Test Drive: Renault Zoë 40 kWh

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After a number of articles by Maarten Vinkhuyzen with photos by Jos Olijve, this is photos by Jos Olijve and text by both Jos & Maarten.

There are a number of interesting electric cars in Europe that are unknown in the USA and are seldom discussed on this site. But this site has a worldwide audience and successful cars have a tendency to proliferate. I hope some of these will become available outside their current markets.

I think for the vast majority of car buyers, there are three criteria that must be met — without them, no deal. As is known from ancient times: “sine qua non.”

Those conditions are: 1) enough range (300 km on a highway), 2) high-speed charging (another 300 km range in less than half an hour), and 3) an available high-speed charging network. Without these, the car will just be a niche product for those that will make sacrifices to drive electric.

I am willing to make sacrifices, but I have to reach my destination and get home again. And for the rest, the EV should not be a “weird mobile” — it should drive and look like any other car, perhaps drive just a tad better. That is not asking too much, is it?

In the freezing cold of an unexpected cold spell at the end of February, I had a Renault Zoë for a few hours to test the car. After the normal preliminary proceedings of showing my driving license and signing some legal mumbo jumbo, the salesperson handed me the car key while asking: “So, you are driving a Renault now? Than I have nothing to explain. Did you ever drive with an automatic transmission? Yes? Okay, that covers it, it is the one over there.”

Quite a difference from my experience with a Tesla test drive. That started with a 10 minute walkthrough of the user interface and the Tesla consultant riding shotgun to operate the touchscreen while I did the driving. None of this was needed with the Renault Zoë.

The first thing I did was drive to the house of my photographer, Jos Olijve, to pick her up. My left leg did have a hard time not finding the clutch pedal, but the rest was fine. That is until I reached a traffic light. There I encountered creep mode, the artificial mimicking of the automated transmission bug that stopping is not really stopping. Either keep the brake engaged or put the transmission in neutral/park.

After picking up Jos Olijve, it was off to a large empty parking lot for some photos, reading the manual, and doing some tests. And here I have some confessions to make. Neither of us are car people. I did not bother to get a driver’s license until I was about 30 (I did ride a bike) and Jos was a few years older before she obtained one.

Compared to a bike, cars aren’t much fun to drive. They are excellent in lazily covering distances while chatting, eating, drinking, and having a lot of luggage. Commuting in bad weather is also much better, as is showing up at your destination not clad in sweaty leather.

For various reasons, I have driven well over half a million miles in my cars. Most of those miles were in traffic jams. Jos is even less of a driver — she prefers to be driven. So, don’t expect this to be your classic car review. This is about how well this car is able to meet our use cases.

Back to the car, it turned out to be a Zoë Edition One R90. The top-of-the-line model, only for sale in France. But it is excellent to wow customers during a test drive. It is like the Tesla policy to primarily feature top-of-the-line models at its showrooms.

The result is as expected, the Zoë drives silently and effortlessly on all of the roads we encountered. (And that is another problem for test drives in the Netherlands — our roads are among the best maintained in the world.) Especially after the 2008 recession, that stimulated a lot of extra maintenance to be done on our roads. They are too small with too many cars on them, but they are in excellent condition.

The parking lot we visited was for summer recreation at a lakeside beach, hot and overflowing in summer, but perfect for us in winter. While I was shivering in the freezing wind, Jos went on to do some accelerating, braking, and cornering. She is a good driver, but very careful. She normally takes some time (weeks) to get used to a new car.

Within half an hour, she was showing as much control as I have ever seen her do when driving a car. If she gets relaxed and has fun driving, then the car is really easy to drive, just doing what the driver wants it to do.

As she puts it: “It was my first time driving an electric car and I expected to have to learn some new, stressful tricks. To my surprise, everything went smoothly from the beginning. Maybe it is an advantage that I am used to driving a car with an automatic transmission. In Europe, most cars have a manual transmission. An automatic is a few thousand Euros extra, if at all available on the type of car you desire. Driving with automatic transmission is for seniors and rookies. Most people know it is safer, but the car becomes so sluggish and unresponsive that many don’t make the shift. The trend is a little bit changing, due to our youngsters, who are more pragmatic and just want to go from A to B in the easiest (and cheapest) way.

“Back to the ride. Foot on the right pedal and there you go. Smoothly. Great difference with my own car that shifts gears with fits and starts in a jerky way. It was a joy to do some accelerating, braking, and cornering. I was used to the car in a very short time.”

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The Zoë is not a Tesla or Golf GTI type of car, not sporty at all, but extremely easy to drive quickly. More of these on the road, with the adaptive cruise control promised for the next version, will improve the throughput during rush hour a great deal.

We both did not really like the luxury interior. For some mysterious reason, only a very dark finish is available on the top trim. All the nicer and lighter interiors are for the more affordable models. If you like black leather, it is great. Otherwise, go for another trim, and add the heated seats, rear-view camera, lane assist, and other nice bells and whistles that you desire as options on your order.

The back seats and the trunk are okay for a car this size, roomier than my Renault Twingo, but it is a b-segment car.

After the photo session, it was on to the next test. Is the range good enough for me? I was driving twice a week a 450 km round-trip route. There was no charging at my destination, so roadside chargers were needed to provide the range to get back home. In the cold -2°C of that day, the range prediction fell below 200 km on a full battery.

I left the dealer with just over half a battery charge, so was hitting the highway in search of a charging station. I knew there was a Fastned station just 15 km down the road near Harmelen, so charging was the next thing on the to-do list of this test drive.

A great test — two old dinosaurs (Jos and Maarten) trying to survive in the modern world.

Renault Zoe Fastned
How does this work?

We expected to be able to pay with a credit or debit card — no such luck. Fastned has an app for your smartphone to help you charge, pay, and find the next charger. Fastned also accepts the charge passes of about two dozen other charging providers.

I am still using my Nokia 3330 cell phone. Jos has a slightly less antique phone, but neither of us can download the app. Not really a problem, Fastned has a 24*7 help line.

We explained the situation: test driving a Zoë, cold weather killing the range, no smartphone, no laptop with internet, no charge pass from another provider, trying to encounter all the obstacles there are for electric driving.

Trying to charge along the highway was in the planning, not having enough range to reach home absolutely not. Explaining this all to a very nice and patient person on the Fastned help desk, I expected to use my credit card over the phone or receive an invoice to pay later.

Nope, just a free charging session to get me home. The help desk started the session and all we had to do was wait. And wait we did — another effect of the cold weather was a reduced charging speed. This is not good enough, Renault.

Conclusion: Fastned and its service are awesome, and it is nearly impossible to get stuck with an empty battery in the Netherlands. There is always a Fastned station within reach, and they answer the phone 24*7. As I have often said, the Netherlands is charging paradise (and Fastned is watching over it).

On the way home, a last test — the cruise control and maximum speed. The cruise control was just like other Renault cruise controls — it keeps the speed constant. My left thumb is for increasing and decreasing speed, my right thumb is for coasting and resuming.

The max speed is supposed to be limited to 135 km/h, but when I tried to reach that limit, it kept climbing well past the 135 km/h. When reaching close to 150 km/h on the display and passing all the disciplined Dutch drivers not soliciting a speeding ticket like I was doing, I decided it passed the highway speed test. It did have ample extra speed and acceleration to overtake at highway speeds.

Renault Zoë Conclusion

The Renault Zoë is a great little car. It is good looking, comfortable, it drives easily, and if not for the range, I would have seriously considered it for my next car.

What I really want is a Zoë with a 60 kWh battery and ProPilot. The LEAF, which is expected to have it in the near future, is too big, and the Model 3, which really has what I want in autonomous features and range, is just way too big.

The Zoë still is a “city car” for those who drive not too much. The focus of Renault is driving the price down because they think it does not need more range.

I disagree — it needs more range and >100 kW supercharging. In the Netherlands, we have Fastned. Abroad, access to the Tesla network would be great.

Tomorrow, we will drive to Paris to visit de Paris Motor Show in my Renault Twingo diesel. The only electric vehicles to make that journey in a normal way are still the Tesla Model S and Model X. All other EVs don’t have enough range or charging capacity.

I have to wait a bit longer before I can replace my diesel with an electric car, but for most people with more normal driving habits, the Zoë is perfect.

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Jos Olijve

Jos Olijve graduated in clinical psychology in that special period of the 20th century when unemployment was at its highest ever among young academics. She retrained and worked as an information analyst before switching to general and educational journalism. She made her own photo illustrations for her articles, and got appreciated for her photography besides her writing. Later on, website management gave her the opportunity of combining her writing, visual, and technological skills. Meanwhile, she raised two fantastic kids. She is now supporting her colleague Maarten in editing his articles and making beautiful photo shoots.

Jos Olijve has 6 posts and counting. See all posts by Jos Olijve