Unfortunately, the French invented the electric car a century and a half too early.
In late 19th century, many French cars were electric-powered. They operated on giant batteries which could not be recharged. In the first decade of the 20th century, they were run off the road by the Model-T Ford and by cheap, untaxed petrol.
The second French coming of the electric car, post circa-2014, has been slow – despite government subsidies of €6,000 a car, raised to €7,000 from June.
Sales have jumped in the last two years. There are now reckoned to be over 80,000 private, electric cars on French roads – about 2 percent of the national fleet.
This month, I did my bit for the revolution. I drove a Renault Zoe for 1,777 kilometres from Normandy to the Atlantic Coast to Occitanie and back to Normandy.
Setting out today on my longest expedition in an electric car across France – from Normandy to Angers to Ile d'Oleron to Tarn et Garonne to Tours and back to Normandy in 6 days. About 1,500 k's, keeping off autoroutes. My Renault Zoe has 300k's battery range. Nerve-racking.
— John Lichfield (@john_lichfield) August 10, 2020
The experience was, by turns, wonderful and frustrating.
Wonderful because we limited ourselves almost entirely to two-lane roads, rediscovering the vastness of France and its endless variety and beauty, often unknown or forgotten.
Wonderful, also, because the secondary road network in France has been so improved and is so well-maintained (whatever the Gilets Jaunes may say). Some of us recall the crumbling and dangerous N and D roads of the 1970s and 1980s.
Almost all of the roads that we travelled – many of them D-roads – were well-surfaced and had expensively remodelled junctions. France has become, overnight it seems, a land of one million roundabouts.
But what of electric travel in France in 2020? Is it a viable alternative to petrol or diesel?
Is it cheaper? How easy is it to find and use the public recharging points?
This is where the frustrations start.
Much depends on what kind of electric car you use. There are now 43 models available for sale in France, ranging from the expensive to the very expensive.
A Renault Zoe on the production line at Flins-sur-Seine in Yvelines. Photo: AFP
A top of the range Tesla costs €90,000; a bottom of the range Zoe costs €32,000 if you buy, rather than lease, the battery. This is between two and three times more than the equivalent petrol or diesel cars.
The government and regional subsidies help but they apply in full only to the cheaper models.
The cheapest Tesla gives you 500 kilometres of travel before you need to stop and recharge. My 2019 Zoe gives, in theory, 300km (actually it can be less, or more, depending on the ambient temperature, average speed and steepness of the terrain). The new version 2020 Zoe gives 395km.
I’ve had my Zoe for just over a year. It is intended as a city or local rural run-about. In that role, it is excellent.
It’s not a car for long-distances, unless you decide, as we did, to re-create the experience of “motoring” through France in the 1960s.
As soon as you travel at over 90kph, battery power melts alarmingly. Ditto when you go up steep hills but at least your battery recharges when you come down the other side.
Teslas, as I understand it, can travel at full autoroute speed without losing too much range. Other, cheaper (but not cheap) electric cars are more like the Zoe.
What about recharging when far from home? This is, in theory, simple. There are over 28,000 charging points in France. Most small towns and many large villages have them.
A charging point in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Photo: AFP
The problem is that they are operated by local or regional networks – or in the case of the super-fast ones, national or international networks. The prices vary. So do the connecting cables. So do the charging speeds.
Some order and common-sense has been brought to this jumble in the last year or so by badges or cards which give access to most (not all) of the charging bornes. I have joined Chargemap. Other cards are available.
In our Travels with Zoe, the cost of recharges at public bornes ranged from €10.26 to zero. The expensive one was in Perigueux in Dordogne. The free one was at a supermarket south of Limoges.
Free is good but we earned it by spending two hours of our Sunday in an empty supermarket carpark.
Lengths of re-charging time vary with the power of the borne. With our Zoe, a complete recharge at the most common points varied from four hours to two hours. At home it takes 12 hours. The new fast points claim to be able to recharge half a Tesla battery in half an hour.
Finding the bornes is, in theory, easy. There are several apps which list and locate them. In practise, they can be hard to spot. Once found, they are occasionally out of order or closed. In one town we visited, two charging stations were out of action and one had the wrong kind of connection.
For 1,777 km, I spent €26.54 on electricity. Of this €24.44 went on public charging points. The rest – €2.10 – is the estimated cost of three charges on house mains. By my estimate, a similar trip would cost €180 to €220 in petrol or diesel, depending on the size of the car. My estimated saving in autoroute tolls was €90.
On the other hand, the need to recharge for long periods meant that we spent three nights in hotels that we might otherwise have avoided. Cost: €300.
Our electric journey through deepest France is over. Covered 1,777 kilomètres, from Calvados to Calvados via the Atlantic coast and Occitanie. Home with 37k's left in the battery. Zoe very thirsty and already plugged in. Nothing tastes as good as home charging. Summary later pic.twitter.com/7sPPvwxzPA
— John Lichfield (@john_lichfield) August 17, 2020
Conclusion one: The Zoe is not a car for speeding through France – and does not claim to be. It is a wonderful little car for care-free wandering carelessly La France Profonde (care-free but range-anxious).
For comparison, someone sent me an example of an 832 km Tesla journey in France which took ten hours with two recharges and cost €25.
Conclusion two: Buying an electric car – any electric car – is expensive and probably a bad idea. Their re-sale value is likely to be small as subsequent models improve.
Consider leasing instead. I did not buy my Zoe, I leased it – and its battery – for three years. I reckon that the saving in diesel alone has paid for the lease.
Conclusion three: This time around, electric cars are here to stay.