PLUG AND PLAY | Van Review – Renault ZE

The plus and minus part of going green

For the past month, Delivery has been greener than green when it comes to reducing emissions, through taking on a new addition to the road test family, a Renault Kangoo ZE. With solar panels on our building roof, we plug in the little blue van to a standard 240-Volt house socket for six hours and with a full battery we can then potter around the parish for pretty much the whole week.

It seems the climate change deniers are quick to remind anyone that will listen, that if your electricity comes from a coal fired power station you are no better than a third-world Tuk Tuk driver. Well, with the sun beating down on the Far North Queensland town of Airlie Beach, we can monitor our exposure to the sun’s rays, almost to the point of having to rub Factor 25 sunscreen over the bonnet and roof.

There are no queues at the bowser, and no time wasting from waiting for the Commodore driver to finish selecting their hot pie and coffee from the kiosk attendant before shifting their car from the fuel station forecourt.

Driving the Renault Kangoo ZE around town makes us something of a minority group. Actually, a minority group comprising only of ourselves, as it’s the only EV within a bull’s roar of Melbourne, a couple of thousand kilometres to the south west. The area does however boast a fleet of hybrid Toyota Prius and Camry models, all of which are emblazoned with 13 CABs logos, but as for a purely electric drive it’s just us waving the eco flag.

The Kangoo ZE is based on the long wheelbase version of the conventional Kangoo, offering a four cubic metre load space, accessed by sliding side doors on both sides and outward hinged barn-door style rear doors. The cargo area is very specifically only for cargo, without windows and having a full height and width steel bulkhead positioned behind the driver and front seat passenger.

The spec’ is best described as definitely basic, but there are power windows and wing mirrors, cruise control, a speed limiter and a somewhat basic radio that takes centre stage rather than being a super screen sized, multi-media communications system. The upmarket entertainment system that offers Apple Car Play and the like doesn’t exist here in the centre console as compared to the more highly spec’d but lower priced petrol and diesel alternatives. In its place is a deep black hole in the centre console, into which you can lose your wallet and house keys.

There is a reversing camera, but without the large screen of the multimedia system the rear vision is displayed in matchbox size on the central rear vision mirror. This mirror has no other function, given there is no rear window and it looks straight onto a solid steel bulkhead. The other pluses are rear parking sensors, four airbags, hill-start assist (that requires a hard push on the brake pedal to initiate), ABS braking, emergency brake assist (EBA), electronic stability control (ESC) and traction control (AST).  There’s also cruise control and an upper speed limiter switch. Big pockets in the doors can accommodate even a two-litre bottle of milk, or with due praise to the French, perhaps a good bottle of wine.

Experiencing the power and performance is unusual, given that you press the right-hand pedal and it goes faster, you lift off and it slows. If you kick down to accelerate it makes no difference at all as you have a set amount of acceleration and nothing the driver does can alter that power distribution.

Being completely electric as far as motivation goes means there is hardly an audible note to be heard, so, in French form, Renault has added what it calls the ZE Voice – an external alert for pedestrians. It switches itself on every time you start, but it can be selectively turned off each time you drive, although it re-sets and joins you in full voice again. Rather than singing, the noise it generates is similar to a frog blowing down a drainpipe, perhaps an unintentional play on words. It does make passers-by focus on what the noise might be, and it’s probably better to leave it on and share the frog flute with nearby pedestrians.

Discussing engines in the pub with your mates is going to be a difficult conversation, as your response to “What’s under the bonnet?” will be something on the lines of “A synchronous electric motor with rotor coil, generating 44 kW and peak torque of 226 Nm.” The motor drives through the front wheels and the gearbox has but one ratio.

You do get boasting rights over battery power, as rather than 12-Volts you have a lithium-ion battery with 400-Volts. Just make sure you don’t accidentally cut an orange power cable somewhere as you might end your experience with electric vehicles suddenly.

Plugging in comes in two forms. Use the standard 240-Volt charging cable and officially it takes 11 hours to recharge from zero, with a 3kW single-phase 16-Amp system. Plug in to a 7 kW single-phase 32-Amp charge point and that recharge time cuts back to six hours.

That figure for a 240-Volt single phase system is interesting as in general use we find that six hours will produce near to full recharging from our solar panel system, after having run around the town for four or five days. Admittedly we were not getting to rock bottom reserves, but this provides an interesting real-life situation for normal household or small business local delivery use. Battery condition is shown on a gauge on the dashboard display.

Regenerative energy creation occurs whenever you lift off the go faster pedal (accelerator sounds strangely inappropriate), and the hills of Airlie Beach contribute some degree of charge back into the battery. Just how much though is not clear as there is no gauge on the dashboard that provides this information, unlike some other electric cars.

Maximum speed is claimed to be 130 km/h, but you’d be somewhat foolhardy to see if that’s achievable as there would be little else left in reserve. Getting through traffic flow though is easy and relatively speedy and if the weather is nice and warm you should cover up to 200 km. Batteries don’t like the extreme cold, and in those circumstances your range suffers, with a cut back on a frosty day to almost half that distance.

You’d expect a short van, albeit a long wheelbase version, to have a very tight turning circle. That’s actually not the case, with a figure of 11.9 metres taking the Kangoo into comparisons with 4×4 utes and larger vans. Rim and tyre sizes are 195/65R15 and braking is by discs front and back.

Although the average buyer of a Kangoo ZE is not going to be aiming at beating V8 Commodores away from the traffic lights, the 0-100 km/h time of 22.4 seconds doesn’t seem to be that slow and certainly doesn’t hold up following vehicles. The plus here is that nobody around you is going to get a lung full of black smoke or oil fumes. You have zero emissions.

With a kerb weight of 1585 kg, gross vehicle mass is 2190 kg meaning you can achieve a payload of 650 kg and tow a braked trailer with a laden weight under 322 kg. The roof height from the road is around 1836 mm, almost identical with the van’s width (especially if you’ve knocked off the door mirrors), and the overall length is 4666 mm. The length of the cargo area is 1862 mm, with a floor to roof measurement of 1251 mm and a width between wheel arches of 1218 mm. Ground clearance is 171 mm and the cargo floor height is 575/601 mm (laden/unladen).

Priced at around $50,000 the clean and green experience does not come cheaply, explaining why the popularity of electric vehicles is subject to Government incentives to promote their use. In the UK for example, EV operators do not have to pay the Vehicle Excise Duty (road tax) or the London Congestion Charge, and there’s the added incentive of a Plug-in Van Grant, also from the British Government, all of which kicks in a 20 percent bonus up to a maximum of $15,000 (Aussie dollars). The sound of silent support from the Australian Government is far from ear shattering.

In terms of driver appeal, the Kangoo ZE is reminiscent of a fairground “Dodgem car”, not because you want to crash into your neighbour but more a case of the simplicity of driving it.

Delivery holds the view that Renault Australia could have selected a more appealing model as its first Aussie LCEV by using the Kangoo Crew rather than the base van. The Kangoo Crew retains its Delivery Best Small Van Award for 2020 for the clever versatility it provides, with cargo carrier for work and glazed panels in each sliding side door. For people moving, three comfy seats fold up from the cargo floor, folding back flush to the deck when it’s time to go back to work.

To form a bond with the Kangoo ZE you need it to offer more, not just the same as other small vans but without making a noise. Knowing its versatility will elevate its potential and value, something the van doesn’t achieve on its own.

Undoubtedly the number of electric vehicles on our roads will rise dramatically in the short term, but the question car makers have to come to terms with is whether EV power turns that relationship of driver and vehicle to the same level of affection you have for your fridge. Just as you probably don’t know the make of your fridge, the EV car or van will simply become a white goods transport commodity, efficient and capable, but devoid of the love of motoring.

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