Citroen's C-ZERO might not be the most adventurous electric vehicle you've ever seen, but it's one of the few that is a production reality rather than a designer's flight of fancy. Now it's more affordable and has a wider network of dealer support. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
We hear a lot about electric vehicles but most are impractical or never actually offered for sale. The Citroen C-ZERO is a reality, offering zero emissions, a six-hour plug-in recharge time and a range of up to 95 miles. Though now more affordable than at launch, it's still expensive but many urban businesses and local authorities will not be deterred by an asking price that makes sense if you spread it over three year contract hire rentals. Do your sums here and EV motoring might not prove to be as far away from you as you think.
If I had a fiver for each time I'd read press releases from manufacturers trumpeting their commitment to zero-emission vehicles I'd be rather comfortably off. If, on the other hand, I had a fiver for every manufacturer that has brought one of these vehicles to market, you and I could probably do my earnings in on a Pizza Hut buffet evening. Noble intentions are all well and good, but for a zero-emissions vehicle that works in the here and now, look no further than Citroen's C-ZERO. Despite its appearance, the C-ZERO is a proper car, not a safety legislation-dodging 'quadricycle' like other less savoury electric vehicles that have appeared. Those of you who have a knowledge for Japanese esoterica will probably recognise it as a rebadged Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Yes, Citroen has taken a huge shortcut as a result but we can only judge what's in front of us and the C-ZERO looks very useful indeed. A launch price the thick end of £30,000 even with a £5,000 government grant made it look pricey to start with, but since then, prices have become more affordable. Just over £21,000 - or £250 a month over three years - will get you into one of these now. Which means that if you take into account the savings this car can give you, it now starts to make sense as a private ownership proposition.
Driving an electric vehicle always slightly confounds your expectations. For a start they disappoint because the child in me expects them to make milk float sound effects. They don't. They make no noise whatsoever, which in itself can be a bit of a menace to dozy pedestrians. The C-ZERO's permanent magnet synchronous motor is powered by a lithium-ion battery system and develops 64bhp from 3,000 to 6,000rpm. The real clincher is a maximum torque figure of 180Nm that's available instantly from 0 to 2000rpm which gives the little Citroen a surprising amount of verve as it steps off the mark. The batteries can either be charged by plugging the supply cord into a household 240-volt socket or, alternatively, the C-ZERO can be charged using an industrial 400-volt supply for an 80% charge in 30 minutes. The C-ZERO uses a simpler transmission than its Mitsubishi Japanese market cousin. Use the first portion of throttle travel and the C-ZERO is in Eco mode, give it a firmer prod and it surrenders the remaining power. On the road, the C-ZERO has a top speed of 80mph, acceleration from 0-62mph in 15 seconds and a range of around 95 miles over a standard combined cycle. The C-ZERO's nine-metre turning circle and alert handling also make it easy to navigate through city traffic. Parking is simpler than in any other vehicle I can think of due to its narrowness and the fact that the front wheels are further forwards than the bonnet, making it easy to edge into the meanest parking bay. At 3475mm long, it's dwarfed by a Citroen C1 city car.
Aside from the fact that you're very aware that there's not a lot of metal in front of your seating position, the interior of the C-ZERO feels fairly conventional. Narrow, but conventional. Two big blokes might rub shoulders in one but it offers more space than you might expect for such a short vehicle. This is because the propulsion system is very compact and the underfloor batteries don't impinge too much on cabin space. There's actually more space in the back of the C-ZERO than in most city cars and you get five doors as well. Don't count on carrying much baggage as the boot is tiny with the rear seats in place. The styling isn't too wacky, as the ostensibly similar-looking Mitsubishi i petrol-powered car has been on sale in the UK since 2006 and the public is fairly used to seeing these egg-shaped tots. Interior build quality isn't too bad, despite the fact that much of it has clearly been built with an eye on keeping weight down. In fact the only clue most would have that this was anything but a conventional petrol powered citycar at standstill would be the fact that the dash displays a petrol pump with, somewhat oddly, an electric plug hanging out of it. Is that better or worse than using a mobile phone when topping up? I'm not sure.
The story so far regarding the Citroen C-ZERO doesn't seem to have a catch. But at launch, buyers found it in the price - over £33,000, which seemed a lot even when you were able to use a £5,000 government grant to reduce it. Citroen though, has persisted, reducing the price in more recent times to just over £26,000 which, when you subtract the £5,000 grant, gets the figure down to a more affordable-sounding total of just over £21,000. Still a lot, but then, hardly anyone buys one of these outright, the few private customers that do take the plunge preferring instead to opt to spread the cost with contract hire rentals. These are now pitched at £250 a month over three years, a figure that actually stacks up quite well against what you'd pay for one of the better conventional superminis. These days, there's a much greater number of Citroen dealers selling the car and more elsewhere in the network that can service it. Not that much servicing should ever be required. As for the car itself, there's only a single bodystyle with one modestly equipped trim level on offer and in terms of competition, the most obvious two rivals are the Peugeot iOn and Mitsubishi MiEV models that share this Citroen's basic design. Aside from these, Nissan's slightly larger but now significantly pricier LEAF electric car will also be on the radar of most EV customers. Most of these are companies looking to project a clean image and local authorities who want to do likewise and set an example at the same time.
It's tricky to consider the C-ZERO's cost of ownership while trying to ignore the elephant in the room that is the upfront asking price. Clamber beyond that and you have a car that typically costs around £2.50 in electricity to run for 120 miles. You also get low servicing costs and downtime - with only approximately 4 working parts compared to over 300 in a typical internal combustion engine. This car is exempt from road tax (saving approx £300 per annum), has zero benefit-in-kind company car tax, benefits from a lower rate of VAT for domestic electricity, is exempt from congestion charges (saving up to £2,000 per annum in London) and benefits from free parking in many London boroughs and cities such as Milton Keynes. Owners can also expect high residual values due to high demand outstripping supply for several years to come. One thing that's definitely worth bearing in mind is the source of your electricity. If your power is being drawn from a filthy coal-fired power station, then your green credentials are going to be severely dented. Most electricity companies offer a guaranteed green tariff. These are separated into Green Supply where the supplier must ensure that for every unit of electricity you purchase, the company sources a stated percentage of renewable electricity for you. With Green Funds, your premium goes towards helping your electricity supplier participate in renewable energy projects and aids future development of sustainable energy.
That Citroen has brought an electric vehicle to market at all is laudable. By co-opting and rebadging the efforts of another manufacturer, the C-ZERO represents a short cut to achieving this end and as electric vehicles go, it's relatively simple. Many other manufacturers aim far higher but achieve nothing tangible. In contrast, you can buy this car now - and though still pricey, it's more affordable than it used to be. Do so and you'll find that the C-ZERO works surprisingly well as a commuter vehicle, although you'll have to get used to frequent charging unless you have a high capacity 400V power supply. The 95 mile range tends to engender a bit of 'range anxiety' when driving it but as long as you're not too heavy with the throttle, it'll manage most commutes with ease. What's tougher to justify at the moment is the asking price, but now that this has been reduced and contract hire rental payments made more affordable, this C-ZERO is starting to become a feasible option for private buyers prepared to consider long game running costs. Early adopters should form an orderly queue.