Renault ZOE First Drive

When Renault's all-electric ZOE goes on sale in June it's going to buck several trends. Starting at £13,650 (plus battery rental from £70 a month), it's going to cost considerably less than anything that bears comparison. With an NEDC range of 130 miles it will also go further than anything this side of a Tesla Model S. Perhaps most important, however, is that the Renault ZOE bucks the trend of aesthetically challenged electric cars. And how.

The problem has been that, though for a noble cause, cars such as the G-Wiz did considerable harm to the perception of electric cars. Small, cumbersome and neither lovable nor sexy, they set the tone for the aesthetics of sustainable mobility. Even Nissan's Leaf - a formidable piece of engineering and a real treat to drive - succumbed to this design vacuum. Is it any wonder that electric car sales have struggled, especially given that as humans we're extremely responsive to art and especially that which is easy on the eye?

Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that the environmental deadlock may be about to be broken, to some extent at least, by a traditionally romantic brand in Renault.

The ZOE story began early in 2008 when project X10 - an electric supermini intended for mass marketing - was announced. Less than a year later pre-project teams had given X10 the go ahead for a car thats design would be "friendly and reassuring for an innovative, responsible all-electric vehicle." Fast forward through a concept unveiled at 2009's Frankfurt Motor Show and the production car's subsequent unveiling at Geneva last year and we're finally driving a new kind of halo model. Not the halo model with the biggest, most powerful engine, or the halo model that costs the most with lashings of soft leather and walnut trim, but an easily accessible zero emissions vehicle that looks the part kind of halo model. That's progress.

Whilst the ZOE's range is nothing revolutionary (despite the NEDC range of 130 miles, Renault quote real-world benchmarks of 90 miles in temperate climates and 60 in cold weather conditions), several other innovations are. Three technologies grouped together under the 'Range OptimiZEr' banner include a regenerative braking system that works during both braking and off-throttle deceleration. Coupled with custom-made Michelin tires and a heat pump that uses a third the power of a conventional system they help extend range by 25%.

As well as being a zero emissions vehicle, the ZOE will also let you know how economically you're driving, too. The fully digital readout glows green for eco-driving, blue if you're a bit more heavy on the throttle and brakes, and violet (not red) if you're consuming a lot more energy than you need to. A dedicated ECO mode also exists, whereby power sent to the motor, air conditioning and heating is limited to increase range.

If one thing defines the ZOE, however, then it's the exterior design. Built on the same platform as the Clio 4, the ZOE features beautiful ridged surfacing interspersed by Renault ZE's (zero emissions) signature blue detailing, such as the Renault badges, light inserts and grille-surround. Blue window tints also give the ZOE a unique aesthetic amongst hatchbacks and the rear light graphic is truly concept car worthy, with one of the most intricate inner structures ever seen on a production car. Look closer and even more details come to life, not least the black C-pillar inserts that exaggerate the rear windscreen's elliptical dimensions and the hidden rear door handles that bear a thumbprint relief of the designer - Jean Sémériva. It was Sémériva's desire for lines running the length of the body, seamlessly flowing into one another with no "cut-off points", that convinced Renault to take his design to production.

Details aside it's the front graphic that packs the hardest visual impact, and featuring Laurens van den Acker's larger logo and intreated headlight and grille graphic (perhaps unkindly nicknamed 'the moustache' by some at Renault), the aim of creating a friendly and appealing look is nicely realised.

If you're curious to know how 'green', or environmental awareness, might be expressed through design then the ZOE's interior - at least in the higher Dynamique Zen spec - is a good place to start. From modular seats to a wind turbine blade inspired band across the dash the ZOE's interior features soft, light forms that reflect simplicity. Materials are soft to touch and absorb light without reflecting it too brightly. Blue chrome and gloss white plastic draw the eye and also keep things interesting. It's small details such as the contoured light switches and honeycomb grille inside the air vents, however, that make the ZOE a curious place to be.

The production ZOE also takes inspiration from the Frankfurt Motor Show concept's 'Spa' theme. A carbon particle filter purifies air going into the cabin, removing most smells and pollutants, whilst the air conditioning actively adjusts humidity levels to stop occupants' skin drying out. Dynamique Zen models also feature a toxicity sensor which will automatically recirculate air in the cabin if outside air is too polluted and a scent diffuser with "relaxing or stimulating properties".

Ultimately the ZOE offers a fairly typical EV driving experience - the kind of planted but slightly inert experience we'd expect from a EV. What differentiates it from the competition, however, is that it really feels like the complete package. Here's a car that's refined, clean at point of use and features an intelligent and emotional design derived from Renault's more circumspect philosophy for electric vehicles. Buying and owning a ZOE won't be about making a point or taking a stance. It will be about enjoyment and delight in the product, and for many in a position to buy one the ZOE may well prove irresistible. The real talking point about this car is that Renault have created a genuinely desirable electric car.

Renault ZOE Dynamique Zen

Power: 65kW Torque: 220Nm Top seed: 84mph 0-30mph: 4 seconds Range: 130 miles NEDC Price: From £14,750

Battery rental costs from £70 per month for up to 7,500 miles per year, and Renault are currently offering a free wallbox charger with new ZOEs.

Photography Mark Raybone

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