With an EV in the family it’s a question of maintaining the right connections – Words by Scott Murray
The jury in the case of light commercial electric vehicles hauling any form of significant payload is still out, because of the traditional nature of heavy battery technology.
In the real world, where small business goods need transporting 24/7, there’s a simpler, smaller all-electric solution.
Enter the Renault Kangoo ZE − essentially an ordinary Kangoo light van, but with a female plug socket instead of fuel nozzle port, a 260kg lithium-ion battery where a rear diff would be, and a synchronous AC electric motor where a small diesel or petrol engine would usually rumble.
“Simpler” applies not only to this plucky little pallet-mover in general terms, but to lots of features around it, starting with the charge point itself. As someone who’s snapped a bonnet release, having the charge plug located under the Renault badge up front via just the lift of a finger, is one less part that can fail.
The park brake feels robust to operate and may look like some kind of Adam West “velocity lever” on the Batmobile, but it’s somewhat on the impractical side because it robs the space of two cup holders, and limits access to the removable ashtray cup. When down, it also means the minimal space for knick-knacks in the centre compartment is difficult to access on the move. Although, one could argue that’s a good thing on account of limiting driver distractions.
When you are on the go, the ‘comfort’ driving mode initially feels a little doughy when taking off. But as you learn how to use it, the Renault engineers’ progressive and linear throttle mapping with 226 Nm makes increasingly good sense. Despite only availing you with 44 kW, which sounds dismal, you could still make a meal of things with the instantaneous torque beneath your right foot.
You’ll seldom need to replace brake pads thanks to the single reduction gear deceleration typical of EVs, though. It’s called one-pedal driving – kind of like Scalextric.
So, you don’t want to drive the Kangoo EV like a Tesla. With precious cargo aboard, the usual immediacy of maximum torque at zero revs in a typical electric vehicle would throw even the heaviest, most pretentious of wedding cakes − up to 650kg of payload − into the rear barn doors.
The cavernous 1251mm rear design of the ZE (it stands for ‘zero emission’) allows space for a forklift despite the Kangoo’s modest overall size, and the 1862mm floor space is quite capable of accepting a full-width, Australian-spec CHEP pallet between the wheelarches at 1218mm. The doors themselves open suitably wide enough to allow two people to unload your freshly baked baguettes, the bulk order of azaleas, or even Postman Pat’s most urgent string-tied parcels.
Trundling through shopping mall carparks and squeezing into miniscule parking spaces is something of a specialty for a regular Kangoo. The Kangoo ZE is able to do pretty much anything the Kangoo can do, minus the spewing of NOx and particulate matter into the school canteen or under the nostrils of your cafe regulars. It’s also comically easy to park at just 4.66 m long and 1.83 m wide.
Gliding up laneways behind sleeping family homes at 5am, hitting potholes, clubbing kerbs or jiggling your innards over cobblestones doesn’t faze the front or real coil springs, nor the nicely tuned shocks. No doubt the R&D performed on all those French roads pays dividends here. The Kangoo ZE is nicely damped when unladen or with a light load, especially at low speeds at dusk, where an unspotted speed hump could spill your trays of iced pastries.
Steel wheels wrapped in 195/65R15 Continental rubber create almost zero road noise inside the cabin, but at freeway speeds there is the slightest whistle coming from the door mirrors. The tyres complement the cushy ride, even at speed over lumps and bumps. With all the inference of green equality, it would be interesting to compare the Contis against a set of Bridgestone Ecopias to check out any variations of range, especially as you’ve lost the opportunity to compare fuel economy. Kudos to Renault for also fitting the scissor jack within easy reach inside the rear door.
The short among you will need to ensure seating position, mirrors and spatial awareness are honed for the ZE, because to this 180 cm-tall driver, what feel like long overhangs (875mm) at the front corners can make it easy to lose your bumpers in reversing manoeuvres.
Properly adjusted (electric) mirrors will aid here, and keeping track of what’s behind without a reversing camera on this 2018 model can be tricky in carparks or three-point turns. Sensors will inform on what you lack in visual confirmation.
The Kangoo cabin feels spacious thanks to the high roof, but proper storage space is limited somewhat by cramped door bins, although the deep centre console makes up for this.
The positioning of window and door switches behind the door handle isn’t ideal, meaning it’s difficult to find them without again having to look down when they should be forward of the driver’s line of vision.
The driver’s seat looks like it could do with some chunkier bolsters to better support the more horizontally-robust driver, but for yours truly it was quite comfortable. Should you need it, Renault will also fit you a swiveling partition to add even more stowage by folding the front passenger seat flat.
For me, the driving position took some refining. That said, non-reach-adjustable steering puts short drivers at a loss, and the positioning of a cruise control toggle switch on the dash in front of the driver’s right knee, behind the steering wheel, is another aversion of the eyes away from the road. Dim cabin lighting doesn’t help much at night, either.
That said, when you do find the cruise switch, the Kangoo ZE sits perfectly at the 80km/h limit on the downhill run into Melbourne’s Eastlink tunnel thanks to that precise electrical drivetrain. There’s absolutely no suggestion gravity and momentum will continue to build up speed, unlike in too many modern internal combustion vehicles built today.
The HVAC system dials are tricky to read and operate, and while it coped with running the aircon hard across a dry four-day Melbourne heatwave of mid-30 degrees, it might struggle in 40-plus conditions.
Changing radio stations via a reverse-direction rotating dial, and volume via paddle-style buttons − both behind the steering wheel − feels awkward and takes extra thinking power than for buttons mounted at the tip of the thumb.
Towing is restricted on the battery and drivetrain to just 322kg (braked), so your trailer would want to be made of carbon-fibre. That’s if you have more than four cubic metres to load. So, it’ll mostly be self-contained courier work.
You’ll rely primarily on the three-phase ‘Type 2’ (aka Mennekes) cable to quickly charge up, taking six hours from flat, once you’ve dropped off the day’s round of organic arabica coffee beans to all the cafes around town. Adding roughly 40km of range using the 10-amp wall-plug at home took about 4 to 5 hours, but this is really a get-you-home panic measure. Renault says a 16-amp, phase-one point will charge 100 percent in 11 hours.
Small businesses looking to get frequent, full-day use out of their ZE will want to invest in the three-phase charging box at the back of the warehouse/shop/office. That said, it’s worth remembering that the average distance travelled for an in-town courier remains in the region of 150 km, so a single charge can fit all basic needs.
Fourteen tie-down loops are accessible throughout the rear, including in the floor and at waist height. When it comes time to sweep the floor, you’ll need a vac to get the last crumbs from the lip edge in front of the rear or side doors. Then there’s the optional Australian-made cargo barrier which is certainly a must-have to not only anchor against and protect the seats from copping damage, but also providing a hanging point for your favourite hi-viz.
The Kangoo ZE’s differences definitely take getting used to − not only for its quirky French nuances, but also for its capabilities and limitations. As a device for getting lots of quick courier jobs done sporadically and consistently, it’s the perfect ally.
The five seconds it takes to plug in and avoid burdening the bottom line with fuel cards and tax deductions is worth every dollar. The same liberty will be felt at the 15,000 km/12-month servicing interval where a set of wipers, some brake and steering fluid and maybe some water in the windscreen washer reservoir, and of course the vital checks, shouldn’t cost much more than $200.
The $52,505 driveaway price, including the quick-charger box, isn’t going to bring the gavel down on every white van on the road.
But the Renault Kangoo ZE does prove beyond reasonable doubt that something very promising is happening in the light commercial market.