PARIS -- Electric vehicles have been promoted as the ideal car for European cities, because they are nonpolluting, have low running costs, are easy to drive and park, and don’t face congestion charges or diesel bans. I found all that (and more) to be true after spending a week with the latest Renault Zoe in Paris.
But the biggest challenge is a still-developing charging infrastructure that is not yet convenient or transparent, unless you can purchase or rent a parking space in an underground garage with charging stations, or if you can commute to a workplace that offers its own charge points.
First, the good points about the experience.
The Zoe, on the market for almost nine years, is a mature, well-developed EV that is simple to operate and has very good range for a small car compared with its competition. The advertised WLTP range for the Zoe is up to 395 km (245 miles) in “temperate” weather, but falls to 250 km in cold weather.
I found that 350 km is easily possible in mixed driving on city streets, secondary roads and highways, using the “B” regenerative braking mode, even with a family of four.
We used the Zoe (with the more powerful 135 hp motor) for several day trips out of Paris, and with about 70 percent of France’s electricity generated from nuclear power, it was nice to know that we weren’t adding too many greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Where the Zoe really shined is on city streets, where its 0 to 50 kph time of 3.6 seconds gave us an edge at the stoplight over many internal-combustion small cars.
Carefully controlling acceleration and deceleration, with regenerative braking, meant that on some trips I barely used any charge.
The Zoe, as one of the first EVs sold in Europe, lacks some of the features of newer models such as the Peugeot e-208 or Honda-e, but I found its simplicity to be a positive in Paris, where navigating narrow streets full of bicyclists and pedestrians is challenging even for the most experienced drivers.
Now, the mixed news about the experience.
Paris was a pioneer in EV car-sharing with Autolib, which used purpose-built cars that were based at charge points throughout the city. Autolib was dismantled a few years ago over contract and financing issues, but the charge points are now being renovated and repurposed as Belib, with about 450 already back in service.
The Belib phone app was simple to install and set up with a credit card. I was easily able to charge at a nearby station, which was seldom used, but even so, it was a half-day exercise because the somewhat-confusing pricing structure discourages users from lingering, meaning I then had to find another parking spot after charging.
The pricing is based on a complex matrix of geography, time and speed.
For example, charging can be about 50 percent more expensive in Paris’ most central neighborhoods than outlying ones. For slower charging (7 kilowatts), the rate in our neighborhood is 55 cents for 15 minutes for the first two hours, 65 cents per 15 minutes for the third hour, and 75 cents for the fourth hour and up.
Faster charging is priced at a flat 1.90 euros per 15 minutes for 22 kW and 4.80 euros per 15 minutes for 50 kW.
Based on Renault’s figures, it should have cost about 20 euros for an eight-hour full charge from zero for my Zoe at our local 7 kW charger; while I never ran the car down nearly that much, that tracks more or less with the rates I paid.
(In comparison, 350 km of “range” for a gasoline Clio would cost an average of 39 euros in France, and much more in a city or along a highway.)
Those are a la carte electricity rates aimed at visitors; subscribers and residents can get considerably better prices with an annual fee and also benefit from lower prices at night.
While it’s not that hard (using Renault’s app) to calculate estimated charging time and cost based on remaining charge and station power, it is much less simple than fueling up at a gasoline station and requires advance planning.
A good solution is a parking garage with charging stations, but that adds up to several hundred euros per month to running costs. I was able to find a place for a few nights in a nearby garage that had low-wattage plugs (meaning an overnight charge time) at no cost, but only two of them were available and one was closed because of flooding.
Outside of Paris, the public charging network is fairly robust, and spots were easy to find on the Zoe’s built-in navigation system. But most suburban or rural users will charge at home.
Overall, however, operating an EV was a very positive experience, even in notoriously car-unfriendly Paris.
The biggest hurdle remains charging infrastructure: While there seemed to be plenty of charging points, it requires forethought to get a good price and an open space, not to mention the wait times at low-power stations. Rather than range anxiety, I often felt “charging anxiety.”
That will be a puzzle that city authorities need to solve if they want true zero-emissions mobility.