Renault’s Zoe plug-in runabout packs plenty of pep into an affordable package

Awarded Europe’s top-selling plug-in for the first half of 2016, Renault’s Zoe electric vehicle has established itself an early adopters’ favourite

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 September, 2016, 4:59pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 September, 2016, 9:48pm

The Wan Chai tramline to Whitty Street is perhaps the most excruciating driving track in Asia. Hong Kong trams tend to crawl along it at about 15km/h, and thus force following drivers into a similarly slow dressage of clutch, brake and idle control.

Yet the electric Renault Zoe (HK$329,800) eliminates old-fashioned pedal-balance with one gear, and soothes idling stress with the 220 Newton metre oomph of its 88-horsepower motor. Driving in Wan Chai is simpler - and feels cleaner - even though coal might have been burned in Hong Kong to generate this five-door supermini’s power.

Built on the Clio’s production lines in Flins, 50km northwest of Paris, the 4.08-metre Zoe was launched in 2012. The runabout then became a plug-in early adopter’s favourite The following year, when it won a five-star Euro crash-test rating with a host of hill-start, steering and safety electronics. The specialist website last month described it as the “top-selling plug-in car in Europe during the first half of 2016”, with 51,193 cumulative worldwide sales, 53 per cent of which were in France.

However, for much of this summer, this Zoe has sat in the back of Wearnes Motors (HK)’s Gloucester Road showroom, behind faster, flashier Renault RS Clios and Méganes. Yet this Cinderella commuter tells a bigger story about Renault’s quietly increasing significance in Hong Kong’s electric car world. While Tesla sold its popular Model S (from HK$555,200), Renault won government orders for less flashy electric cars, with fleets of 119 98hp Fluence saloons (HK$349,800) in 2013; 20 Zoes last year; and 15 electric Kangoo vans (HK$389,000) last month.

There are also 10 electric Renaults at the airport; nine owned by Hongkong Electric and a handful held by CLP Power, Coca-Cola and DHL, the dealer says. The Renault e.dams team are also World ePrix Champions, and they begin their title defence against Audi and Jaguar at the inaugural FIA Formula E HKT Hong Kong ePrix, on October 8 and 9.

So this Zoe embodies the French marque’s advances in electric vehicles. It is a delightfully rounded, spacious 4.5-seater on 17-inch wheels. Its interior is well-finished in cream and grey; the seats are wipeable and comfy. The A-pillar window line seems high for short people seeking near-side clearance in narrow spots, but the Zoe steers okay and is a feel-good drive with sharp brakes and an impressive 10.56m turning circle. Its 338-litre lipped boot expands to 1.225 litres, with the battery mid-chassis under the floor.

Renault was clever not to make the Zoe’s dashboard too geeky. It has a keyless fob, an automatic-gearbox-like drive lever and simple, “normal” car-like dials. Older drivers might be drawn to the legibility of the Zoe’s controls and touchscreen, with fine maps, and impressive rear-parking camera alarms.

The Zoe’s 400-volt lithium battery power also reminds drivers to move on from a petrol engine’s mood-influencing moan. The first few turns of Tai Tam Road seem quiet on electric, until the comparatively quiet road noise focuses the driver to the surface and turning lines of the track. In the Zoe, the tarmac rumble of 50km/h soon feels as fast as at 80km/h in a petrol car’s Pavlovian “vroom”. The 1,468kg test car does 100km/h in about 14 seconds and tops at 135km/h, but seems happiest at routine Hong Kong commuting speeds, between 50km/h (which it can achieve from zero in about four seconds) and 80km/h (in about nine).

The Zoe’s trip-ometer also mocks Hongkongers’ dated delusions of engine power. The test car reveals it has driven 86.1km/h on routine runs - but at an average speed of 18.8km/h. Such pace suggests that Hong Kong is now a downsized 1.4-litre petrol engine town, and that any car over two litres here may be a waste of money.

This baby Renault also reminds Hongkongers that their pushy, jerky petrol-driving style is “so 2015”. The test car’s official range is 240km after a four-hour nose charge from a 7kW Schneider EVlink Wallbox (HK$8,000). However, these days, drivers of plug-ins soon realise that they get the battery range they deserve, and with a new way of EV driving.

The specialist website, for example, in August 2013 reminded plug-in fans that gentler driving reduces drag and extends battery life because “accelerating harder is not good for efficiency, you trade energy for time”. EV drivers also consider the battery range-draining effects of slope effort, wind resistance, and the rollability and sidewall wobble of their tyres. Such warnings prove sound in the descent from the Adventist Hospital into Wan Chai.

This drive also reveals how battery range can be extended with Prius-like regenerative braking, and simply rolling along or downhill with the foot off the accelerator. Such techniques might redraw the driving map of Mid-Levels. In McDonnell Road, for example, this Zoe had 69km of remaining range, and 68km at Bamboo Grove, on Kennedy Road. However, coasting and braking raised it to 69km by Queen’s Road East; 71km at Spring Garden Lane, and 72km by Luard Road. So such energy savings might justify an EV “Coasting Lane” on the Peak, Garden and Stubbs roads.

The Zoe also ushers in a new generation of smaller, more affordable plug-ins that include the 113hp Volkswagen e-Golf (HK$369,980) and BMW’s futuristic, 170hp i3 (HK$398,000). Meanwhile, the Whitty Street tram still rattles past Southern Playground, but the quiet, little Renault Zoe has made its electric point. Soon we’ll all drive like this.