ZOE’s days may be numbered, but its EV pioneer status is assured.
A decade ago, two quite different, yet in their own way, equally significant electric cars would go on sale. While the Tesla Model S would come to define the latterday electric car as a tech-laden, super-computer on wheels, another – less significant from a purely historical context perhaps – would go on to become the best selling European battery electric car ever, a position it retains.
The 2009 Frankfurt motor show witnessed something of a bombshell from Groupe Renault, the carmaker displaying four fully electric concept cars, each destined to enter series production a mere three years later. A year after the collapse of Lehman Bros in the US, precipitating a global financial crisis, the Renault-Nissan alliance were to all intents and purposes placing a €4 billion bet on electrification – a position widely viewed with no little scepticism from commentators and analysts at the time, especially as the entire Eurozone became mired in the post-crash debt-crisis.
Certainly, timing was not on the French carmaker’s side, given the extremity of the worldwide economic situation. The four concepts were realised as scheduled, albeit not as first shown, but undoubtedly the most cohesive and perhaps best known of the foursome was the ZOE, a five-door, fully electric hatchback, aimed squarely at the heart of the B-segment – or at least those parts the similarly dimensioned combustion-engined Clio could not reach.
Not that this could be readily discerned from the 2009 concept car, which was very much in the blue-sky vein, with its gullwing doors, coupé roofline and futuristic cabin. But the following year, a closer facsimile was shown in almost production-ready form, prior to the ZOE’s official debut at the 2012 Geneva motor show.
The ZOE programme, alongside the fourth-generation Clio it distantly resembled was amongst the last designs carried out under Patrick le Quément’s oversight as Renault’s chief creative officer, with the bulk of the design work being completed by the time of his retirement in 2009. The production ZOE design (not to mention that of its closely related 2010 preview concept) has been credited to Jean Sémériva, who outlined the design principles at the car’s 2012 launch.
“We didn’t want to make a complete break, but at the same time, it wasn’t any old car…. We wanted to design a car made of movements… something modern, with strong on-road presence and attitude. When you look at it, it is pointing forward. We also wanted to give it something animal, a mischievous look.” One neat touch being the impression of a fingerprint (said to be Sémériva’s) on the ZOE’s hidden rear door handle.
The ZOE’s exterior design was notable in that it conveyed sufficient visual impact to successfully telegraph its technological makeup, but managed to achieve this with a lack of contrivance or forced stylistic emphasis. Instead it presented a clean, disciplined, broadly unaggressive shape, with a simple, clear theme and largely unadorned lines. A modernist statement for certain, yet ZOE’s appearance was not sufficiently outré to intimidate the casual customer. It was, quite simply, very well considered.
Interior-wise, the ZOE reflected Clio practice, with a very similar basic dashboard architecture and infotainment console. However, detail changes lent it a more futuristic flair.
Technically, the ZOE drank deeply from the Nissan-Renault alliance component cellar with shared underpinnings and drivetrain technology. Introduced with a 65 kW motor driving the front wheels, the 22 kWh underfloor battery pack could be leased by the customer over the length of ownership, reducing the cost of entry. Also improving the value for money aspect were generous government incentives (in most countries) to customers, which included (in the UK at least), a subsidised wall charger to which Renault would also contribute.
Range was initially on the low side, returning 130 miles (210 km) on the official combined cycle, which probably translated to 90 miles (150 km or less) in real-world terms, making the original ZOE more suitable for short-haul, urban use. However performance, usability and dynamics were praised – UK’s Car magazine describing the ZOE in highly laudatory terms in 2013. In the Autumn of 2016 a more powerful 41 kWh battery pack improved performance and range, while a further boost occurred two years later with an 80 kW motor.
In 2019, the Zoe received a significant facelift, which entailed a fully refreshed cabin – a significant amount of which was comprised of recycled plastics – resulting in what most commentators considered a significant tactile improvement on what went before. Technically, a new drivetrain featured a 52 kWh battery pack, combined with a 100 kW electric motor lent far more convincing performance and an official range of 245 miles (395 km). Technical changes were considerable, modernising the car sufficiently for Renault to consider it a new model.
Less convincing were the changes to the ZOE’s external appearance, with its DRG gaining a soupçon of unnecessary, if sadly inevitable visual heft. Fake airscoops aside however, the ZOE remained a clean, attractive shape, one which hadn’t dated an iota in purely visual terms.
When the ZOE debuted it was subjected by Euro NCAP for crash testing. Renault had for some years been at the forefront of occupant safety, being amongst the first to achieve the maximum NCAP score. The ZOE was no exception, achieving a five star rating in 2013. So it was something of a surprise when the current model received a zero star rating when subjected to testing again in late-2021.
The test body highlighted the downgrading of certain side airbags and the lack of certain collision avoidance software, which it recommends. Renault countered, saying that they intend to fit further safety equipment to the ZOE during the coming year, citing the ongoing semiconductor crisis for the delay. Nevertheless, and regardless of one’s view of Euro NCAP’s campaigning zeal, the risks to Renault’s credibility in this area, not to mention the ZOE’s ongoing sales success are undeniable.
Of course, in some respects it may not matter, given that Renault are about a year (or so) away from introducing the ZOE’s successor, based upon the well-received 2021 Renault 5 concept. Under new CEO, Luca de Meo, Renault appear to be looking back to move forward, hoping to ignite enthusiasm amongst customers by evoking past glories.
Now, as Autumn’s tendrils steal upon it, the first truly credible, affordable and commercially successful European fully electric car finds itself caught between the pincers of an external safety scare not quite of its making and an in-house repudiation of its modernist stylistic values. The ZOE deserves a better epitaph, but whether it goes out with a bang or a whimper, history is likely to judge Renault’s EV trailblazer in kinder terms.
 The 2012 Renault Zero Emissions range also comprised of the Twizy microcar, the Kangoo Van and the Fluence saloon – the latter pair also sold in combustion-engined form.
 Like many production Renault’s, the name was itself previewed on an entirely different concept car – in this case the attractive 2005 Zoe city car, which was said to have loosely (very loosely) inspired the second generation Twingo.
 With combined sales of over 334,000 to November 2021. Data courtesy of carsalesbase.com
The ZOE has also been offered as a commercial vehicle – sans rear seats – aimed at sales teams and small businesses, rather than the ‘blue-collar’ side of the market.
Both Clio and ZOE (not to mention the closely related Nissan Micra) are built at Renault’s Flins-sur-Seine manufacturing plant.