She’s Electric

ZOE’s days may be numbered, but its EV pioneer status is assured.

Image: highwaynewspro.com

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[1], 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.

Renault’s 2009 electric shocker. Image: renaultportugal.com

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[2], 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.

Image: noticias.coches

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.

Door handle detail. Image: kicker.de

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.

Image: autoevolution

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.

2019 facelifted ZOE. Image: carsradars

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.

ZOE cabin. Image: Car magazine

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.

Image: carpixel

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[3] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

27 thoughts on “She’s Electric”

  1. This is an interesting car, but for other reasons one might think. Years after launch I had only seen one, among an endless stream of Teslas. Living in EV country that says a lot about it’s popularity, which was non existent. The car in question was a car with scanning equipment used by the local municipality to see if you paid your parking ticket.

    The reason was that this car wasn’t attractive to the general public as in too expansive, too little range. The company car drivers already had their heavily subsidized model S en model 3. Only with a recent government handout to non company car owners has increased its popularity. Combined with the upgraded battery pack this made the Zoe interesting to a small portion of the general public.

    Personally this car leaves me cold. I’m sure it does what it’s supposed to do, but to me that has never been enough.

    1. Frankfurt’s local energy provider uses Zoes as service vehicles somyou see lots of them with dayglo stickers and a yellow warnimg light on the roof. Their real life operative range is around 90 to 100 kms for the first series but this is enough for the job. You can’t go at 90 kph around Frankfurt without risking your life…

  2. Count me as one of the prospective purchasers (well leaser) put off by the shocking Euro NCAP result. I couldn’t care less about software-driven active safety aids, but the downgrading of the airbags is a curiously retrograde step that reeks of penny-pinching. Talking of which, the ZOE is also a £30K car that doesn’t have a height-adjustable driver’s seat.

    I wonder how much damage has now been done to ZOE sales by Euro NCAP?

    In the UK the government grant for electric vehicles has now dropped to £1,500. It was originally £3,000. I should imagine it will be nothing soon as we see more and more of them on the roads.

    Finally, I agree about the styling; I much prefer the front of the ZOE 1.

    1. Yes, the Zoe’s airbag situation is inexcusable. However, the shocking EuroNCAP result says more about EuroNCAP than it says about the car. EuroNCAP’s current rating scheme produces mostly five-star and zero-star ratings. I can see how a black-and-white system makes their findings look more compelling both to the public and to manufacturers seeking to justify marketing decisions based on safety ratings. Much like a consulting firm, EuroNCAP have helped shaping an idea of safety where driving a car more than four years old and not loaded full of driving assists equals to “0% protection”, with little regard for putting test results into a context.

    2. I agree that the regular changes to Euro NCAP’s ratings make it hard to make meaningful comparisons across model years. Objectively, a 2022 ZOE is still likely to be a safer car to have an accident in than my current 2013 Fiesta.

      However, I think Renault deserve to get dinged for downgrading the airbag provision. It will be interesting to see if they do anything to address this. I’m guessing not as the électrique cinq is only two years away.

    3. Oh you know, we drive a Lancia Y, built in 2000, a vehicle that would probably have a -5 or -9 according to today’s NCAP regulations. The car has taken us everywhere so far – all the way to Brugge just to stay in the same hotel where the filmshooting took place – and does it every day when necessary. This NCAP safety hysteria is completely overrated – and it does more harm to a product like the ZOE than it really helps.

      Every now and then I see the odd ZOE in the car park at the golf course and every time my head, as well as the head of the-best-wife-in-the-world (whose head rarely turns for a car), turns and we enjoy the sight. And yes, the pre-faclift version looks better. Inside and out.

  3. I’ve always liked the ZOE, precisely for its contrasting style to the Model S, and I’ve seen a fair few around (including the much hated parking scanners, admittedly, although I’ve seen the same equipment on Golfs). I admire Tesla for making electric cars cool and desirable (so much so that the Audi-craving cap-on-backwards youths around where I live consider turning up in a Model 3 about as impressive as in an Audi or Merc/AMG) but the – as you mention – well considered and non-aggressive design of the Renault is at least equally admirable. Under Le Quément’s leadership Renault really delivered design-wise (although the Clio IV’s surfacing and intricate use of volume are a triumph as well). What attracts me to the design is that it is interesting in its own right, you look at it for pleasure regardless of what you think of the car.

    Nevertheless as John Topley points out, it suffers from the same problems that most EVs suffer from: building an EV is so expensive that to achieve an even slightly palatable price point, you have to penny-pinch everywhere else. Teslas are notorious for their build quality, Id3s (and Golf Mk8s) for the quality of interior materials. With prices no longer inching but shooting upwards across the board, the future of individual transport looks shaky.

  4. Good morning Eóin. I think that the Zoe really hit a sweet spot in design terms, being slightly ‘futuristic’, but not intimidatingly so. What really dates the original model is the limited energy capacity of the original battery pack at just 22kWh.

    I agree with Jeroen’s comment that EuroNCAP’s rating system is pretty unhelpful if it is becoming a binary 0/5 star rating. More nuance is needed to inform buying decisions better.

    Regarding the Zoe’s European sales, it’s best year was actually 2020, when a total of 99,432 were sold. In the eleven months to end November 2021, a total of 61,997 found buyers. Here’s the full table:

    2020 99,432
    2019 45,129
    2018 37,782
    2017 30,134
    2016 21,240
    2015 18,469
    2014 11,090
    2013 8,774
    2012 13

  5. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Zoe and like the original styling though, as Freerk rightly comments, they are vanishingly rare here in the Netherlands, where Teslas are a common sight.

    I hadn’t realised the deal-killer range of the original version had been fixed in the revised version. What a shame it is spoiled by the safety scandal and the introduction of that most ludicrous of styling elements (on an electric car!) the fake air-intake. One thing I will happily give Tesla credit for, is their abandonment of that anachronism.

    1. It’s very hard to make a car look good without an air-intake ( fake or otherwise ), certainly Tesla haven’t managed it. Since cabin ventilation requires an air-intake, as does an aircon heat exchanger, and liquid cooling is not uncommon for automotive batteries, doing without an obvious air-intake would seem to be an affectation.

    2. To be clear: Functional air-intakes are of course not objectionable, it’s the existence of clearly non-functional, fake, blanked-off air-intakes that strikes me as an unwanted anachronism.

      As to the assertion that it’s very hard to make a car look good without an air-intake… You are probably right but I think that has rather alot to do with our expectations, rather than the aesthetic merits of designs without them. When Tesla removed the sort-of-fake-grille-thing from the front of the model S, I initially disliked the change but now regard it as an improvement (I’m not arguing the merits of the model S design in general, just that change in particular). I will, however, confess I quite like Volvo’s cheat on this matter.

    3. The Clio 4 managed quite well without side air intakes – until the 2016 facelift. That and the Mazda3 (ish) are the only ones I can think of.
      In the early 2000s I liked to think that Mitsubishi borrowed front air intakes from the 996 Turbo to fit them on the Space Star. Sadly the respective launch dates don’t support my theory.

  6. really like the Zoe, I agree it is one of the very few current automotive designs that manage to look distinctive and modern, without the visual aggression seen everywhere else.

    One thing that always strikes me when happening on a Zoe (which happens often in my surroundings) is the sound it makes: all Zoes appear to emit a slight humming/hissing sound when moving, which I find both irritating and charmingly useful to pedestrians. A Tesla will run you over, and you won‘t know what’s hit you – which certainly has to do with the buying demographic, correctly described by Tom V above. Not so the Zoe: it will quietly and respectfully announce itself coming, which I think befitting of the car.

    1. Bear in mind though that for the past year or two all electrified vehicles, including hybrids, have been required to give audible warning of their approach at low speeds courtesy of an EU directive.
      The days when you could be silently run over by a Tesla are numbered.

  7. I had to look up DRG – ‘down the road graphics’ – I’d forgotten.

    I think the Zoë’s a great design, which has stayed fresh. Mind you, that’s probably helped by the fact that I’ve only ever seen a couple on the road. The new vents aren’t too bad, but it always strikes me as ironic how hard the designers of the Volkswagen up! tried to give the impression that it didn’t have a grille, in light of everything which has appeared since.

    The Euro NCAP situation is a bit silly – as others have said, the Zoë hasn’t suddenly become a death-trap, as could be assumed from its zero stars rating. That said, deleting a safety feature, however rare its deployment, doesn’t look good. I wonder if the airbag is on the options list.

    As regards prices, I thought I’d look up what a Ford Model T cost when it was introduced in 1908, versus when it ended production in 1927, to get an idea of how prices fell as technology improved. The answer is that it cost 3 years’ average wages at launch and 3 months’ average wages at the end of its run. I’m aware that there would have been wider economic changes over those two decades (increases in relative pay, inflation, etc), so put more simply, its cost fell from $850 to $300.

    I expect that with the rapidly falling cost of batteries and associated technology and increasing competition, we’ll see EVs become much cheaper, soon. And one can always buy secondhand, of course – EVs are probably a safer bet compared with combustion engined vehicles, as there’s less to go wrong. In a way, it’s just as well uptake has been gradual as in the UK, at least, the infrastructure to support EVs still has some way to go.

    Looking at others in the market, the German press has reported that the Volkswagen ID.3 is going to get a heavy facelift, inside and out, for 2023; I think it needs it.

    I’m trying to suspend judgement on the ‘electric Renault 5’ and the R4 pastiche-SUV which I assume will join it, until I see them in the metal.

    1. The ID.3 interior quality currently is put to shame by any Dacia and VW urgently needs to change this (and the Golf Mk8 as well). That’s what happens when you make someone from the purchasing department the CEO. Maybe Fugen Ferdl was right when he demanded that a production engineer should be the head of a car manufacturer.

  8. I had a test drive in a Zoe recently and found the car perfectly fine if I just wanted to drive around locally. Styling was acceptable as was the interior. My biggest concerns were the price and the distance it could travel between charges. Sticking with my 10 year old Mercedes W204 C250 CGI for the foreseeable future here.

    1. Hi Mike. Yes, you’re right: hanging back to see how things pan out regarding EV ranges and the development of the charging network is a good strategy, especially if your Mercedes is still reliable and further depreciation on it is pretty low at this stage.

    2. Hi Daniel
      I have spent money on the Merc and, without wishing to tempt fate, it’s going well and in good condition too.
      I don’t want or need range anxiety so will bide my time before changing.

    3. Yes, that’s thing. Ideally one would want one’s ICE vehicle to reach the end of its natural service life around the same time as the ICE to EV inflection point. (Where the inflection point is where EVs become more viable for day to day transport than ICEs.) Unfortunately it’s difficult to tell when that will be. There’s probably time for me to buy one more turbodiesel bofore we get there, given that I try to keep cars as long as possible, but if so I might have to buy it sooner than I really want to…

  9. I testdrived the first generation zoe in 2015, but ended up buying the e-golf instead. The zoe had actually better range than the golf at the time and was 10-15% cheaper. The deal breaker was the feel of the car, this was to be a daily commuter of around 80km per day and while the zoe felt and drove like a small (and cheap – even though its price tag was for cars two categories up the ladder) city car, the golf felt a lot more solid.
    Living in Norway electric cars have become ubiquitous now but the zoe somehow did not manage to transform the fact that for almost two years it had the market for “cheap” electric cars for itself (all right, partly shared with Nissan Leaf and first gen Kia Soul) to market share.
    If I am not mistanken the first generation did not have any fast charge ability. So even though the price included a wall charger (it self worth around 1000euro) it was a down side. In real life though for most drivers it does not matter. After almost 7 years and 65000 on the golf I have fast-charged 5 (five) times, otherwise just charged overnight at home using a standard plug. Used as the family’s second car its real life range of 80km in extreme winter and driving without thinking of economy (more like 120km in the summertime) has proven to be just enough. Just about but enough.

  10. We drive Zoe’s. My wife has a ZE40 2019 and I have a ZE50 2020. Her car has been driven 120 000km in 30 months (SoH=92%). I bought my second-handed with 8 300 km in the meter and I am now at 150 000km in 2 months (SoH=96%). She commutes 110 km every day I commute 200km every day. I still keep my XC70 and V70 for trailer driving and hauling cargo etc and as a backup if it gets very cold…

    What to say about Zoe’s then. Well, all the hardware is just fine and cost-effective and also rather relevant, it works. All software related to driving works flawlessly. It is all other software and firmware that is driving me nuts. It is just hard to understand, a modern car is today basically a computer with wheels. And then treat it like “all software that was invented at delivery is all you gonna get” is so old thinking. This and basically the Tesla supercharging network is what makes me planing for letting the next car be a Tesla as soon as the die-cast front+rear end, and 4680 battery are in full production.

    Renault has still some serious stupidity in the software/firmware.

    Why can I not preheat the battery when driving? Getting to a charging station with a battery so cold that it only can charge at a maximum of 20% capacity is a joke (5kW instead of 22kW).

    Why can I not use climate control fully during charging? If it is -20C outside and charging (the undocumented workaround to use short preheat limits the heat to +20C air so temp inside after one hour it is around +12C)… Twenty minutes longer charging time compared to freezing inside is a simple choice…

    The app is some sort of random generator regarding working remote control of the car.

    Why can I not limit the maximum charge level (SoC) so that I maximize the lifetime of the battery (SoH)??? The part that makes it make even less sense is that both our cars have battery leases. So it might get replacements at 250 000 km/5 years. At Renault’s expense. It could so easily have been avoided (and letting me have better range the few times I need maximum range).

    Why can I not actually fully set/use the climate settings during driving? This is strange, if it is -20C outside. No matter the settings it will never give me full heat, The heat pump will most likely not give any heat then, but it has 3*1kW electric heaters that do not operate on full blast. It could warn me about limited range, but I do not want to be cold when driving.

    The preheat finally works (two workshop appointments and two weeks with a loaner Zoe) on my ZE50, but my wife Zoe needs to be restarted at least 4 times for each 10 min period in the wintertime to make sense (the instruction manual states otherwise).

    Then we have a lot of other stupid limitations that could be solved with proper software/firmware development.
    IF Renault does not want to maintain the software/firmware. Then put it into public domain status and let people that actually are capable to do the job do it.

    1. Thanks for the user perspective, Kjell and welcome. Your observations underline why the bulk of ZOE sales appear to be in France and Germany, countries with considerably less extremes of temperature. It also probably helps explain why Tesla does well in Nordic countries.

    2. Hi Kjell, Eóin is spot on. The post-2016 Zoe has active air cooling for the battery, but no mechanism to heat it.

      I think your problem is described in the paper referenced below and in particular illustrated in the voltage graph (Fig. 2) where the output voltage at -15°C throughout its capacity range at that temperature always falls entirely below the voltage curves at the higher temperatures measured in this test. Voltage can be thought of as equivalent to water pressure in a hose or pipe, so imagine you open a faucet and the water just drips out instead of rushing out as expected. It would be like attempting to rinse a dish in the kitchen sink, but now there isn’t enough force to clean it, and even narrowing the aperture of the nozzle still can’t produce the necessary pressure. Since your problem seems to be perpetrated by a hardware limitation, it seems doubtful that any software changes could alleviate it.

      https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S1876610217301479?token=E1794095E1B2233E6A9885C1B169DA9FC883776E71F17CF79A0101F75FAC839B90CC0DD5C40D6A56B193F183FA7D04B3

      You’ve mentioned Tesla’s casting technology, which should eventually reduce the cost of manufacturing, but what are the tangible benefit to the end user? For one thing it cannot be so easily repaired, suggesting insurance costs might increase. Also the forthcoming larger battery cells might be more efficient at moderate temperatures but as ice tends to melt a lot faster when it is broken into ever smaller pieces with increased surface area, in your case perhaps a battery composed of smaller cells could perform better.

Leave a Reply to CX.GTi Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: