Review: Driving a Renault Zoë, the Six Months Mark

As I was updating my blog to Nikola, I decided it would be interesting to write a review of my 6 months old car. It's a 100% electric one, so I think people might actually be interested in the experiences we've had with it. To spoil the ending, the electric driving experience is awesome, but Renault's software is shitty. Let's break it all up in details.

Driving Electric

This is most definitely the best part of it all. Driving electric is fun, no doubt about that. The car's acceleration is awesome. The acceleration pedal has two 'levels'. The first one is the normal acceleration mode, which gives you a normal not too slow acceleration to your desired speed. You then hit a barrier, which is strong enough to rest your foot comfortable against when driving with the speed limiter on. Once you press the pedal down, though, things get even more fun, when the car gets a boosts that really pulls you down into the back of your seat. I don't use it often, but it's nice if you need an additional bump to pass a slower driver.

The most heard question I get about the car has to do with the distance limit. Yes, you can only drive about 100 to 120km on a single battery load. But in the last six months, this has been a problem only twice. Once when we were expected a charger at a destination that ended up not fitting the Zoë. The second time was due to bad planning and me forgetting to plug in the car the night before. We generally don't do more that 40-50km per day, which works fine. Most people tend to forget that you start with a full battery every morning. You do not have to plan for stops at a charger, since we have one at home. And that's actually an added luxury by itself, starting with a full 'tank' every morning.

The charging itself can take a while, but since we do not deplete the entire battery most of the time, for us it's generally done in a few hours. That's at the slowest speed, since we have a cheapo charger at home. Most public chargers could charge the entire battery in about 2 to 3 hours, the speed chargers can charge it to 80% in 30 minutes. I haven't had to use that yet, but I can imagine it being a welcome break after you drove 110km. It is something to take into account on longer drives, however. What I generally do is simply not use the Zoë when driving further than 100km. My dad has a normal gasoline based car that we're generally able to borrow. And even if we can't, since electricity is so much cheaper than gas, renting a car for a few days isn't that big of a deal. My total yearly savings are far larger than the rent for a car for a few days.

So no, I do not have any problem at all with the shorter range and the longer charge times. But admittedly, we don't need to drive long stretches.

The car has all kinds of luxury options that I really appreciate. Things like the cruise control (which I hardly use, to be honest) and the speed limiter (which I use all the time) are nice to have. The cruise control can be a boon when driving longer, the speed limiter can allow you to keep your eyes on the road. With the speed limiter, you simply set the maximum speed you want to drive using the steer controls and then press down the acceleration until the first rest. The car will not go faster than what you've set, and thus allows you to keep your eyes on the road. Great feature!

The car radio speakers are good, which is an extra boon because the car is so quiet! Especially when driving slowly, the car is very silent. It makes a zooming sound when you drive slower than 30km/h to warn pedestrians and bikers that you're riding behind them, otherwise they get no warning at all. When you go faster than 30 km/h, the sound that the tires makes will warn people ahead of you. In any case, it's very comfortable to drive an electric car due to the lack of noise. The most sound it makes is the air blower and of course the radio.

Car Build

The car is more or less compact, but with pretty broad bars around the windows. This does impede with the view, especially when you want to look out for bikers on a roundabout (but who wants to do that??? j/k). The doors open easily, but the doors for the back seats have a strange contraption to open them. You need to swivel a plastic part to allow you to lift it and open the door. Not everyone can find it at first. The effect is that the handle is nicely tucked away and doesn't stand out.

The key is a wireless key. As an IT guy, that makes me cringe a bit, but I haven't seen any hacks for it (yet). And I must admit that it's a neat feature, you just need to have the key somewhere in one of your pockets to open the doors. You need to stand pretty close to the car as well, if I'm standing at the front with the key, you cannot open the doors. I'll need to move a little bit more towards the doors for that. I assume this means the range is very limited and this harder to hack. There are four buttons on the key, one to open the charge socket, one to start the preheater and two more for locking and unlocking the doors. The buttons react nicely, but I would've appreciated a little bit more feedback, for example when you start the preheater. I always need to open the front door to check if the signals lights blink once, to make sure the signal reached the car.

For a smallish car, it's spacious enough. The front seats are slightly raised, due to the battery on the car's floor. It makes getting out of the car a little easier on my very pregnant fiancée, though. The digital dashboard is easily viewed and contains the most interesting stuff. It also shows you how much energy you're using, which can be convenient when you're trying to save as much as possible. I miss indicators for the front lights and the wipers though. They have multiple settings, but sometimes it's hard to determine whether they're simply off or on automatic (both the lights as the wipers react to sensors automatically, if they're set to that). You'll need to check around the steering wheel to see at what setting they are. The wipers on auto do not always react the way you expect them too, either wiping too often or to little, so we tend to set them on manual eventually.

The seat belts are fine, nothing to nag about those. Except maybe that the back seat belts are very picky on the lock you put them in. There's a sensor in there that shows you on the dashboard if the back seat belts have been closed and how many of them are closed. Due to the middle seat belt, which uses two locks, you need to make sure you lock yours in the correct one, or else the lock is not registered. Kids do not care about that, so they often simply put the belt in the first lock they get their hands on, which often is the one for the middle belt and this doesn't trigger the message on the dashboard. That feels like it hasn't been designed well enough, since you expect this feature to be most useful for checking on your kids...

On the plus side, the middle seat does have a proper three-point belt, which feels safer if you happen to have three kids on the back seats.

The trunk has enough room. You open it often, since it's the most convenient place to store your charging cable. I would've liked something to easily store away the cable, though. The dealer gave us a bag, but it's too much hassle to roll up the cable tight enough to put it in the bag every day.

The car has a rear viewing camera built in, which is neat (when it works, more on that later). It's not hugely necessary, since you do have a decent view through the back window, but it does help when you try to move in a smaller space. Or when you need to turn on a small road.

Software Hell

The big downer is the R-Link software that comes with the car. It truly, truly sucks. It really feels like someone developed a proof of concept and Renault simply ran with that. I'm getting all kinds of warning regarding subscriptions and the like, I don't want to see those. There's no obvious way to remove them from the interface, so they always stay there requesting attention. The same for updates, which sometimes work, sometimes don't work, but always remove all your settings.

The stuff is exposing problems that also seem to indicate an underpowered system. Things like taking several minutes to get the rear view camera screen working. Even more annoying, the distance detectors respond slowly as well. This can lead to an increase in the frequency of the beeps when you've already hit the breaks. I can see how this may lead to accidents and damage to the car or worse, other people's property. Especially since the rear view camera and the distance sensors give you a sense of finer control of the car when you do these sort of maneuvers.

The interface sometimes takes a very long time to respond at all, which can ben annoying. We've had the thing reboot while driving for no apparant reason. Sometimes when you switch a bit too fast with the on-steer controls, the thing reboots. You can make a bluetooth connection with your phone, which can be nice when you get the connection, but very often it simply cannot find your phone.

There's a Tomtom integrated into the system that reads the map data from an SD card, which it sometimes can't find at all. Luckily, we do not need to use the navigation that often and have Google Maps on our phones, but still, very inconvenient. Especially when it stops being able to read the SD card while you're actually using the navigation and you're almost there.

The Tomtom actually has some additional features for electric cars, mainly it can show you if it thinks you can make it all the way to your endpoint based on the current battery status. It can direct you to chargers, but it also shows you chargers that have no support for the Renault connector. Which it handily notifies you of, but without providing you with an alternative. We've had an instance where we actually had to use it and we were scrolling through two pages of charge points before resorting to the (very excellent!) New Motion App.

There's an outside temperature display that starts blinking when it's at 3 degrees C or lower, without an option to stop the blinking. That can be very annoying, since you constantly see something blink in the corner of your eyes. The display has a very handy night setting, to which it switches automatically when the car determines the light outside is too low. That sensor will also automatically switch on your lights, of course. Interesting idea, but the display seems to lack the manual option to make this switch (I couldn't find it at least), which is very annoying when it's pitch dark outside and the display determines it wants the daylight setting. The display can be very bright then, when everything around you is pretty dark, which is very annoying. I had this happen to me twice now, the second time I simply turned off the entire R-Link (restarting it didn't seem to help) system, so it wouldn't bother my vision.

The thing thinks it's very important to warn you everytime it cannot find your phone, which sounds logically, if there wasn't a color coded phone icon next to it that already shows the status of the phone connection.

All in all, I'm really not happy with that part of the car. It feels like a first generation smart phone that still needs a lot of work. Which I think is very bad for a car, since you want to be able to depend on it. Renault, shame on you. Go get yourself a proper software design department with proper QA and UX designers. Or simply make the entire thing open source and let the hackers solve your problems with this. It really cannot get much worse than what you're already putting out there.

And then I haven't even mentioned the remote app for the car. Which is a very interesting addition, considering the car is making a connection to a central Renault server every so often via it's own phone connection. But the whole thing is pretty badly thought out. The Android app for instance let's you plan a start time for the preheater, but only allows you to enter a time. Sounds reasonable, you probably don't want to plan the preheater three days in advance. However, the time entered has to be today. So it's not possible to plan the preheater for, say, 7:45am on 10pm the night before. The app does send the time, but the server responds with a message indicating that the time entered is in the past... Really, really bad design. And don't get me started about the unstability of the Android app... They must be getting a huge amount of crash reports!

Then there's the browser app which lets you plan the times at which you want your car to charge. This can be convenient when you have a two tiered electricity plan, where electricity used during low hours is cheaper than during peak hours. You can plan one continuous block for an entire day. Our low hours start at 10pm and stop at 6am, but I cannot enter this. I have to choose to either start at 10pm and stop at midnight, or start at midnight and stop at 6am. There's no way to tell it to charge between 10pm and 6am. Again, very bad design, IMHO.

Temperature Control

The car has an automated temperature control. A very interesting one, since it tries to save energy by simply not heating the car. Or at least heat it very slowly. It can take up to 30 minutes before you notice the car getting warmer, even when you started the preheater before you got into the car. I'm used to cars in which you can set the dials on warmest and the car actually gets warm within a few minutes.

The preheater hardly helps, especially because it's hardcoded to stop after 5 minutes. If we start it again two or three times, it does help a little, but it's very annoying that it doesn't do this automatically.

This wouldn't bug me enough generally, since I'm pretty warmblooded. But my finacée has a bun in the oven, so to say, we're expecting our daughter somewhere this week or the next. This makes the lack of proper heating a problem, since you need to take it into account when taking our daughter with us, especially during the winter months. Babies actually need a lot of outside heat, y'know.

Conclusion

I love driving electric. I really do. As long as I can afford the cars, I'll try to keep driving electric for the rest of my life. But probably no longer in a Renault. Their R-link system is so buggy, I'd love to try something else. A Leaf or iMiev would be interesting. But never a Renault again. Which is a shame, because I loved my 2005 Renault Kangoo. It worked great and I rarely had problems with it. The electric system on the Zoë is fine and driving it is really nice, but the R-link frustrates more than it helps. Also, Renault made the decision to rent out the battery for a very steep €75 per month. This negates any savings you'll have by no longer having the pump gasoline in it. Leasing it makes those charges invisible, but the fact that I know they're there keeps nagging in the back of my mind.

So yes to electric, no to Renault. A shame that I'm stuck with the car for another 4.5 years.

Comments

Comments powered by Disqus