Dissecting my Zoe – driving

Forgot to put nozzle back

What if I forget to unplug?

I you want to drive the first thing is start the car. Since I have the ‘Intens’ model with the hands free key card, I just sit down slide in horizontally and press the start button. The displays comes on with a nice animation and I’m set to go. But what if I forget to unplug? Will this happen? –>

Luckily my Zoe is much more intelligent than the ICE age dinosaurs, and she refuses to move a millimeter while the plug is still in her snout. She won’t even start. What if you do it the other way around? First start her and then plug in? They thought of that too and my Zoe will switch off as soon as I plug her in. There is a disadvantage though: once I noticed I forgot to close the windows after plugging in. I went back inside to close them, but couldn’t. I can only operate the electric windows when my Zoe is on. But while plugged in, I can not start her. So I had to get out, unplug her, start her up, close the windows and plug her back in. And would you expect I could at least change the charging schedule? Nope, only when she is on and thus not plugged in. Not very convenient and I wished the Renault engineers had tweaked this safety feature a little bit so you can do certain things while she is plugged in.

Regulating speed

One of the main qualities of the Prius (that is perhaps hard to appreciate if you’ve never driven one), is the Rolls-Royce like smoothness of the drive train. Absolutely no shocks or vibrations, just smooth, uninterrupted acceleration. Also very easy to drive in day-to-day traffic, as you have very precise control over your speed, which is more often than not determined by the vehicle in front of you. The electric drive of my Zoe offers those same qualities and goes beyond by adding an effortless silence and instantaneous response. The Prius drive train has some lag as sometimes the engine has to be revved up. No such delays with my Zoe, she goes where I think her to go, as if we are a mind meld and my brain is connected directly to her motor.

Zoe accelerationWhat about performance? The graph to the right is a screen print from a GPS speedometer with the important speeds and timings marked. I arrived at the guidelines’ position by pixel counting, so do not take this too seriously.. At the low end you can see 0-10 km/h was slightly slower. There was water on the road where I started and I had some slippage. I will try a perfect run later and update the image. Below is the video of another run. Notice the background going from green to blue to purple. That is how my Zoe feels about my driving style. She does not approve.

The brakes feel totally ordinary, which is an achievement not to be sniffed at. To maximise range an EV has regenerative braking, using the motor as a generator to convert all that kinetic energy in electric energy instead of heat. The Prius has that too, and Toyota did a tremendous job on making it barely noticeable as the friction brakes take over from the electric brake. I say ‘barely’, since I sometimes did notice some slight shocks. The Renault engineers have improved on that and I can not feel anything, only smooth, predictable, natural deceleration. What is nice is that my Zoe displays the power level for both acceleration and deceleration. The maximum power she allows for regenerative braking is 43 kW, which happens to be exactly equal to the power level for fast charging.

The cruise control is engaged by a button on the central console and operated by the four buttons on the steering wheel. It operates in very direct manner, you can really feel the acceleration and deceleration as you change the setting, my Zoe even applies the generator brake for a short second when I turn it down a notch. It is less comfortable than the Prius, which would react with a much more gradual speed change. Many times I had to look at the speedometer to notice any reaction. Although less comfortable, it does allow me something new: ‘thumb driving’. I can adapt my speed much quicker and react to the traffic ahead much better, thus allowing me to drive the car with only my left thumb operating the cruise control. The cruise control can also operate in speed limiter mode but I never use that.

Range

So the response is good, the acceleration is more than sufficient for everyday use, braking feels 100% normal. What about range? For now, on my daily commute (100 km roundtrip, 70% highway) my Zoe brings me back home with 30%-40% battery remaining. I put the cruise control at 98 km/h, but have no fear of accelerating temporarily to 110-120 when passing a truck. So in summer, if you keep your highway speed in check, but without obstructing other traffic, you’ll have no problem of hitting the top end of that 100-150 km guidance. I will report more on range as I gather more data. This is just a first impression.

To extend the range, there is an obligatory ‘Eco’ button on the central console, but I never use it. Eco mode will reduce the maximum power of the motor to 45 kW and the top speed to 90 km/h (real speed, 94 on the speedo) and operate the climate control in a more economic fashion. Unless I press the go pedal all the way down, then my Zoe feels that I need maximum acceleration she will obey without complaint. I think it will do very little for me, since I already have the ‘eco’ built into my genes after 8 years of Prius driving.

Handling

On cornering abilities I can’t say much. Although I do take corners at high speed (braking for corners wastes energy!), I am in no way a racing driver and don’t notice much difference between one car or the other. If I turn the steering wheel clockwise, my Zoe goes to the right, when I turn it counterclockwise, she goes to the left. Just as I expected.

In terms of comfort, she seems to be a bit harsh, bouncing over the speed bumps, but that might be my subjective impression. Where I live the roads are mostly of near perfect quality, so in all honesty, I don’t care very much. The seating position is high, so I have good overview. The view through the rear view and side mirrors is good, although the left side mirror is a bit narrower than usual and has a slightly larger blind spot than I like. It has a curvature at the left side to reduce the blind spot, but there still is a tiny blind spot left.

The granny lever

The granny lever

What I really dislike is the gear shifter: a classic ‘old granny style’ linear P-R-N-D lever. How much more convenient (and futuristic!) is the control stalk in the Prius or LEAF with which you can switch any gear directly from the central position to which the stalk always returns. Much more direct and easy to operate. It is one of those things where you ask yourself: “What were those Renault engineers thinking?”. Perhaps they did it in a misguided attempt to offer people something familiar. But the average Zoe buyer wants nothing more than leave the old 20th century tech behind as far as possible!

One of the things I hate when waiting for a traffic light at night is the driver in front of me keeping a foot on the brake. Modern cars have very, very bright braking lights, especially Volvo has driven this to an absurd height out of their concern for ‘safety’. Modern braking lights blind the driver behind you. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is always a good motto, so when waiting for a traffic light I was accustomed to switching to P (in a Prius the P is engaged by a simple button press) and taking my foot off the brake. For my Zoe this would mean pushing the granny lever all the way forward through all the gears until reaching P, having to also operate the unlock button at some point on the journey there and on the way back to D. Just a tad too much hassle. An acceptable alternative is to shift to N. When the traffic lights change, I can pull it in D and drive off without having to touch the brakes. Of course, this only works on horizontal roads, which we luckily have in spades on our former seabeds that we call ‘polders’ :D.

My Zoe has an automatic hill start assist. She will hold the brakes for a maximum of 2 seconds after I have taken my foot off the brake pedal and until I press the go pedal. A no-brainer for today’s cars that already contain all the hardware to apply the brakes automatically. Just a few lines of computer code.

Dashboard

The dashboard is nicely done. I like the design and the plastics look good. However, I noticed yesterday that the plastic of the dashboard is quite shiny. The sun was low and I took off my polarised sunglasses to better read the touch screen. I was surprised by the amount of reflection. So if you think about buying a Zoe, prepare yourself and buy a pair of polarised sunglasses. You’ll need them.

There are two TFT screens: one central for the R-link system and one for the instrument panel. Just like in a Tesla Model S! Below the instrument panel is a row of warning lights as you would find in a conventional car. Having a TFT instead of mechanical dials or a fluorescent display is really awesome and you wonder why car manufacturers waited so long. TFT technology has been very common for more than a decade now. Is the ICE age public so conservative? It looks really great and is very easy to read. It allows my Zoe to communicate with me clearly and without clutter. The display provides three main instruments, from left to right: the battery indicator, the power indicator and the speedometer. Also an area at the top of the screen to display the status of the cruise control and at the far right a general information area.

The battery indicator has 8 segments, but is is more like an analog instrument, it shows partial segments as the battery depletes. It is a pity that they opted for 8 segments instead of 10. We live in a decimal world and 8 segments make it harder to estimate remaining battery capacity. My Zoe only communicates her charge level in % when she hooked up to a charger or after switching her on . There is a myriad of information available to me, but not that crucial factoid. Very weird. I have to rely on the more crude and hard to interpret battery level indicator.

Above the battery level is the estimated km remaining, which has limited value. Not for nothing that LEAF owners mockingly call the remaining range indicator the ‘guess-o-meter’ or GoM for short. I have found the GoM to be much more conservative than that in the LEAF, which many around the Internet have reported to be wildly optimistic, a fact that I could verify on the one test drive I made in the LEAF. The GoM in my Zoe tends to underestimate the available range (at least, with my driving style). Well done, Renault! There is one quirk though. When resetting the trip computer, the GoM deletes the recent driving history and defaults to 130 km for a full battery. From that point on, she has to start learning all over again.

Next to the instrument panel is a button to change the appearance of the instrument panel somewhat. There are two different power indicators and a switchable background gradient. By changing the color of the background gradient my Zoe lets me know if she approves of my driving style: green is good, blue is so-so, purple is bad. As an experienced economy driver with 8 years of Prius training, I don’t need that, of course ;). One of the two power indicators is totally useless, the other does provide sufficient information for me to know about how much power my Zoe is consuming or generating. It helps me with one my favourite pastimes behind the wheel: gliding.

In any car, when you lift your foot off the accelerator it uses the engine as a brake. In a hybrid or EV, the engine brake actually is a generator brake, it uses the electric motor as a generator to put kinetic energy back into the battery. But there is a small penalty: conversion losses. So it is best to prevent this as much as possible and glide instead. My Zoe tells me she is regenerating when her power indicator is below the zero divider, in the blue zone. This is what I see when I lift my foot off the go pedal. The trick is to compensate by slightly pressing it until no blue and no green bar lights up. Then I am in a glide. For a novice it takes some practice, but after 8 years in a Prius it has become second nature to me.

The generator brake is a bit stronger than in my Prius, and I think even a bit stronger than in an ICE car, perhaps comparable to having it in 3rd gear. But it is not strong enough to enable the ‘single pedal driving’ that Tesla owners rave about. In a Tesla the regenerative braking is so strong that the brake lights are engaged when you take your foot off the accelerator.

Last words in this article go to the information area at the far right of the instrument panel. It is used to display things like average consumption/speed/odometer/trip distance/service interval. With two buttons at the end of the right control stalk you can cycle through these displays or turn it off. When my Zoe wants to bring something important to my attention, like having forgotten to close her charging flap, she will notify me with a message in that same area.

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