Having tried the Twizy, all we can say is that these are going to be an interesting 60 miles. The Twizy – which, sans wheel spats, will be almost the same in production as the one we tested – is great fun to drive, with light, accurate and high-geared steering, an ideal driving position, terrific visibility and a surprising feeling of security courtesy of the wide, lifting side beams (which probably won't survive production). Again, this car doesn't feel exactly quick, but its production readiness is obvious. The main thing for the driver will be the huge fun of driving it, and the unparalleled look-at-me factor. Agility and economy will be side issues.
The Zoe electric supermini, although slated for a 2012 launch, is the one member of Renault's electric quartet that won't look very much like the version here. It's hard, for a start, to imagine any forthcoming supermini with a large gull-wing door on each side that allows access to both front and rear seats at once. There will definitely be a Clio-sized car (not related to the Clio, insiders say) but today's design is much more a testbed for ideas that particularly suit electric cars – hence the highly aerodynamic teardrop shape (drag factor 0.25), the solar-cell matrix roof (which, on your first drive, gives you the impression of a flock of sparrows flying overhead) and a highly original central screen that features an avatar (a Lego-like Fernando Alonso, in our car) that gives you economy driving tips or corrects mistakes. The air conditioning has a hydrating, detox or active scent function.
Renault says the car – a four-seater about 10cm longer than a Clio – is for “short daily journeys in urban areas.” Its beetle-back rear panel has two lifting sides rather than a hatchback, and the backrests of the rear seats fold ingeniously into the rounded body sides to clear space for large loads.
The Zoe's 95hp, 167lb-ft nose-mounted motor – the same power pack as that used for the heavier Fluence – drives the front wheels and delivers a top speed just below 90mph, with a real-world range of about 100 miles. Again, this car can be slow-charged from a 220-volt household circuit, quick-charged from 400-volt three-phase points or can use a Quickdrop center.
To drive, this is the least capable of Renault's prototypes, but it still showed the validity of battery engines as motive power: impressive step-off torque, no gear changing, near-silent cruising and smoothness to shame the best gasoline engine.
With partners, Renault is working hard on the infrastructure that will support its electric cars. Fast-charging stations and Quickdrop centers are only part of the story. Another is optimizing the range using an intelligent navigation that proposes best routes based on power consumption, shows charging points and battery exchange stations, displays a car's exact remaining range and can make an advance reservation at a charging station. Work has been proceeding for two years, the company says.
At its present development stage, Renault's electric lineup drives well enough to be promising – and looks distinctly exciting – but there is much to prove. Three of the four prototypes were in the first throes of development (there are, of course, many less handsome back-room prototypes) and the extent to which the customer needs education about charging points and Quickdrop centers seems large indeed. Behind it all, Renault must make a profit from all this and, despite recent suggestions from group boss Carlos Ghosn that Renault may begin manufacturing its own batteries in France, this looks like a rocky road. But if it works, it will be one of the greatest and quickest technological revolutions in the 125-year history of the motor car.