When the government’s ban on the polluting cars comes into effect in 2040, the UK will be petrol and diesel free, and the roads will be jam-packed with electric cars. But will we ready for it? In my experience, not yet.
I was able to test drive the new Renault ZOE Dynamique for a week, and although the car itself was a zippy set of wheels, the current electric car infrastructure lets it down. For example, here’s my situation that many electric car owners will recognise.
Magor Services on the M4 isn’t the jolliest place at the best of times. But hey, if you’re nestled in the driving seat of your car, engrossed in a book on your Kindle, with a mug of tea on the go (reusable cup, natch) while you charge your electric car, it can be bearable. However, the peace and quiet is soon shattered when I sense someone in the corner of my eye. A bloke is right up against my window, staring into the car. I tentatively roll down the window. “Er. Hello?” He peers at me, then starts craning his neck to try and look at the battery information on the dashboard. “How long have you got left?” “Um… well, I’m only on 25 per cent… so a while yet…” With a grunt, he says, “Oh. Same as me.” And he flaps off back to his own electric car.
This infrastructure is the main issue with electric cars. Magor Services has one, that’s ONE, charging port that suitable for the Renault ZOE. And you’re only allowed 40 minutes, which is not enough for a full charge, before it boots you off. However, this is better than elsewhere on my journey…
I was thrilled when the Renault ZOE Dynamique R110 Z.E. 40 I was test driving turned up. It had an updated 110hp motor, and as it came in the new ‘Aconite’ purple paint job it looked like a friendly jellybean. I took it for a quick spin round my estate before parking it on our drive. It’s got light steering, but the turning circle is quite Titanic-like for a small car. This might be a Renault thing, as my mum’s old Megane was the same. The reverse parking sensors are a welcome addition, but it seems a shame that Renault hasn’t put any on the front as well. Nonetheless, it’s a great, comfy little car to drive, and has plenty of room for the driver. Okay, so I’m hardly the biggest person out there, but my 6’2” ex-rugby player husband lolled around in the back and confirmed that it had plenty of space.
A friend came to visit and we decided to take the ZOE on a road trip to visit the lovely town of Hay-On-Wye for the weekend. From my house, it’s about an hour-and-a-half journey of 117km (73 miles), part motorway, part A-roads. We filled the boot with all our walking gear, clothes, food and alcohol for the weekend, so no complaints on storage. The car automatically secures itself when you walk away, which is great for forgetful lockers. Plus, it’s possible to remotely turn on the air-con or heating before you get into the car, so you don’t have to sit shivering in the driving seat on chilly mornings.
The battery on the car was at 80 per cent, so thought I’d give it a charge before setting off. Using the Zap-Map app, which helps you find charge points, I was pleased to note that there was one round the corner from my house. Hooray! But we turned up and it was broken. (In fact, it stayed broken for weeks, electric charger providers seem to be slow at maintenance.) So, we took our chances and left Bristol.
On the road, the Renault ZOE was great fun. It’s fabulously whizzy off the lights, thanks to the electric battery that gives instant power, taking it from 0-30mph in four seconds. Everything is automatic, from the gears, to the hill-start assist, lights and windscreen wipers, plus it has cruise control and a speed limiter, so it really is an easy, smooth drive. As the ZOE is whisper quiet at slow speeds, there is a button that you can press to ensure the car makes some sort of noise, to alert cyclists and pedestrians to its presence. However, despite jabbing away at this, I didn’t notice much difference.
While wiggling through Bristol, I kept the car on ‘eco-mode’ to help maximise its range, which Renault puts at 299km (186 miles) – good by electric standards. However, the eco-mode means the car cannot go over 90km/h (56mph), so it’s not an option on motorways. When we joined the M4, off came the eco-mode, and we started cruising at 70mph. The car easily kept up with traffic, so there are no concerns about feeling unsafe in a sluggish vehicle. But look at that! The battery is draining. Rather quickly, actually.
After getting slightly disconcerted with how rapidly the battery was diminishing at 70mph, we were happy to get on the A-roads, so we could re-engage eco-mode. Driving through the winding, bumpy routes of Wales, the suspension felt a little wallowy, and my friend ended up feeling car sick.
The infotainment system, which comes with TomTom navigation, kept us occupied for a while, as it’s a bit hard to navigate through the sub-menus. Task your passenger with this job, they should have figured it out within 15 minutes or so.
By using the system to check out the charge points near Hay-on-Wye, we were distressed to find there weren’t any. I tell a lie. There was one, but it didn’t have the right connector. It was a surprise to me that there are several different connector types for electric cars, and not all charge points have the same ones. Without standardisation, there is going to be increasing fragmentation and confusion surrounding the charging. Why not just give them all the same connector? Furthermore, there are many different networks of chargers including Pod Point, Ecotricity, POLAR, and Charge Your Car, with each requiring a different smartphone app. Somewhat naively, I assumed I could just rock up to a charge point, plug in and then pay on card, like at a petrol station. Standing outside the car, desperately trying to download an app in an area with patchy data before you can even start charging your car is way more stressful than it needs to be.
Plus, the Welsh borders and other rural regions are a bit of a dead spot for electric charge points. Luckily, the ZOE also comes with a cable that you can use to connect the car to a standard 3-pin socket, although Renault warns that this should be for occasional use only and it takes 30 hours to do a full charge in this way. In the end, after arriving at our holiday flat with 20 per cent of battery left, we got the lead hooked up to the car, then dangled it in through the kitchen window to charge – albeit slowly – via a socket. Not ideal, but it’s a good option if you’re off to visit friends and there are no charge points near their house.
And here we come back to the beginning of the tale. On the way back to Bristol, I’d had to take a detour that included a bit of motorway, and my battery ended up on 25 per cent, so I stopped off at Magor to use their charger – just to ensure that I got home without running out of juice.
The Renault ZOE is a great supermini, and is one of the cheaper electric cars out there. It’s pretty stylish, and is fun to drive. It’s absolutely perfect for zipping around town, commuting and shopping. Indeed, this is what it suits best. However, the claimed range just isn’t realistic on the motorways, so long journeys would need careful planning – and steer clear of rural areas if your battery is getting low. The main complaints are the shoddy electric car infrastructure, and a lack of standardisation of charging across the cars.
When you buy a Renault ZOE, they’ll install a 7kW wall box at your house for free, which will charge up the car in seven to eight hours. This will eliminate some degree of range anxiety, as you can just charge it up overnight, like you do for your smartphone. So no excuses. A full charge will set you back around £4 to £5 in electricity.
The sting in the tail is the battery hire, which comes in at £59 a month if you’re doing less than 7,240km (4,500 miles) annually. If you drive 17,000km (10,500 miles) a year, that creeps up to an eye-watering £99 a month. Unlimited use is £110. Yes it’s pricey, but so is petrol, and you don’t have to worry about road tax. Plus, Renault will replace the battery if its capacity drops below 75 per cent. Electric cars are easier to maintain too, with no oil changes, liquids, or belts to contend with.