric car yet by some margin, but Renault admits that, depending on the ambient temperature, the owner's driving style and the road conditions, 100- to 150km is more realistic overall.
What you get for your Money:
OK, this is the really hard part. On the face of it, the Zoe is the best-value electric car yet by miles, and is only slightly more expensive than an average supermini. In fact, if you look at the price of a diesel supermini and factor in the Zoe's excellent standard equipment (climate control, touch-screen, steering wheel controls etc.) then the base price of €17,490 starts to look like something of a bargain. Of course, that price does not include the battery, for which Renault will charge you the sum of (from) €49 a month to lease. Now, that according to Renault compares well with the average €67 it takes to fill the fuel tank of a comparable Ford Fiesta, but that brings us onto the thorny subject of charging...
On the upside, the ESB has been doing some great work lately in improving and expanding its charging network. In fact, Ireland now has pretty much the best density of public car chargers in Europe, at least according to the ESB. Better yet, the Zoe can make better use of them. It's currently incompatible with the first generation high-powered DC charging points, which isn't good, but its clever new 'Chameleon' charging system is able to make better use of the AC charging network. So, it can still fast-charge (80 per cent power in 30 minutes) from fast 43kW chargers that run on AC power. Better yet, of the roughly 800 public charging points around the country (expected to expand to 1,000 by the end of the year) some three quarters are running high-powered 22kW AC systems and, when plugged into one of those, a Zoe can pull down an 80 per cent charge in just one hour. That's practically a Red Bull pit stop by electric car standards. For most of us contemplating buying an electric car though, we'll be charging mostly at home and there the Zoe will do the usual eight-hour trickle charge, for which you'll pay between €2 and €4 depending on what tariff you're on.
All of which is good, but there is a downside. That €49 a month battery rental is only applicable if you sign up to cover fewer than 5,000km a year. If you want to do as many as 12,500km annually, then the battery rental goes up to €79. Moreover, while the public charging network is still expanding, legislation is still pending to allow local councils to designate charging points as electric vehicle only. So that guy with a diesel Kia Sportage I saw parked in a charging bay at the Apple Green in Lusk yesterday? Not breaking the law...
Then there is uncertainty over potential resale values (Renault Ireland admits it's still trying to get a handle on second hand electric car prices) and the continuous nagging worry that you're buying technology that will be soon superseded. Once again, as with every previous and current (pun unintended) electric car, it does require something of a leap of faith.
Although Renault is offering the R-Link system as standard with every Zoe, it's worth pointing out that some of the connected services, including rather crucially the available charging station finder, don't yet work in Ireland. That needs fixing, and fast.
Electric cars are not for everyone, that much is clear. If your regular mileage is long and frequent, then this isn't the car for you. But, as the Renault people point out, there is evidence to show that most small cars such as this live their entire lives never doing more than 50km per day. And how tempting would it be to do those 50km in silence, without having to line the pockets of Big Oil, OPEC or the VAT man? Better yet, to do them in the knowledge that you're at the bleeding edge of motoring technology and paving the way for a genuinely zero-emissions future for the car? The Zoe is actually a terrific little product - good looking with a lovely interior, spacious, practical and, on the face of it, affordable. If the battery range and leasing options add up for you, then it's something of a no-brainer. If not? Well then, electric cars still have some way to go before they achieve mass acceptance, and Renault knows that better than most.