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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

EV does it: how the Renault Zoe is now a genuine electric-car contender

We put Renault’s revised battery-powered small car through its improved paces

The Zoe in Dubai. Anna Nielsen for The National
The Zoe in Dubai. Anna Nielsen for The National

Even the staunchest supporter of the electric-car cause would have had to admit that, to date, the Renault Zoe was a fairly pointless foray into a brave new petrol-shunning world.

When The National tested the car last year, in tandem with the tremendous BMW i8 hybrid, we attempted to ascertain how practical electric cars were to live with in the UAE.

In the Zoe’s case, the answer wasn’t even country-specific: in practical day-to-day use, its claimed range of 200 kilometres was actually closer to 100km, which is somewhat problematic if you couldn’t even use it to travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai without a (time-consuming) recharge. It was little more than an expensive shopping trolley.

It seems that Renault has heeded such criticisms, though, responding with the new Zoe Long Range, as part of a strategy the French manufacturer hopes will see half of its range going electric by 2022, featuring eight new models and 12 plug-in hybrids.

And the new, improved Zoe is finally a palatable prospect designed for real people, with its range increased to a competitive 300km to 400km. With additional Dubai benefits including free charging until 2019, Salik exemption, waived registration/renewal fees and free parking, owning a Zoe is suddenly looking almost as attractive as its cute, snub-nosed demeanour.

The charging time is still an issue for splash-and-dash merchants – two hours for a full charge and less than 90 minutes to hit 80 per cent are figures not to be sniffed at in an electric-vehicle context, but they are still hardly conducive to the busy lifestyles that we lead in the Emirates.

It would take a particularly understanding boss to waive the excuse: “Sorry I’m an hour late, but I forgot to charge my car last night.”

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Read more from motoring:

The Electric Vehicle Road Trip Middle East powers up for January

Dubai announces new electric vehicle incentives

The future of driving? Living with two electric cars in the UAE for a week

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The Zoe is still chiefly intended as a city car, despite its extended range now allowing between-conurbation dashes before its juice meter starts to drop to anxiety-catalysing levels. Its top speed is a very modest 135kph, so you are unlikely to trouble highway upper limits without significant downhill-and-following-wind aid. But its five-star Euro NCap rating and its makers’ claims that it enjoys half the maintenance costs of an equivalent petrol car combine to suggest that its Dh129,900 starting price is really rather reasonable.

I join a mini convoy of Zoes on a trip around Dubai that chiefly takes in the highway between Jumeirah Golf Estates – perhaps a dangerous starting point for perceptions given the cliched golf-cart jokes about EVs – and the lush, green surrounds of Al Barari.

The chief non-environmental benefit of such cars is present in the Zoe: swift acceleration unencumbered by upshifts, even if the dodgem-car whirr lacks any visceral element.

Pleasing exterior lines mark it out as one of the better-looking small cars around, electric or otherwise; in keeping with the quietly eccentric design template that defines contemporary Renaults, yet with enough character to distance it from stablemates such as the Clio. It is very much its own car, rather than a tired rehash.

The interior has a funkiness that will definitely appeal to younger buyers, with my test car replete with plenty of blue accents to match its paintwork. In case you had forgotten that you weren’t driving a petrol-swilling supercar, the gearstick is emblazoned with the letters “ZE” in reference to the car’s zero emissions, from whence the Zoe name originates.

Circuit-board patterns also nod to the EV power-train, including subtly so in relief on the car’s ceiling upholstery. Said roof lining also houses a strangely positioned seat belt for passengers in the middle rear seat, and it looks quite cosy back there for a trio of adults, but for a small car, the cabin manages to feel roomy enough.

The power source doesn’t mean that mod cons are skimped, and the air conditioning can even be switched on remotely from the credit-card-sized key fob.

The stereo is fairly meaty, too, while there is also good connectivity (Bluetooth, USB etc), although my test isn’t long enough to comprehensively test how the range might be lowered by sustained use of such functions.

I forego a subsequent drive in the Zoe’s little sister, the Twizy, on the grounds that this glorified mobility scooter truly is an impractical goof that doesn’t really help the EV cause in any tangible way – drive one of these on Sheikh Zayed Road and you are going to feel decidedly nervous.

The  Renault Twizy. Anna Nielsen for The National
The Renault Twizy. Anna Nielsen for The National

But forget that curio, because the Zoe is now a genuinely useable car that green-leaning types and even sceptics can welcome into their everyday lives without spending half their time charging the thing and the other half fending off ridicule.

And if the tough-edged Zoe e-Sport Concept that was unveiled at Jumeirah Golf Estates before my drive makes it into production, with a whopping claimed power output of 460hp, Renault could have a real mini range of EV contenders on its hands.