And not before time. It’s been eight years since the Zoe was introduced; back in 2012, it felt like something of an outlier, yet with hindsight it looks prescient. Today, it sits among a pack of excellent small electric cars, the Honda E, the Peugeot E-208 and its close relative the Vauxhall Corsa E, along with the MG ZS EV.
The arrival of those competitors has forced Renault to up its game with the Zoe. This latest version boasts an all-new interior, a bigger battery, a new motor, and for the first time, rapid charging – though this last feature is only available at extra cost, which feels a bit stingy given it comes for free on most other electric cars.
The big question, though, is whether all this is enough to give the Zoe a fighting chance against its newer rivals. Read on to find out – and don’t forget to register or login to see our decisive verdict.
Pros: Smooth and easy to drive; handsome, airy interior; long range
Cons: Not all that exciting to drive; no standard rapid charging; cramped back seats
What’s under the skin?
The big news, of course, is that new motor. It’s rated at 134bhp and badged R135, and sits alongside the old 107bhp (or R110) powerplant in the range. No matter which you choose, you get the new 52kWh battery as standard, which increases the range to anywhere between 238 and 245 miles, depending on which model you choose – and that means the Zoe will now go further than any of its rivals on a full charge.
As standard you get a 22kW on-board charger, which means you can charge at anywhere up to that figure. But if you want to charge in a hurry, you’ll need to pay £750 extra for a faster on-board DC charger that increases charging speed to 50kW. Given that you get a 100kW DC charger for free with the cheaper E-208, that feels like a bit of a swiz.
The Zoe range kicks off with the Play version, which is only available with the R110 motor and comes with air conditioning, cruise control and a seven-inch touchscreen. Iconic then gives you the option of the R135 motor, and also adds rear parking sensors, climate control and alloy wheels.
Our test car is the top-of-the-range GT Line, available exclusively in R135 form, and with a reversing camera, a larger touchscreen and upholstery that’s part recycled fabric, and part synthetic leather.
What’s it like day to day?
Pretty sweet. Climb aboard, and you’re greeted with a high driving position that makes it easy to see out. The snub nose is a little tricky to judge, but visibility’s good elsewhere, and that makes the Zoe feel instantly friendly and accessible.
Driving the Zoe is just like a conventional automatic; pop the stubby gear selector into D, and off you go. At low speeds, the Zoe produces a melodious artificial sound that alerts pedestrians to its progress; this disappears by 20mph, though, leaving blissful silence.
All electric cars tend to be quiet thanks to their lack of any engine noise, but even by those standards the Zoe feels hushed. Wind and road noise are all but non-existent, while the motor itself doesn’t whine even when pushed hard.
It’s composed over bumps, too; sure, you can feel fiddly little imperfections a bit, but you soon forget about them, and the Zoe does a great job of smoothing out larger lumps in the road.
This GT Line version gets a big central screen, which looks good, but the software can be infuriatingly tricky to use – for example, digital radio stations appear in a long list and in a seemingly random order.
There’s no volume knob, either, so you have to press a touchpad and then adjust a slider on the screen – not easy to do without taking your eyes off the road. And frustratingly, we know from prior experience that these problems are evident on the smaller-screened version of the same system that comes as standard on lesser Zoes.
Will it fit into your life?
On the outside, the Zoe’s about the same size as most other small hatchbacks, though it’s a little taller to make room for the under-floor batteries.
Inside, though, the space doesn’t seem to have been used as well as in some rivals. In the front, taller drivers will find their legs pressing against the lower part of the dashboard – and they can expect a bruised knee from an odd, low-hanging lump on the steering column, too. What’s more, the seats are an odd shape, and seem to push your shoulders forward with relatively little support for your lower back, so you feel hunched over.
The rear seats are even worse; the bench seat is high, which gives rear passengers good visibility but forces their knees into the backs of the front seats and their heads into the roof.
The boot is at least a good size – not as large as some petrol rivals’, but bigger than the Peugeot e-208’s and the Honda E’s. Mind you, the unprotected painted metal on the lip, where you’d usually find a plastic piece of trim, will surely scratch, chip and rust quickly. It’s worth noting, too, that while you get a 60/40 split rear seat on this GT Line, the entry-level Play has to make do with a one-piece seat back, like the Honda E’s.
How much will it set you back?
This top-spec Zoe GT Line is priced on a par with the Peugeot E-208 GT Line and Honda E Advance, which seems about right, though it’ll cost you more than the MG ZS EV. The Peugeot offers you a sportier feel and a little more room; meanwhile, the Honda gives you more toys and a lavish interior, though it falls short of the Zoe for space and practicality. The MG gives you the space, but feels cheaper and less special.
The Zoe is fractionally less energy efficient than the Peugeot, though not by enough of a margin to make a significant impact on your electricity bills; it also has a much longer range than any of its rivals. What’s more, it comes with a free home charging point; the 208 does, too, though only for a limited time.
Also on the Zoe’s side is the standard warranty, which is now five years and 100,000 miles – that’s bested only by the seven years or 80,000 miles offered on the MG.
Is it fun to drive?
Not so long ago you wouldn’t expect an electric car to be all that exciting, but that’s all changing and the Zoe finds itself up against some surprisingly entertaining rivals.
Sadly, it struggles to compete. Try to throw it around a little and you’ll find it isn’t game; the body leans over quite a bit in corners, and while there’s enough grip that you aren’t sliding hither and thither, you can still feel the nose of the car starting to push wide fairly early on.
For all that, the new, more powerful motor certainly makes itself felt. Throttle response is fantastic, and the Zoe zips away from traffic lights like it’s been stung by a bee. It’s ideal around town, and even if the power tails off a little bit once you’re up to speed, there’s still more than enough left over to keep up with traffic.
The electronic systems do well to help you transmit the electric motor’s power to the road, too, though if you try to pile on the power too early in a corner, the outer front wheel moans like a dog who’s been left out in the rain.
On the plus side, the steering feels very direct and quite sturdy for a little car, and that makes it feel confidence-inspiring at speed. On the motorway the Zoe is very composed, in fact; the ride smooths out, and together with the relative lack of wind and road noise, that makes it feel relaxed and assured.
Does it have the feel-good factor?
Yes. The Zoe is one of those cars that just feels cheerful, from the moment you clap eyes on it to the moment you lock it up and walk away. Despite its age, it still looks fresh and clean, and stands out from the crowd.
Inside, meanwhile, the large glass area and high driving position lend an airy feel to the interior. The new dashboard looks great and there’s some neat detailing around the place, such as the swathe of upholstery which stretches across behind the central screen (though on our GT Line car, the effect of this was lost somewhat as it was trimmed in synthetic leather, which looked identical to the surrounding plastics).
On the whole, though, this is a smart, clean and welcoming place to be.
The Telegraph verdict
While this big round of changes has, by and large, brought the Zoe up to date, they can’t entirely hide its age. Rear seat space is now decidedly below par and, try as it might, the Zoe simply doesn’t have the same dynamism as its younger, fresher rivals. What’s more, making buyers pay extra for rapid DC charging feels like a misstep at best, downright stingy at worst.
For all that, though, where the Zoe excels is in making the electric car driving and ownership experience as relaxing and hassle-free as possible. Its ease of use – that infotainment screen excepted – together with the sprightly performance and delightful interior make it feel particularly satisfying. For many, the added bonus of a free wall box and a long warranty will be the icing on the cake.
It might be getting on a bit, then, but – as long as you don’t need to carry adults in the back on a regular basis – the Zoe is still holding its own.
Telegraph rating: Four stars out of five
Renault Zoe R135 ZE50 GT Line
How much? £29,120 on the road (after plug-in car grant)
How fast? 87mph, 0-60mph in 9.5sec
How economical? 3.5mpkWh (WLTP Combined)
The electric bits: AC synchronous motor with 52kWh battery, 22kW on-board charger, Type 2 charging socket
Electric range: 238 miles (WLTP combined)
CO2 emissions: 0g/km
Warranty: Five years / 100,000 miles
Boot size: 338 litres
Spare wheel as standard: No
Peugeot E-208 GT Line 134bhp, 217 miles, £28,925 on the road
After an electric car that looks and feels a little bit like a hot hatch? Well, look no further. Granted, the E-208 doesn’t quite handle with the finesse of a proper GTI, but in this form it feels sharp and nimble, belying its weight. It isn’t quite as comfortable, as the Zoe, mind you, but it does offer more space in the back.
MG ZS EV Exclusive 141bhp, 163 miles, £27,995 on the road
This little SUV looks like extraordinary value. It isn’t the best thing in the world to drive, it feels a bit cheap inside, and it’s pretty inefficient, with less range than would be ideal. But look at the price – and consider that it comes loaded to the gunwales with toys and a seven-year warranty.
Honda E Advance 152bhp, 131 miles, £29,160 on the road
At first glance the E feels like a lot of money for a very little car. It’s cramped inside, with a tiny boot, and the range is pretty poor for the price. But look closer; this is a little jewel of a car, with care and attention lavished upon every inch, that drives beautifully. Your head will tell you it’s a waste of money – but your heart might just fall in love.
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