The Renault Zoe is the companys next battery-powered electric car, and to our minds, its the most important yet.
You see, while the Fluence ZE (small saloon), Kangoo ZE (van) and Twizy (commuter quadricycle) use interesting technology, the vehicles themselves are actually of very little interest to the average driver.
The Zoe is different. Yes, it looks funky and futuristic, and yes, it uses an alternative source of propulsion, but at its heart, the Zoe is a conventional five-door supermini. That means its the one member of Renaults all-electric family thatll hold some real appeal for car buyers, and as a result, its the one that could sell in significant numbers.
Not least because of its headline-grabbing price. An entry point of 13,650 (after the Government grant to which all buyers will be entitled) means the Zoe is the cheapest way into an EV (electric vehicle) than can carry multiple passengers.
Renault will tell customers to expect a range of around 90 miles in normal conditions and 60 miles in below-zero temperatures.
Our experience of other EVs in similar circumstances tells us that, if these figures turn out to be true, the Zoe should still have the beating of its rivals for range.
Charging time is similar to that of the Nissan Leaf, taking around nine hours from a conventional wall socket. If you can find a fast-charge point, though, you can achieve 80% of full charge in just 30 minutes.
To get an idea of whether or not the Zoe is actually any good, we joined Renault engineers in the Arctic Circle, where the prototype car was undergoing cold-weather testing.
Whats the 2012 Renault Zoe like to drive?
The mule that we drove was nowhere near being the finished production car, while the frozen lake on which we drove it bore very little resemblance to your average British ring road. However, our drive still provided some pointers to what you can expect.
The 87bhp electric motor delivers 162lb ft of torque, all of which is available from the very instant the motor starts to spin. The initial pick-up is brisk as a result, and the delivery thereafter is perfectly linear.
It doesnt accelerate with quite the same pace as a Nissan Leaf, taking around 13.5 seconds from 0-62mph compared with the Leafs 9.0 seconds. As in the Leaf, however, the acceleration feels a lot stronger than the numbers suggest.
The refinement of the Zoe also seemed very impressive at this early stage. You hear no more than the faintest whirr from under the bonnet under hard acceleration, so your progress is eerily quiet. Wind noise is well suppressed, too.
The suspension transmitted some thuds into the cabin on the few lumps of churned-up snow and ice that we found, but again, theres no way of knowing how the final production car will behave on a proper road.
Whats the 2012 Renault Zoe like inside?
The interior of the car we drove was far from being the finished product, but the interior design looks modern and the layout is surprisingly simple.
Theres a digital instrument binnacle thats easy to read and understand, and the only switchgear on the main part of the dashboard is for the ventilation system.
Infotainment is taken care of by something Renault calls the R-Link tablet. It looks like an iPad and it controls the stereo, phone and navigation functions (although we dont yet know which of these features will be standard fit). It also supports various connected services through apps that you can download direct from the car.
The driving position is pretty good, as is the all-round visibility. The Zoe is good on interior space, too theres lots of room up front and although rear headroom is no better than reasonable, generous rear legroom means two adults will fit comfortably enough in the back.
Whats really impressive, though, is the boot. Because the lithium-ion battery pack is stowed beneath the floor of the passenger compartment, theres no intrusion into your cargo space, and you get a whopping 338 litres of squarely shaped space.
Should I buy one?
The Zoe undercuts the Nissan Leaf by more than 10,000, yet you get all the same fiscal benefits: zero fuel costs, zero congestion charge, zero road tax and zero company car tax.
The difference is that when you buy a Leaf, you buy all of it, whereas with the Zoe its a case of batteries not included. On top of the purchase price, youll need to pay a monthly charge to lease the battery from Renault. These charges start at 70 per month for a 9000-mile/36-month contract.
This means that when your batteries need changing, Renault will simply give you a new pack. Leaf buyers, by contrast, will have to foot the bill themselves.
EVs are great if your driving habits consist solely of short, tightly regimented commuter trips, but their limited range means that if you ever need your car for longer jaunts or unscheduled journeys, an electric car simply wont work for you.
If an EV works for you then we wouldn't blame you for getting rather excited about the Zoe. The financial argument is compelling and we cant wait for a go in the final production car to see if the driving experience really is as appealing as the numbers.
What Car? says
We'll hold off from giving a verdict until we drive a production car on proper roads, but this initial drive is encouraging.