Why The Renault Zoe Is Europe's Most Important Electric Car

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2013 Renault Zoe electric car (European model) at 2012 Paris Auto Show

2013 Renault Zoe electric car (European model) at 2012 Paris Auto Show

Enlarge Photo

You may never have heard of Europe's most important electric car.

It's the Renault Zoe, an all-electric subcompact that won't be sold in the United States.

It comes from French Renault, a company that shares technology with Japan's Nissan--which introduced the Leaf compact electric hatchback here in December 2010.

You can think of the Zoe as the Leaf's younger and more stylish half-sibling, if you like.

But its success, both in France and across the broader European market, will be crucial in setting expectations for how well plug-in electric cars do in Europe.

With hordes of subcompact and compact diesel cars available in Europe, and more drivers living in multiple dwellings without their own garages, Europe may be a tougher challenge for electric cars in some ways.

On the other hand, France's' electric grid has a great deal of nuclear power, meaning switching from burning hydrocarbon-based liquid fuels to driving on electrons really does have an impact on carbon emissions--much more so than in countries with coal-rich generation.

And Parisians already have some experience with electric cars, through the AutoLib electric car-sharing program that has put 1,750 Bollore BlueCars at 760 roadside charging kiosks in the capital region.

In late December, Renault delivered a total of 11 Zoes. The very first one went to France's minister for industrial development, Arnaud Montebourg, and 10 more to the Leclerc store chain, which has installed charging stations at some of its stores.

2013 Renault Zoe electric car (European model) at 2012 Paris Auto Show

2013 Renault Zoe electric car (European model) at 2012 Paris Auto Show

Enlarge Photo

The Zoe will start arriving in volume at Renault dealerships in France this spring.

Installation of public charging stations has lagged the initial projections, and there seems to be a chicken-and-egg situation, with some groups saying they don't want to spend the money on stations until there are cars to use them.

But the most important thing about the Renault Zoe is that it is the sole dedicated electric car from a European brand; there is no gasoline version.

Aside from the low-volume specialized Bollore BlueCar, no other European maker now offers a dedicated battery electric vehicle.

That will change late this year, when the 2014 BMW i3 goes on sale.

2013 Renault Zoe electric car (European model) at 2012 Paris Auto Show

2013 Renault Zoe electric car (European model) at 2012 Paris Auto Show

Enlarge Photo

But even the largest European automaker, Volkswagen, has said that its first battery electric Golf E will be an adapted from its next-generation 2014 Golf compact hatchback.

So watch the reception carefully this spring as the Renault Zoe begins to hit the streets of France.

If it's well reviewed and its owners becomes evangelists for driving electric--as many Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Model S drivers are in the States--then prospects are good.

Otherwise, it may be possible that Renault will have to backtrack on its optimistic projections for electric car sales in its early  years--as Nissan has already done.

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