Electric cars. They’re only marginally more frequently seen in the UAE than Eskimos and polar bears. This isn’t surprising, given that fuel is relatively cheap and we have (mainly) wide open roads where petrol-powered cars can stretch their long legs.
But recently the UAE Government has announced incentives for electric vehicles (EVs) that include free charging at public recharge points until 2019, along with free Salik and registration and complimentary parking in designated spots. The infrastructure to support EVs is also being rapidly ramped up, as there will be 200 charging stations in the UAE by 2018.
Sensing an untapped niche, Renault has just rolled out the Zoe Z.E. 40, which was designed from the outset to be an EV. Consequently, all the bulky elements of the powertrain are where they ideally should be, rather than where they can be squeezed in. For example, the 300kg battery pack is housed under the passenger cell, the safest place in a crash and contributing to a low centre of gravity.
Renault quotes a 0-100kph split of 13.5sec and v-max of 135kph for the Zoe, plus a theoretical touring range of 300km between recharges — numbers that suggest it doesn’t entail the compromises formerly associated with EVs. A full battery top-up at a recharging station takes two hours, while a 30-minute zap will give you up to 80km of range — sufficient to cover most motorists’ daily commute.
But now comes the bad part — the entry price is Dh129,900. Ouch! That’s lineball with a well-specced VW Golf GTI. Renault ME managing director Marwan Haidamous concedes the Zoe is pricey and that there’s still a long way to go before EVs become an attractive option for consumers.
He adds: “In Europe there is a Dh34,000 incentive for buying EVs, which means the Zoe costs the same as a Clio there. And in Paris EVs get two hours of free parking in the city, which would otherwise cost Dh43. Plus, there’s the fact that high fuel prices in Europe mean the Zoe is much cheaper to run than a combustion-engine car.”
The Zoe’s retail-sale prospects are limited at Dh130k, although there may be a few enviro-conscious types out there who like the idea of getting around in a zero-emission vehicle.
Aha, but here’s the rub. The Zoe isn’t a true zero-emission vehicle as the UAE’s electricity supply comes primarily from natural-gas-fired power plants. Even so, Mr Haidamous points out: “The scale of power generation at gas-burning electricity plants means the Zoe is still a cleaner solution for the environment than a conventional petrol car.”
Oh, and in case you’re worried about the lithium-ion battery pack igniting and turning your Zoe into a pile of smouldering ash, you can rest at ease, as Mr Haidamous assures us that the high-energy density lithium-ion batteries (in EVs) don’t catch fire and explode, as is sometimes the case with laptops. “There is also a cooling system specifically for the battery pack, so the UAE’s high temperatures aren’t an issue. We have already delivered 150 cars to fleets so far, and there have been no issues.”
Our maiden Zoe drive was a brief one, taking us from Jumeirah Golf Estate to The Farm in Al Barari — a return trip of 66km, mainly on the highway. First impressions are of how utterly normal the Zoe is to pedal and steer, as the only missing ingredient is the light thrum generated by pistons squashing and igniting fuel within combustion chambers in the engine bay.
The seat of my pants tells me the Renault will outsprint most small hatchbacks from 0-30kph, but acceleration tails off gradually as speeds rise.
The Zoe’s off-the-mark acceleration is surprisingly lively. That’s the value of having 220Nm on tap from 0rpm (yes, that’s not a misprint) — you have access to the full quota of torque right from the get-go. The seat of my pants tells me the Renault will outsprint most small hatchbacks from 0-30kph, but acceleration tails off gradually as speeds rise. Even so, it can maintain a 120kph cruise without feeling like it’s about to blow a fuse.
A couple of exit ramps provide the sole opportunities to fling the Zoe at corners and, although it’s a lardy little hatchback at 1,468kg, the low centre of gravity resulting from the underfloor battery pack (the heaviest component, by far) means body roll isn’t excessive and grip levels are okay for a vehicle of its ilk.
According to the dash display, our 66km return trip from Jumeirah Golf Estate to The Farm left us with a remaining range of just 127km. That said, we did floor the throttle at every opportunity — obviously not the best recipe for conserving battery charge. Drive more sedately and you’ll get a little closer to the optimistic 300km range figure that Renault quotes.
The Zoe’s cabin is very basic for a Dh130k offering, but there are some nice design elements, such as the funky gearlever with its in-built LED display that lights up with “ZE” (for Zero Emissions). The front seats are comfortable, but those in the rear may grumble as the seatback is too upright and kneeroom is also limited if you’re locked in behind a tall front-seat occupant.
As for the total ownership-cost equation, even if you cover 100,000km a year, you’d still need to drive the Zoe for about seven years before coming close to recouping the massive price premium it entails over a similarly equipped petrol hatchback. Until more substantial incentives for buying EVs are introduced via legislation, they’ll remain primarily the preserve of government fleets in the UAE.
The Zoe is for now a toe-in-the-water exercise in the UAE market, but it won’t be long before the whole foot plunges in, with Renault stating that by 2022 half of its model range will be electrified (eight pure-electric vehicles and 12 hybrids). Other manufacturers have also expressed similar intent.
Better get used to the idea. Electric cars will eventually become the norm so if, like me, you’re a petrolhead, you’d better make the most of good ol’ fashioned combustion power while it’s still around.