FLINS, France -- Renault is preparing to double production of the full-electric Zoe at its factory here outside Paris. The surge in output as part of a billion-euro investment in electric vehicles by the French automaker.
A new version of the Zoe will appear next year, the first substantial change to the small battery-driven hatchback since its introduction at the end of 2012.
The Zoe was the top-selling EV in Europe from 2015-2017, but so far this year it has been narrowly overtaken by the redesigned Nissan Leaf, from Renault’s Japanese alliance partner.
Last year about 30,000 Zoes were produced at the Flins plant, with a total of 100,000 made since the model's debut. Renault officials want to increase the rate of production to about 440 per workday from about 220 per day.
The factory will use its traditional August recess to prepare for the increase. This will include upgrading the in-house battery assembly area, officials said earlier this month at an event that included a tour of the plant.
The Flins factory, which opened in 1952, makes Renault Clio hatchbacks, the Nissan Micra hatchback and the Zoe on the same production line. Last year, about 63,000 Clios and 94,000 Micras were produced at the plant.
Recent upgrades to Renault's EV range, which includes the Twizy, which is an electric alternative to a scooter, and two electric vans, have been focused on range and power, but that is about to change.
In addition to the redesigned Zoe, likely to be on the existing architecture, the company's Drive the Future strategic plan calls for a total of eight EVs by 2022. Some of those EVs will be on a new alliance platform called CMF-EV set to debut no earlier than 2020. Vehicles on that platform will be built at Renault’s plant in Douai, northern France.
The increase in Zoe production at Flins will mean that nearly all Clio production there will move to existing factories at Bursa, Turkey, and Novo Mesto, Slovenia, Renault officials said. However, a small percentage will still be made in Flins to make up for any gaps in supply. The fifth-generation Clio is expected to debut late this year or in early 2019.
EV early mover
The Renault-Nissan alliance was one of the first movers in EVs, with CEO Carlos Ghosn investing 4 billion euros in 2011 and promising that the alliance would be building 500,000 annually by 2013.
Those sales figures did not materialize -- a total of about 600,000 alliance EVs have been sold since then -- but Renault executives are convinced that the market is poised for significant growth. Renault says its electric vehicles are profitable on a marginal basis.
Last month, Renault committed more than 1 billion euros to accelerate EV production in France, including the new Zoe capacity in Flins, the new vehicles on alliance platforms in Douai, tripling motor capacity in Cleon, and investing at the Maubeuge plant for the next-generation Kangoo vans, including an electric version.
"It's less and less a niche market," Gilles Normand, Renault's electric vehicle director, said. Normand cited studies that found 19 percent of French buyers and 25 percent of German buyers expect their next car purchase to be an EV.
Other factors Renault is counting on to boost EV sales are the growth of shared car ownership (Renault has just announced it would provide up to 2,000 EVs for a car-sharing service in Paris), tightening emissions regulations and the decline of diesel sales.
Patrick Bastard, who was recently named Renault's director of research, replacing Virginie Maillard after she took a post at Siemens, said electrification would have a transformative effect on the automaker.
"It's a real revolution for the company and affects every area of activity," he said.
Among the questions Renault is grappling with is which components should be made in-house and which should be outsourced to suppliers. And, even though Renault does not produce its own battery cells, the company has chemists on staff to discuss needs with suppliers, Bastard said.
The production process for the Zoe at the Flins plant is similar to that of the Clio and Micra, with a few key exceptions. The Zoe has its own power electronics wiring, a regenerative braking system, and the heating and air conditioning run via a heat pump.
Batteries are assembled in a special area, and their installation and charging requires additional training.
EVs such as the Zoe also demand more rigorous noise, vibration and harshness quality control, because their quietness compared with one with internal combustion power can expose any flaws, plant officials said.
As a consequence, initial run-in takes place on a longer test track than for the Clio and Micra. Connectivity functions, including the ability to locate the nearest charging stations, must also be carefully tested.