The Zoe Affair

It was at times a slightly furtive thing for a dedicated petrol head but his love for the Renault Zoe grew and grew. All good things come to an end, but he’s been bitten by the electric bug – the Tesla’s on order

Article by James Freeman-Griffith

In hindsight, I probably loved Zoe more than I let on. As a bit of a petrol head, running an EV (electric vehicle) might seem like something of an anathema, but sometimes the question of economics creeps into car ownership and so it did with Zoe. What started out as mild curiosity with a colleague’s Renault Zoe (‘you really sold your Cayman for an electric car?’) quickly escalated into some feverish internet research, a test drive at my local Renault dealer, and a quite modest £99 deposit.

The proposition was as simple as it was appealing; lease a brand new car for two years with running costs that were almost as cheap as walking. Only £99 a month for the car, plus £69 for battery hire (a strange quirk of Renault EV ownership), £0 annual road tax, no MoT (at least, not during my ownership) and one £99 service at the 12 month point. At around 3p per mile in electricity costs, the car would do well over the equivalent of 120mpg in old money.

The car itself proved rather more useful than had been intended. Initially just required for a 40-mile daily commute, Zoe became the default choice on the weekend too, for – within reason and range – trips into the city (free parking and charging – thanks Newcastle City Council), the rugby club run for the junior games around Northumberland, cricket fixtures down the Tyne Valley, and even a visit to friends in Dumfries (of which more later on). The miles quickly piled up, as did the savings compared to the much less frugal and very aged XC90 now frequently left on the drive.

Zoe was not only exceptionally cheap to run but very versatile too, and – dare I say it – fun to drive. With handling not unlike a Clio (so with a fine ride, and sharp steering) the car coped well with a commute that combined a rural B-road dash with some dual carriageway cruising. Whilst limited to 88 mph (eventually reached, in the first instance, with a fellow car nut and with shades of Back to the Future) Zoe launched away from the lights with no gears to change, bags of torque, just a hint of tyre squeal, and always a look of surprise on my fellow commuters’ faces. A standard EV party trick that I never bored of. By the end of the deal, after 18,000 miles, only the front tyres had needed replacing – not bad really, as Zoe carries significant weight around in the form of the 275kg Li-ion battery pack.

Part of the UK Government incentives at the time of purchase included not only a significant grant towards the purchase price, but also the free fitting of a 7kW car charging unit at home. So any range anxiety was allayed, to a degree, by the fact that each morning the car had a ‘full tank’ (the iPhone analogy is a good one, as from a full charge they also seem not to be useful for more than about a day or two, depending on usage).

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Zoe’s range wasn’t great though. As a mid-2016 model, and therefore with a 22kWh battery pack, she could manage almost 100 miles on one charge in the summer – driving in ‘Eco’ mode, AC off and with a light right foot (I never really understood this – surely the point of an EV is to permanently be in Eco mode; Tesla have the right idea with their ‘Ludicrous’ mode for when you want your insides on your outsides). But in winter, with cold batteries and the heater doing its best to warm the cabin and its occupant, something closer to 50 miles was the norm before the ‘you’re going to get stranded’ light came on. Worth pointing out that if Zoe ever did get stranded (she didn’t), Renault Z.E Assistance would send someone out to recover her home for free.

Our one family expedition beyond the certifiable range of the car was to Dumfries, which involved visiting three defunct charging points (Zap-Map is a clever, if inaccurate, app) before stumbling upon an old country house hotel with a working socket. What our amiable hosts lacked in guests they made up for in hospitality. There was no charge on the final bill for the juice that Zoe drew from the extremely slow charging unit, but we paid handsomely for the two rounds of tea, the sandwiches and cakes that we consumed during our two hour refuelling stop. A ‘splash and dash’ it was not, and at £70 the cost was ironically identical to filling up the Volvo with derv.

Performance was always brisk, as with 90PS and 220Nm Zoe was well equipped to deal with a kerb weight just under 1,500kg. The low centre of gravity (batteries under the floor) and instant torque of the electric motor combined to deliver a driving experience that was both predictable and engaging. Renault do small cars well, and so this was the case with Zoe. Because the throttle, if I can call it that, had no tangible latency, driving near to the limits of adhesion was always possible – almost regardless of the conditions. The traction control was only intrusive when you overegged it, and the generally understeery nature of the chassis was exposed only when pushing too hard or applying lock too abruptly. Whilst I never managed to get Zoe sideways, I frequently came close to beating my personal best station run of around 20 minutes, set in my ’91 Mazda MX-5. What she lacked in pure power she made up for with predictable handling and instant, accessible grunt.

It wasn’t a complete bed of roses for the two years we spent in each other’s company though. Twice Zoe had to return to the main dealer for what turned out to be minor niggles, but on both occasions Lookers in Newcastle looked after us well – always returning her with a clean bill of health, and much cleaner inside and out. The 12-month £99 service (not included in the ‘4+’ warranty and assistance pack) was presumably a check of the car’s electronics, battery health and motor – certainly no oil, filters, or sparkplugs to have to inspect or replace. It will be interesting to see how the EV service model changes as they become more commonplace; how long before running an obsolete internal combustion powered car becomes prohibitively expensive for the masses?

So, Zoe has now returned to Lookers after my two year EV affair. The current deals on 41kWh Zoes are no way near as good (a £4,500 deposit, then £199 per month, plus battery hire) and so the economics don’t stack up, albeit the newer version has double the range. I’ve bought a 2002 MINI instead for my commute, to plug the gap (pun intended) until the Tesla Model 3 that I reserved in January 2017 eventually turns up. The MINI feels slightly antiquated and agricultural after Zoe, what with gears to change, a clutch, the constant buzz of thousands of tiny oil-fired explosions beneath the clamshell bonnet. It’s a temporary step back in technological terms, however I can’t help but savour the more tactile and aural experience of constantly coercing an engine to its sweet spot with a manual shift.

Whether I will be as enamoured with the Model 3 when if it arrives (based on Elon Musk’s most recent Twitter proclamations, RHD versions will be delivered sometime in mid-2019) remains to be seen. But I am very much looking forward to launching it from a standstill like the drag racers in the States do on YouTube, usually upsetting a redneck in a Chevy with 600rwhp. My first dalliance with an EV was a good one, one that has convinced me of the economic argument of ditching internal combustion powered cars (and to some degree the ecological one too); I’m sure that in whoever’s ownership Zoe now is, she is making someone else smile too. riddle_stop 2

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