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Plug-in babies: VW E-Golf vs Nissan Leaf vs BMW i3 vs Renault Zoe, CAR+ March 2016

Published: 17 February 2016

► This month's quick test features electric hatchbacks
► Much cheaper Renault Zoe looks to take the crown
► Bespoke BMW i3 makes the E-Golf look an after thought 

Watt’s going on?

Volkswagen e-Golf: Not remotely surprising is Volkswagen’s rigidly conservative approach to the EV market. Make it look and run like a sexy spaceship? No: we will take a Golf, make it go on batteries, and give it some blue stripes and an ‘e-‘. The end.

Nissan Leaf: Year-dot flag-bearing EV that seems to have been around since Faraday invented electric motors, but the market’s biggest seller is amazingly only five years old. Now comes with a 30kWh battery that increases range by 20% to a claimed 155 miles and an upgraded infotainment system.

BMW i3: BMW’s deep dive in to the world of EVs illustrates huge commitment to a new way of doing things, with factories powered by wind, recycled materials and a ground-up fun-to-drive car in the i3. The i3 is either reassuringly expensive or a snob-value runabout, depending on your take. 

Renault Zoe: Renault’s EV pitch is typically egalitarian: cheap, cheerful transport for the masses, which means a tinnier, smaller car than the rest. But having to stop every 70 miles for a charge and a Cappuccino, do you need Rolls-Royce comforts?

‘Blue, blue,  electric blue…’

Apple eye candy or blandly Tandy?

Volkswagen e-Golf: Granted, EVs don’t have to look like clown cars, but a little flair please? It looks like a Golf. There are blue stripes on it. The cabin looks and feels like a Golf’s. There are blue stripes in it. Perfect for people who like Golfs and blue stripes, but want to stop every 90 miles. 

Nissan Leaf: The Leaf looks like roadkill Jar Jar Binks, not helped in this case by its ‘autumn mulch’ paintjob, while the chaotic cabin finishes may well have been created from the aftermath of a fire in the Tupperware factory. 

BMW i3: There are generally two camps on the i3: stunning vision of the automotive future or a BMW drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch. I tend to the latter, but the cabin is a bit special, combining low environmental impact and the car’s structure to save weight/planet.

Renault Zoe: Imagine a traditional small car with botox, the Zoe’s smooth styling treads the line perfectly between Man Who Lives In Eastbourne and The Man Who Fell To Earth. Cabin is functional but airy while a clean, crisp digital display tells you what you need to know, and no more. If Steve Jobs had designed a car…

The van that fell  to earth

Short range obviously, but practical otherwise?

Volkswagen e-Golf:Apologies, but there’s a theme developing here. It’s a Golf. There is the same space inside as a Golf. But wait! The boot is 40 litres smaller because of the batteries. An optional wallbox shortens the 13-hour charge from a household plug.

Nissan Leaf: A proper four-door family car with a large boot and, in winter, a range of 90-plus miles, the Leaf is less of a statement of your wonderful, designer, sustainable lifestyle and more a belt-and-braces workhorse with no emissions.

BMW i3: Spacious, light-filled cabin with those suicide doors (which look very Logan’s Run but are faffy), the i3 offers full commitment to the electric cause. Snazzy £560 home wall charger tops it up to nearly full in three hours.

Renault Zoe: Rapid charging gets you to 80% in 30 minutes and you get a home charger wallbox chucked in for free too. Despite its size there’s space for four and the boot is oddly large. Where have they put the batteries?

Group test: Plug-in babies

Is it a geek’s wet dream?

Volkswagen e-Golf: Nope. Two dials show how much power is used and whether the batteries are being charged. Anxiously, when the car switches off the centre screen gives a lower ‘range left’ goodbye message than the one in the binnacle. Perhaps one’s real-life and the other a test figure?

Nissan Leaf: You need to be a geek to operate it. Cluttered, confusing and full of bongy noises, the multifarious buttons, arrows, screens, graphs and tables make running a nuclear power station less convoluted. NissanConnect offers pre-heating, range and charging advice and eco-routing telematics.

BMW i3: BMW’s intention is that the i3 will become part of your life, linked by apps and online services to your iPhone and iPad, helping you plan journeys and book other forms of travel. The Ultimate Urban Sustainable Mobility Solution Machine…

Renault Zoe: Not really. Renault has designed the Zoe for people who wouldn’t know their amp from their volt. Press Go, and go. Other than a spot of coaching about how you’re driving with a percentage score (even worse than my second year maths exam it turns out), it is simplicity personified.

Renault Zoe

Milk floating or shocking fun?

Volkswagen e-Golf: Guess what: it drives just like a Golf! But quieter, obviously. This is a very good thing, making it the best long distance cruiser of the lot with nearly 100 miles real-world range too. Choice between lift-off motor braking for regeneration or gleeful sailing is useful too in varying traffic conditions.

Nissan Leaf: Dreadful lapdog steering wheel, pedalo driving position, spongy seats and inebriated handling make the LEAF a go-slow car, and in Eco mode motor responses are so slurred and acceleration so lethargic it feels like it’s had a stroke. Unforgiveable in normal cars. In this? Not bothered.

BMW i3: Everyone is aware of the i3’s spectacular acceleration and quick steering. Less talked about is terrifying grip in wet weather from tyres with the cross section of a phone book’s spine. Speed, agility, brutal off-throttle engine braking and sudden four-wheel drifting make a quixotic experience.

Renault Zoe: Functional and nippy rather than fun, its Spartan construction means a surprisingly noisy drive with various low groans and high-pitched whistles from compressors and motors echoing through the cabin. The brakes are snatchier than a teenager in the front row at a 1D concert.

BMW i3

Does it cost the earth to run?

Volkswagen e-Golf: That the Golf should cost more than the BMW seems incredible given what appears to be a ‘bung an EV in what we’ve got’ philosophy against the bespoke i3. It’s clearly a much better car than that, but what are you paying for?

Nissan Leaf: The big battery Leaf costs £1600 more than the smaller one, so it’s pricey. But in spec terms it wants for nothing, with heated steering wheel, leather, NissanConnect and a little song to tell you when it’s switched on. Actually handy!

BMW i3: The i3 is bucking the trend for wobbly used EV values, which helps running costs, and gives the impression you’re buying a whole package rather than a box of batteries. A true BMW, ie, it needs lots of options to feel plush.

Renault Zoe: Contrary to its Zennish character, the pricing is manic. Buy car and batteries for over £18k, or rent them monthly like a phone from £55. But mileage and types of charging change costing. Still way more affordable than the rest.

Group test verdict

Verdict

Volkswagen e-Golf: Very much on the Zoe’s simpler, less showy, side of the fence, but with less charm, the Golf is an expensive, refined car for those who don’t want to shout about owning an EV.

Nissan Leaf: In some ways the Leaf, with its experimental vibe, is showing its age. But in others – an actual family car, good range and high number of charging points – it is still ahead.

BMW i3: More time, money and thought has been put in but does that make it better? For nearly twice the Zoe’s price, you can’t go twice as far before the plug comes out.

Renault Zoe: By definition EVs are urban runabouts, and the Zoe is the best of them. Cheap, simple and characterful without being eccentric or weird, Renault has pitched it perfectly.

The spec sheet

Volkswagen e-Golf

Price: £31,325 (excluding grant)
Engine: Electric motor powered by Lithium-ion, 115bhp, 199lb ft
Performance: 10.5sec 0-62mph, 87mph, 118 NEDC range
Weight: 1599kg
On sale: Now
Rating: ***

Nissan LEAF Tekna 30kWh

Price: £31,490 (excluding grant)
Engine: Electric motor powered by Lithium-ion, 109bhp, 185lb ft
Performance: 11.5sec 0-62mph, 89mph, 155 NEDC range
Weight: 1535kg
On sale: Now
Rating: ***

BMW i3

Price: £30,980 (excluding grant)
Engine: Electric motor powered by Lithium-ion, 170bhp, 182lb ft
Performance: 7.2sec 0-62mph, 93mph, 118 NEDC range
Weight: 1270kg
On sale: Now
Rating: ***

Renault Zoe Dynamique Nav (CAR winner)

Price: £20,045 (excluding grant)
Engine: Electric motor powered by Lithium-ion, 88bhp, 160lb ft
Performance: 13.5sec 0-62mph, 84mph, 149 NEDC range
Weight: 1468kg
On sale: Now
Rating: ***

Read more from the March 2016 issue of CAR magazine

By Steve Moody

Contributing editor, adventurer, ideas pitcher, failed grower-upper

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