ZOE Test Drive – 2: Driving Notes

ZOE Zen demonstrator (Image: T. Larkum)
ZOE Zen demonstrator (Image: T. Larkum)

[Part 1 is here]

For my test drive I had the opportunity to take a long drive out of the town and through the local countryside and so I was able to try out the ZOE in a variety of conditions. The experience of starting up is disconcerting, as is often said when someone used to a combustion engine tries an electric vehicle. You put your foot on the brake and then press the Start/Stop button on the dashboard. At that point the dashboard lights up but of course there is no engine noise – to someone used to a combustion engine it lacks the obvious feedback of a revving engine, though I imagine one could get used to it quickly enough.

To move you engage the gear lever (marked P R N D) from park to reverse or drive. Having always driven cars with manual gearboxes I really don’t like this lever. It seems to be to be a simple sop to those used to driving with an automatic gearbox. Since the ZOE has no gearbox I believe it would be far preferable to dispense with a gear lever altogether and have simple selector buttons on the centre console, or even a simple selector lever on the steering wheel like a sports or racing car. Similarly, as soon as you release the brake pedal there is ‘creep’ and the car starts to move – this makes no sense in an electric car and again, I believe, just panders to those used to automatics.

When starting off and moving at slow speeds it would be fair to describe the travel as ‘silent’. While technically not actually silent the quietness is eerie. There is no detectible sound from the electric motor, and the noise from the tyres is little more than you would get from someone walking past.

At slow speeds the brakes are noticeably ‘grabby’ – this was commented on by each driver. This is presumably because at low speed the friction brakes are being used exclusively. This may have been particularly noticeable on our demonstrator vehicle as it had such a low mileage and the friction brakes may not have been bedded in – it’s possible we would have noticed the same effect on a brand new Clio. At highway speeds the brakes are mostly using regeneration and felt fine – very smooth. When decelerating to a stop there is a point at which the brakes necessarily transition from regenerative to friction, but I don’t notice this changeover particularly.

Leaving the dealership and starting on the test drive I found the ZOE very straightforward to drive and I had to agree with my colleagues’ comments – on the whole it is very much like driving a conventional car. In fact, given the wide range of performance and behaviour of cars, it is fair to say that the ZOE sits comfortably within that range and doesn’t stand out in terms of handling, acceleration, steering, braking, etc. for being electric.

ZOE Zen demonstrator (Image: T. Larkum)
ZOE Zen demonstrator (Image: T. Larkum)

I initially found the acceleration acceptable but not remarkable. However I realised fairly quickly that the ZOE was in ‘Eco’ mode (there’s an indicator at the bottom of the driver’s display) and switched this off (the button is to the left of the gear lever). After that I found the acceleration to be satisfyingly lively at low speeds and still perfectly acceptable at higher speeds.

The ride is good but erring towards firm – the ZOE certainly doesn’t glide over potholes or broken road surfaces (of which there seem to be a lot on British roads at the moment) but nor is it excessively jolting. Overall it gave me the impression of having suspension similar to a ‘hot hatch’ of which I’ve driven a few – a sacrifice of a soft ride to provide good handling. And the handling is good, with the ZOE comfortably managing curving and sharp corners at a range of speeds. Only a couple of times did I have the impression that the car was not responding quite as fast to steering inputs as I expected – the feeling that it was ‘heavier than it looks’. That is a largely unavoidable consequence of carrying a heavy battery pack, only partially compensated for by carrying it low and largely under the centre of the vehicle.

As touched on previously the ZOE is not silent at highway speeds – in fact it almost seemed quite noisy even in the absence of the combustion engine, though of course it’s likely that without engine noise all other noises become relatively more obvious. As well as the road noise there is also noticeable sound from the electric motor. It is much less than that of an engine but it is there. Most of the time it is just a background whirr, but under hard acceleration it produces a distinctive whine which can’t be ignored though – one could argue – it does give back to the driver some of the visceral feedback that you get from a hard-revving petrol engine. Most of the time, though, the motor just produces a background noise that is much less invasive than a combustion engine.

At one point while driving through a pedestrianised area I became aware of another sound that I couldn’t place – a bit like a low frequency rumble as though we were passing a busy factory. The salesman pointed it out as being the ZE Voice becoming activated at our slow speed. I wound down the window to listen to it. I can’t comment on its effectiveness at warning pedestrians of our approach, but as a driver I didn’t like it. I can see me turning it off, or at least choosing my own ‘ringtone’ for it (assuming I can do that) – something like a futuristic Stars Wars-style spaceship sound perhaps. Or just a music track, if that’s possible, such as Ride of the Valkyries.

[Part 3 is here]