Motoring review: Renault Zoe

Is Renault's Zoe ready to lead the electric advance?

Price: from £14,444 plus battery
Rental: from £70 per month
Engine: Electric, 87bhp
Transmission: Single-speed, clutchless, front-wheel drive
Performance: 84mph, 0-62 in 13.5 seconds, range 60-130 miles, CO2 0g/km at point of use

'These,' declared the screen at the presentation of Renault's cute new electric car, "are the rivals." The next frame was blank.

There is nothing directly comparable. Yes, electric versions of recent small cars are on the way, such as Volkswagen's e-Up, but the Zoe is the only purpose-designed electric supermini. Its closest conceptual competition comes from the larger Nissan Leaf, but how many Leaves have you seen out on the road?

Trouble is, electric cars don't go far before the electrons run out, and it takes a long time to replenish them. Which spoils a key element of a car's usefulness: the ability to go where you want, when you want.

The Zoe doesn't change the electric car world, but it does bring it closer to the real one. The official EU tests credit the Zoe with a 130-mile range on a full charge. Renault itself estimates at least 90 miles in summer, 60 miles in winter using lights, heating and maybe wipers. The dashboard's range indicator is deliberately pessimistic to make you less likely to be stranded by a flat battery.

However, I drove a Zoe a long way on that presentation, and I could have driven further. The drive began with the promise of 81 miles; 22 miles of urban traffic later, 70 miles remained. The entire drive was 56 miles long, some of it on fast, open roads, and at the end, 42 miles' worth of charge was left. So the Zoe exceeded expectations. More than that, it crossed the line from eco-novelty to properly usable commuter car.

There are various reasons for this. Battery technology gets better all the time – Renault believes electric cars should be able to go twice as far as now within the next five to eight years – but a further innovation is a heat-pump system able to heat and cool the cabin using minimum energy. Further, charging can be remotely controlled by smartphone, as can pre-drive cabin heating and cooling. And a free home charger comes with every Zoe.

And the car itself? It looks clean, simple, futuristic. There's some lovely detailing, such as the clear-lens headlights and tail-lights with their translucent blue floating strips, the motifs on the seats, and the designer's enlarged thumbprint pressed into the rear door handles. The dashboard is deliciously simple, and its light colouring adds to the airy aura. You can have it dark in the Intens version, but the Expression and Zen models better suit the Zoe's ethereal vibe.

That notion is amplified by the otherworldly, space-age hums it emits at low speeds, to make sure pedestrians hear it coming. You can turn them off, to be left with an uncannily quiet car producing only distant whines at speed. It's lively, too, with a terrific step-off in traffic unless you're in Eco mode, which saves energy but dooms you never to snick into sudden gaps. Pace tails off quickly as the 84mph top speed approaches, but the Zoe overtakes confidently and seldom leaves you craving more.

It corners tidily and steers accurately, but its hefty 1,468kg mass can fall heavily into road depressions. That and snatchy brakes apart – the integration of electric regenerative and real brakes is imperfect – it gives a comfortable and surprisingly roomy ride. All this and a tempting price, too. Here, at last, is an electric car you really could own.

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