The What Van? Road Test: Renault Kangoo ZE
Thursday, June 21, 2012
If Renault’s electric Kangoo ZE fails to succeed in the UK it won’t be due to a lack of encouragement. What Van?’s 2012 Van of the Year is benefiting from the Government’s recently introduced Plug-in Van Grant, which cuts 20% off the cost of an eligible LCV up to a maximum of £8000, and brings the Renault’s starting price down to £13,592 (all prices quoted here exclude VAT.
Apart from not emitting CO2, nor particulates or NOx, an EV offers several benefits; the electricity needed to power it costs only a few pennies per mile, plus it sidesteps the London congestion and Low Emission Zone charges. You will also not have to pay Vehicle Excise Duty and will benefit from a 100% first-year capital allowance too.
The electric Kangoo has the same body as the mainstream model and shares many of its components. The cab interior differs, though, and there are two unfamiliar dials: one is a gauge that indicates the battery’s level of charge while the other is an economy meter that tells the driver how efficiently the available energy is being used. Dark blue is the optimum, light blue indicates normal running while red warns that an excessive amount is being consumed, which will reduce the range.
The onboard computer indicates the remaining range in kilometres, the battery’s remaining capacity in kilowatt hours and the average and instantaneous energy consumption.
As with the standard model, oddment storage facilities include bins in each of the doors, a deep, lidded bin between the seats along with a coin tray and a couple of cup-holders, and a lidded but not lockable glovebox. The full-width shelf above the windscreen fitted to our demonstrator costs an extra £75.
It’s a pity Renault has not seen fit to junk the Kangoo’s odd-looking L-shaped handbrake lever that when released renders the 12V power point between the seats unusable. Otherwise the driving position is user-friendly, with a height- adjustable steering wheel, although you have to pay a further £50 if you want seat height-adjustment too.
Twin asymmetric rear doors plus a sliding nearside door provide access to the 3.0m³ cargo area, which has six load tie-down points set into the floor. For an extra £175 the full-height mesh bulkhead is fitted with the section behind the passenger seat that can be swivelled through 180° and locked into position so the seat can be folded completely flat (a £50 facility) and the cargo bed extended. Doing so increases load capacity to 3.5m³.
While the battery admittedly tips the scales at 260kg, the lack of a heavy diesel engine means gross payload is a respectable 650kg. Renault, however, does not advise towing a trailer with the vehicle.
For those needing more space the Kangoo ZE is also available as a Maxi, which can be ordered as either a van or as a five-seater personnel carrier.
Power comes courtesy of a 44kW/60hp electric motor fed by a 22kWh lithium-ion battery that sits beneath the floor so does not steal cargo space. It gets some of its charge from kinetic energy recovered by the motor when the driver decelerates, known as regenerative braking. Maximum torque is 226Nm and it can be called on instantly.
Press the awkwardly positioned Eco Mode button and power and torque are restricted, which can extend range by up to 10%. However, the function is immediately over-ridden if you fully depress the accelerator pedal.
Looking rather like a shift for an automatic box, the lever between the seats offers the choice of Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive. Turn the key to its second position, wait until you hear a beep, see the ‘go’ sign light up on the dashboard, push the lever to ‘D’ for Drive, release the handbrake, prod the accelerator pedal and away you go.
We decided to tackle a total distance of 39 miles, mostly along the A40, mostly in driving rain, and lightly laden. The trip used around three-quarters of the battery’s charge, which on the face of it is at odds with Renault’s claim of an achievable 106-mile range. In the van’s defence, however, we have to point to the poor weather conditions and admit that we were not driving particularly frugally, instead adopting the style of, say, a plumber who has received an emergency call from a distressed pensioner. Had we driven more carefully we are confident we would only have used half the available charge, and possibly less.
That 106-mile range is, in fact, calculated on the official EU? combined cycle rather than whistling down dual carriageways, and Renault did make it clear before we started that the route, our style of driving and the weather would probably cut our range to no more than 50 miles. The firm added, though, that driving in a built-up area, for example, could increase range to nearer 125 miles because the constant stopping and starting means the regenerative braking system recovers plenty of energy while at the same time the electric motor uses very little.
Renault can arrange for Kangoo Van ZE customers to rent a diesel van at a preferential rate should the need occasionally arise.
The vehicle accelerates quickly from rest, and smoothly too thanks to an absence of gear changes, and has no trouble keeping up with the rest of the traffic on fast A-roads. It runs quietly too, although the lack of decibels emanating from beneath the bonnet accentuates the other sources of noise, such as from the wind and tyres, not to mention the odd creak from the body, but not to the extent that they become irritating.
The van rides and handles well, but low-speed manoeuvring – conducted in an eerie silence – can be problematic as there is always a slight nervousness when parking that you will suddenly shoot forward and smack the vehicle in front if you press the accelerator pedal a bit too hard.
Regenerative braking provides engine braking without the engine. Early electric Kangoos practically stood on their noses when you took your foot off the accelerator pedal because the braking effect was so strong, but that phenomenon has thankfully been addressed with recent models. Nowadays the intervention is much smoother, but can still be felt. In fact, the system functions rather like a bus’s retarder, which means less wear and tear on the service brakes and lower maintenance costs.
Electric windows and big, electrically powered exterior mirrors with a lower wide-angle section come as standard. There are nice, chunky controls for the heating and ventilation system, which in our case incorporated air-conditioning with a pollen filter for an extra £615.
Our van boasted an upgraded radio/CD/MP3 player with a separate display, two 20W channels, an RCA connection and remote controls on the steering wheel for an additional £100. Remember, though, that using onboard equipment is bound to have some impact on your remaining range. Cruise control with a speed-limiter adds £200 to the final invoice, but could be money well spent given the extent to which high speed drains the battery
Buying and running
Renault has separated vehicle and battery ownership. Customers buy or lease the former but take out a monthly subscription for the latter depending on their annual mileage. If, for example, you intend to keep your van for three years and cover 6000 miles annually then you will pay £60 a month for the battery, which happens to be the cheapest lease option. The deal includes the supply of a battery that is always in good condition and the guarantee of a charging capacity that is always more than 75%?of the original capacity. You get breakdown cover too, which can be called upon if you have exceeded your van’s range and end up with a flat battery, which isn’t so if you run out of diesel. It all means that the customer does not have to shoulder the cost of buying a battery outright when the vehicle is first purchased or worry about the cost of replacing it a few years later. Both vehicle and battery are available through 20 specially trained and equipped Renault ZE Expert dealers who can also discuss finance, insurance and charging equipment.
The flap that conceals the socket for the charging lead is on the front. A pre-start system can pre-heat or pre-cool the cab when the lead is plugged in so that it is at a comfortable temperature when the driver climbs in, and has no impact on the range.
Using the vehicle’s heater on the move will reduce the range, and a 5kW diesel-fired heater is available as an option. Capable of running on 30% biodiesel, it does not draw current from the battery but does produce emissions.
British Gas can supply a wall-mounted Wall-Box charging point for £799 including VAT. It can, among other things, allow you to schedule battery charging to take advantage of off-peak rates. A full recharge typically takes from six to eight hours using a Wall-Box assuming a charging power of 3kW or more; recharging completely from a standard 240v/2kW power point would take more like 10 to 11 hours. The cable you need in order to plug into a Wall-Box is included in the price of the van, but the one we used to connect to a plug in our garage is a £345 option.
Maintenance costs are generally reckoned to be 20% lower than those of a diesel model, contends Renault. No oil changes are needed and there is no air, oil, fuel filter or timing belt to be replaced.
The van is covered by a three-year/100,000-mile warranty with the electric drivetrain protected by a five-year/100,000-mile warranty. A service is required at one year/12,000 miles with intervals set at two years/25,000 miles thereafter. The vehicle is available with Renault’s new 4+ customer care package.
ABS and Electronic Brake Distribution are standard, disc brakes are fitted all round and there are plans to make an optional audible warning device available at low speeds to alert pedestrians and cyclists to the van’s presence. A driver’s airbag is standard and our test van was also equipped with a passenger airbag (£185) plus a lateral thorax airbag (also £185). Rear parking sensors cost £200 while an alarm is available for £175.
Sensibly packaged and priced, this is by far the most viable electric LCV we’ve seen. If it fails to sell in volume then serious questions will have to be asked about whether a mainstream market for EVs exists.
Electric light commercials are nothing new
Back in 1919 Harrods put a fleet of American-built battery-powered Walker vans into service and went on to build 60 electric vans itself between 1936 and 1939 for its own use. A 3.5hp electric motor gave them a top speed of 19mph when they were fully loaded. They increasingly shared the roads with a once-ubiquitous battery-driven commercial vehicle of a sort: the humble milk float, which replaced horse-drawn milk deliveries.
In the 1980s, Bedford was attempting to create interest in an electric version of its CF – the Griffin – while in more recent years Citroen has introduced (and withdrawn) an electric Berlingo. Smith Electric Vehicles has successfully marketed a battery version of Ford’s Transit.
Not all of these projects have ended happily – witness the recent demise of Azure Dynamics, which created the electric Transit Connect (right). Range between recharges and a steep front-end price – despite the recently announced Government subsidy – have remained issues for many manufacturers.