Renault’s pint sized all-electric supermini hatchback, the 2017 Renault Zoe hits the Middle East and we were among the first to evaluate it in UAE

Author: Chandan B Mallik

2017 Renault Zoe

That electrification of cars will become the big business ticket for automakers globally in the coming years is no secret. Even countries that traditionally relied on traditional internal combustion engine cars are now beginning to accept hybrids and electric cars as part of mobility and cleaner air-solutions. However, the commercial success will be based on the type of technology application, feature pack and of course pricing points.

Compared to internal combustion cars, the biggest commercial disadvantage electric cars have that they are not cheap and several automakers like Renault, who were early starters acknowledge this aspect. The French automaker through its alliance has a focused agenda which is looking at reducing EV ownership costs significantly in six years.

Renault’s involvement in EVs is serious and is underwritten by hefty investments by the Renault-Nissan Alliance in a dedicated EV programme. Globally, Renault publicly kicked off its ZE (Zero Emissions) programme with cars like the Zoe in 2016 and the Twizy, both of which are now available in the region. 

Renault Middle East organised a regional brand event in Dubai, where the complete range of cars including the Zoe the Twizy EVs. With the Zoe, Renault is attempting to break through the emerging EV markets.

The Zoe was designed and engineered at the Renault Technocentre in Guyancourt, near Paris ground-up and not as an adaptation or cut and paste job of an existing model like Volkswagen’s Golf-based e-Golf. The four-door four-seater supermini-sized EV has more conventional styling, unlike the Twizy, but is more modern and visually closer to the refreshed design DNA in the line-up. Dimensionally, the Zoe is pleasantly proportioned at 4,084mm in length on a wheelbase of 2,588mm. Overhangs are minimised at 839mm and 657mm front and rear respectively. Cabin is spacious, thanks to its 1,730mm width.

In Europe, the Zoe was commercially introduced in 2016 with 21Kw battery pack. Prior to Middle East launch, the car was extensively hot weather tested in the region for two years by the engineering team to ascertain the performance and degradation of the battery pack and of course, the cooling systems.

The 2017 model introduced in the region is actually an upgraded version of the original wherein the most important component – the battery has been upgraded from 22Kw to 41Kw and hence the 4.0 post-fix on the badge without the weight penalty. The battery has been co-developed by LG Chem and uses complex electronics to manage its performance and safety.  The new Z.E. 40 battery is assembled at Renault’s Flins plant, near Paris. Renault claims a broader driving range of 300km on a single charge even in our conditions.

2017 Renault Zoe

Two electric motors are fitted to the front wheels and the combined equivalent output is around 92hp helping the 1,435kg car to sprint from 0-100km/h in 13.5sec with top speed of 135km/h. So, essentially, the Zoe is a front-wheel drive car.

The cabin of the car is surprisingly quite similar to a conventional car. So you have a dashboard with digital display, a tab-styled central console display and event a PRND gear shifter, besides modern conveniences like stop-start button, air-conditioning and conventionally placed switchgear and controls. Energy conservation elements are evident inside the cabin like lack of power windows or seats. Light weight plastics have been used abundantly inside and hence it can appear as an overdose. Front and rear seats are designed to be more functional than cosy. But where the car scores, is in its generous accommodation, thanks to its head and legroom. Hip points are also nice and getting in and out of the car is a breeze. The Zoe introduced will be single trim and unlike Europe, will not have the upmarket lifestyle options.

2017 Renault Zoe

Meanwhile, the horizontally laid out digital dashboard provides a variety of information – the key among them being the driving range and flow of energy. There is application of KERS [kinetic energy recovery system] in the set-up which reverses energy flow to the 400volt DC battery pack whenever there is deceleration or braking involved during driving. Other energy saving kit as expected are LED lighting up front and at the rear.

The car boasts of power-steering and air-conditioning. Power steering is electric in this car, but the air-conditioning is not compressor based. It uses a heat pump exchange to cool the cabin and also the battery pack. The battery pack is neatly stacked under the chassis and weight distribution is evened out for optimising the car’s handling on road.

During the technical presentation, Renault engineers claimed that 80 per cent of the battery can be charged using a single-phase domestic power outlet in roughly 2-2.5hrs. A fully depleted battery takes longer to charge – around 13hrs.

While the undercarriage of the car cleverly packs a higher capacity battery, it has provision for even more. However, the charging set-up will change from single phase [domestic] to three-phase [industrial] and hence not so practical for this part of the region due to lack of infrastructure. But that’s not a binder as we discovered during the drive from the lush green Jumeirah Golf Estates to Al Barari farm using B-roads, Emirates road and back.

Driving impressions

2017 Renault Zoe

We have tested many conventional cars and hybrids, but this is the first time we test drive a pure EV. But we as consumers have experience some form of all-electric transportation – metro, trams or even the ubiquitous golf cart! Behind the wheel the car is as conventional as it can be. You begin by activating the set-up by pushing the start button. The dashboard display lights up and within seconds the car is ready to be engaged. Similar to an automatic transmission car you engage the gear by selecting the appropriate gate and disengage the brakes. Press the throttle and the car swings into life.

On the move, the car is not quiet, especially at low speeds. There’s a pleasant hum that filters into the cabin without the typical high pitched whine of an electric motor as it gathers speed. Renault said this feature was incorporated deliberately through an acoustic arrangement to alert pedestrians or visibly impaired individuals.

At higher speeds, the volume of hum fades out and the only noise heard comes from outside – tyres in particular besides some wind noise. Torque management from the 18,000rpm electric motors is controlled by a sophisticated step-down gear set-up and hence there’s virtually no lag in building up speed. Acceleration is lively, and linear like a sports car and not like a typical sedan’s boring rubber band feel CVT. In fact, the car actually feels faster than the quoted figures and we reckon it’s more than adequate in typical stop-start urban driving situations.

Even at standstill with air-conditioning on, the drain on battery reserves is evident as the driving range drops, but not so drastically. This means, the user can plan driving distances accordingly. Braking is good and of course, offers the energy reversal benefits, with prompt green arrow displays. In terms of straight line performance the car is like a typical hatchback and even in twisty roads it offers decent grip through its low rolling resistance tyres. Since, weight management is well managed, we experienced the typical understeer associated with this format of a car but at the same time flicking the car is enjoyable, thanks in part to its independent suspension set-up and well-weighted electric steering.

On the safety front, the Zoe has received 5-star EuroNCAP ratings. Even in case of severe accidents, the chances of electrocution are nil as the battery packs are programmed to shut off. Incidently, many low voltage cells are serially connected to help achieve the desired output.  

Verdict

2017 Renault Zoe

The transition from combustion-engined to electrically powered cars, Renault in the Middle East has to realise that it will not be smooth or particularly profitable unless the market finds an acceptable product at attractive prices. So the big question is: can the Renault Zoe change that?

With a single trim level and price tag of AED129,900, the 2017 Renault Zoe certainly can’t be considered as a truly mass-market car, but the flip side is that in a tech-savvy environment, we are sure the brand will find environmentally conscious early-adopters.

To encourage consumers to adopt EVs in UAE, several incentives are being offered by the local administration like free registration and renewals, free Salik, free parking and 200 free DEWA charging points in and around the city till 2019. Unlike Europe or USA, government EV subsidies are not available in the region as of now. Renault will be actively looking at institutional and fleet sales to popularise the car.

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