Whether we like it, or not, the Electric Vehicle (EV) is with us, although it is scarcely the ‘revolution’ promised by Carlos Ghosn, states Iain P W Robertson, being more like a deflating balloon in some quarters.

renault-zoe1Although it is questioned frequently, Thomas Alva Edison, the American serial inventor, who enjoyed a long life and passed away in 1931, is credited with bringing electricity to the masses. However much he and his estate might like it, it would be difficult to actually credit him with inventing electricity, which is a naturally occurring product that is as much ours, as the air we breathe. Yet, in harnessing its might, he was a major influence of the several progenitors.

Of course, we all harbour a marvellous Frankenstein image, perpetrated by Hollywood, of ancient castles containing miraculous whirring, whining and flashing mechanical towers and the infamous Doctor’s manic scream of, “He’s alive!”. The links with magic light theatres are more purposeful than might at first be imagined, even though the means to harnessing natural electricity might still be as far removed as it is possible to be.

Using electricity as a motive force is far from novel. In fact, some of the very first motorcars were powered by on-board batteries and, despite the intense competition from the internal combustion engine, it was not until the early-1930s that EVs fell out of semi-popular use. renault-zoe2The reasons, even then and despite the march of technological progress, lay at the doors of recharging times and the sorely limited ranges of the vehicles. Yet, the logic behind using EVs in built-up areas remains a constant. Those pioneers were similarly conscious of high pollution and smog levels, albeit for slightly different and more industrialised reasons of the period.

Bringing the story more up-to-date, it was Mr Carlos Ghosn (or ‘Gho-nads’, as I like to refer to him, for his sheer commercial gall), the boss of the strategic alliance between French carmaker, Renault, and its oriental counterpart, Nissan, who made a sterling announcement around a decade ago that EVs would takeover the transport scene. While the Nissan Leaf is undoubtedly the most populous of EVs and has another benefit of being built in the UK (at Nissan’s Sunderland plant), the model is hardly making a major impression in national sales charts and its popularity in the UK waxes and wanes like the lunar cycle (which, like the menstrual version, is not a new form of mobility).

renault-zoe3However, you cannot fault the man for his stoical approach to the market and the latest Renault Zoe, now officially on sale in the UK, is one of those cars that, while still not breaking sales records, could have a lasting effect. It helps that it is achingly pretty and exceptionally well-proportioned. Naturally, its eco-credentials are arguably its raison d’etre and it does get closer to increasing the practicality of the EV, with a modest range between recharges (around 85 miles realistically, against a quoted range of 130), which can be carried out (free of charge at the present, if you can pardon the pun) at motorway service areas and in several town centres (plug-in for a cup-of-coffee’s 30 minutes and around 85% charge), thereby making longer trips a relatively hassle-free process.

Of course, reducing hassle is a relative thing. Once you buy your Zoe, prices starting at a modest £13,443 for the Expression model, although you will want the better equipped Zen, or Intens, priced at around £1,600 more, you encounter the need to guess at your annual mileage expectancy. You see, you might ‘own’ the car but you will never ‘own’ its battery-pack (to be yelled in a menacing Scottish accent).

renault-zoe4While not entering the complexities of the leasing programmes on offer, let it be said that, over a 36 months term, the fees for the battery will range from £70 to not far short of £100 per month. However, you do have to be aware that a petrol, or diesel-powered equivalent car might cost you every bit as much and more in refuelling charges. Each tank-full of electricity should not cost much more than a couple of quid, from your home-based, off-peak recharging device that is supplied and fitted in your garage, as part of the deal.

Driving Zoe is not an unpleasant experience. It is a spacious hatchback. Its driving environment is bright and cheery, despite the reflections of the light coloured but low-grade plastic dashboard in the sloping windscreen. Its programmable digital instrument display (well, what would you expect?) is a charming device, much like the rest of the car. It develops an audible ‘noise’ at low speeds (disappears above 17mph) to help avoid collisions with iPod-toting pedestrians but is otherwise ‘silent’, apart from emitting some tyre rumble.

renault-zoe5The car feels distinctly ‘hefty’ on the road, which is a side-effect of its fairly large, lithium-ion battery pack that sits below the Zoe’s floor. Yet, it is fairly wieldy and can be chucked around a wee bit on the back-doubles, its grippy Michelin tyres being given a decent workout in the process. However, that is not its primary role. As an around-town means to mobility, Zoe possesses enough merits to make it worth considering. It does not attract a VED fee and is in Band A for company car taxation purposes.

Conclusion: While not as ground-breaking as the BMW i3, the Renault Zoe benefits from not looking as ‘plug-ugly’ as most of its few rivals. While trying to avoiding automotive sexism, it is not really a ‘man’s car’ and it will be an understandable attraction to some lady drivers. There are no long-term issues prevalent with Zoe, which requires only annual services and carries a four years/100,000-miles warranty (battery is ‘lifetime’ covered). Would I ‘buy’ one? Nope. However, I can see the benefits for both private and business users.

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).