Renault’s announcement that it will bring the battery-powered Zoe hatchback to Australian shores is something of a watershed moment for the French brand. Though it’s achieved good success with the Zoe in Europe since its 2012 launch, selling over 76 thousand of them in its home market, Renault has nevertheless taken a conservative approach with bringing its electric car to Australia.
Accordingly, while the Zoe will finally arrive here in November, it won’t be sold through the traditional dealership channels. Instead, Renault Australia will distribute the cars directly to commercial fleet customers and government bodies – individual buyers aren’t part of the plan, though Renault concedes it will sell to determined souls on a case-by-case basis.
TELL ME ABOUT THIS CAR
Besides its electric powerplant, the Zoe is a relatively conventional five-door hatchback – not too dissimilar in size and purpose to Renault’s own Clio.
With space for five occupants and a handy cargo capacity of 338 litres with the rear seats up (1225 litres with them folded down), the Zoe differs from a regular compact hatch by taking power from a 41kWh lithium-ion battery rather than a tank of petrol, and uses a 68kW/220Nm electric motor instead of a combustion engine to drive itself.
Two variants of the Zoe will be offered in Australia, the entry-level Zoe Life (priced at $44,470) and the high-spec Zoe Intens (priced at $49,970). Renault says the Zoe can’t be charged from a regular household outlet and instead requires a specialised wall charging unit, which is not included in the purchase price.
We drove the Zoe in France ahead of its local arrival, and experienced a model that aligns closely with the range-topping Intens variant.
Electric cars are known for being smooth, quiet and exceptionally easy to drive. These are solid virtues in a car designed to be driven around crowded cities, and the Zoe feels perfectly at home in inner-urban environments.
Electric motors are also pretty zippy – certainly more so than the average low-capacity petrol engines found in cars of this size. With maximum torque available right from a standing start, the Zoe takes off keenly and feels very perky.
The Zoe’s cabin feels quite spacious, with a high hip-point due to the under-floor battery pack elevating occupants further and giving a decent view through the large windscreen and side glass.
The Zoe received a battery upgrade last year that saw the energy storage capacity increase to 41kWh, giving the Zoe a sizable rise in practical real-world range to 300km – more than enough for the average Australian driver, and enough distance for most to be able to drive for more than two days without needing a charge.
It may be an eco-focused hatchback, but the little Zoe legitimately drives well. It corners with confidence and irons out most bumps with ease, and while the suspension is tuned for comfort it also delivers plenty of grip to help you stay out of trouble
Cost. Hands-down, this is the Zoe’s biggest drawback. With a starting price in the mid-$40k region and the cost of the mandatory wallbox charger not included, the Zoe is very expensive for a small hatchback. The Intens grade reviewed here would easily breach the $50k mark once charger costs and on-roads are factored in.
Cabin quality is acceptable for a conventional light hatchback, but its hard plastic surfaces and flimsy build quality is very much not what you’d expect in something so expensive. Then again, Zoe buyers aren’t buying it for its opulence.
There’s little point engaging the Eco mode button on the centre console, as it just slackens the accelerator pedal’s response and turns the Zoe into a slug. It has no discernable effect on the strength of regenerative braking either, so there are more reasons to leave it off than there are for switching it on.
Brake pedal feel is poor, thanks to a mushy pedal that requires plenty of travel before the brakes start to have a profound effect. Regenerative braking force could also be stronger – while some electric cars can almost be driven entirely through modulating the accelerator alone, like the BMW i3, the Zoe requires more footwork.
ARE THERE ANY RIVALS I SHOULD CONSIDER?
Not really, not right now anyway. The Nissan Leaf will arrive next year priced slightly higher than the Zoe, but will also offer more interior space, features and performance so it’s not quite on an even pegging with the Zoe.
BMW’s i3 is a close match for size and capability, but is priced even higher than the Zoe with a starting sticker of $68k.