Taking the family to France by electric car

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Usually white-knuckle sports summon a very particular set of images. Parachute jumping into the Grand Canyon, perhaps. Or cage fighting with sharks.

I’d like to humbly add driving your family from London to I’le de Re in France in an all-electric Renault ZOE to that nail-biting list.

Let’s start with the caveats. Around the streets of the city, the ZOE makes most of my eco-friendly dreams come true. Quick, responsive, easy to drive, lots of visibility, comfortable, with a slick and intuitive entertainment and satnav system. Perhaps a bit cramped to be a true family car, but a vehicle I’d snap up against most petrol-driven competition if I never intended to travel more than 50 miles from my front door.

Therein, however, lies the rub. I was planning to drive my partner and our two kids, 14 & 11, more than 350 miles to the Atlantic coast of France, just beyond Brittany. And I’d never done anything like that distance before in an electric car.

It turns out that it has to be planned like a military operation. You realise how sophisticated, easy and ubiquitous the fossil fuel life support system is when you’ve spent a day wrestling with the ZOE’s satnav, Google Maps, and various smartphone apps to plot out a route rich with electric charging points. Relative to standard petrol stations, they are still as rare as hen’s teeth.

I had a knot of anxiety in my stomach as we set off for the Brittany Ferry terminal in Portsmouth, and the first few hours of driving only made it worse. The fully charged 185-mile range on the dashboard turned out to be woefully inaccurate at anything above 60MPH.

The 73-mile journey left a range of just 35 miles. Once we discovered that rumours that you could recharge on the ferry were just that, it meant that finding a charging point immediately upon arrival in France became top priority.

That wouldn’t have been a major problem if the charging point I had painstakingly pinpointed in the chic little Normandy port town of Ouistreham had been willing to accept either my credit card, or indeed any of the wide range of charging point cards I’d arrived armed with. Electric car inexperience and non-existent French made finding an alternative at short notice a daunting prospect, and there was now only 25 miles of range left on the clock.

Worried about grinding to a halt in the depths of rural France at night, we conceded defeat and checked into a Mercure hotel in nearby Caen with a fast charging point in its car park, losing half a day of our holiday and racking up a room bill. Things could only get better with a new day, we told ourselves…

How wrong can you be? The four-and-a-half drive from Caen to I’le de Re took a total of 12 nerve-wracking hours, and our learning curve was vertiginous.

On the motorway, I had to stick to a snail-like 60MPH to eke 80 – 90 miles out of the ZOE on full charge. Being honest, a more experienced electric car aficionado might have pushed the envelope a bit and had the courage to arrive at a charge point with 1 mile of range left.

Indeed, amongst the good-humoured Brotherhood of the Electric we discovered on the road, we came across a dashing French guy who laughed that he never even bothered to start looking for chargers until his countdown read minus 10 miles.

I, however, started to sweat when the dashboard began telling me we had less than 20 miles of range to go before we unceremoniously ground to halt on the hard shoulder. At that point, we would begin the panic-stricken satnav/phone app hunt for the next charging point.

Which brings us to the small matter of charging points, and charging itself. Finding them was the first challenge. Chargers that appeared close to the motorway were often miles off it, hidden in remote car parks in obscure villages, or at the end of unmarked lanes.

Once, you find a charger, it’s hit-or-miss whether it will accept your credit card or one of the many charging cards you are carrying with you. Several times we had to simply drive away to find another charger, with the miles to breakdown ticking away in front of our eyes.

On one occasion – with five miles of range left – we arrived at charger in a service station to find it demanding a card we didn’t have before it would open and operate. We paid €24 for the card, wrestled with registering it online with a very poor signal, and then discovered it wouldn’t work for no reason we, or anyone else, could discover. It was only because a particularly lovely Brotherhood of the Electric French guy on the next charger let us use his card (for free) that we were able to stave off the looming threat of having to call for a tow truck to take us to the next charger 20 miles away.

Then there was the time it took to charge. Even so-called fast chargers took anywhere between 2 and 2-and-a-half hours to reach full charge. One time, my partner Jane staged an hour-long family yoga class in a sun-baked car park in the middle of nowhere as we waited to be able to leave. On another, my son Fin broke out his guitar and went through his entire Bob Dylan and David Bowie repertoire as the moon rose on the fields behind us in a village where every chance of a coffee and a sandwich was long closed.

An 80-mile range meant three two-hour plus charging sessions to reach our destination. Normally, having set out at 10am, I would have expected to have eased effortlessly into in I’le de Re at 3pm at the latest. Instead, we arrived exhausted and little bit hysterical at well after 10pm.

It’s with a heavy heart – as a committed Green who longs for the demise of the petrol driven motor – that I have to tell you that while electric can already be a smart and practical choice in town, it probably still has a few years to go before range and charging infrastructure make it the king of the open road.

The lowdown: Renault ZOE

Renault ZOE Dynamique Nav R110 Z.E.40

Estimated temperate driving range: 186 miles
Estimated winter driving range: 124 miles
CO2 emissions: 0g/km
Max speed: 84MPH
0 – 62MPH: 11.9 secs
Insurance rating: 19E
OTR price: £18,420

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