Renault’s Zoe and the disappearing safety stars

Euro NCAP has given the new Renault Zoe zero stars in its crash test, but does that tell the whole story?

Euro NCAP is the independent crash test expert group whose gruelling automotive torture tests have shaped vehicle safety for more than two decades now. NCAP has, this week, taken the gloves off when it comes to awarding safety ratings stars, giving the current Renault Zoe a withering zero-star score.

NCAP is certainly not pulling its punches, accusing the French car maker of “ruining the legacy” of such safety-conscious cars as the 2000 Laguna, the first car ever to score a maximum five-stars in the NCAP test.

Michiel van Ratingen, Euro NCAP's general secretary, told journalists that: "Renault was once synonymous with safety. The Laguna was the first car to get five stars, back in 2001. But these disappointing results for the ZOE and the Dacia Spring show that safety has now become collateral damage in the group's transition to electric cars.

“Only a few months ago, Dacia claimed that they were ‘preoccupied with always increasing safety for those on board’ and that their cars always have passenger safety improved. That’s clearly not the case: not only do these cars fail to offer any appreciable active safety as standard, but their occupant protection is also worse than any vehicle we have seen in many years.


“It is cynical to offer the consumer an affordable green car if it comes at the price of higher injury risk in the event of an accident. Other cars, such as the Fiat 500e, recently awarded 5 stars in Green NCAP, show that safety does not need to be sacrificed for environmental cleanliness.”


The low-rating has been triggered by airbags, or one airbag in particular. While the current Zoe is based on the same chassis and mechanical package as the original 2013 Zoe, which scored five-stars for safety, Renault has swapped out the old car’s side impact airbag for a less-effective - read: cheaper - airbag.

That new ‘bag protects a vehicle occupant’s thorax, but not their head. That has caused, says NCAP, a reduction in passenger safety, but it’s not the only issue facing the Zoe. “The new Zoe offers poor protection in crashes overall, poor vulnerable road user protection and lacks meaningful crash avoidance technology, disqualifying it for any stars” said the NCAP report.

The Zoe isn't the only Renault product to face criticism for its crash test performance. The new electric Dacia Spring - a car not yet on sale in Ireland - received only one-star for its crash protection, albeit that was a performance level that was possibly more expected. Dacia has frequently been criticised in the past for leaving out costly safety features as it chases lower list prices.

Responding to NCAP’s criticisms, Renault has put out an official statement, saying: “Renault reaffirms that Zoe E-Tech Electric is a safe vehicle, which complies with all regulatory safety standards. These standards are constantly evolving and are becoming more stringent in all domains, especially in safety.

“Renault therefore continually improves its offer in order to comply with the regulations applicable where its vehicles are sold. Zoe was launched in 2013 and received 5 stars with EuroNCAP protocol at that time.

“The EuroNCAP protocol has since 2013 undergone five changes. With the same equipment, a model can lose up to two stars in each protocol change.”


While Renault will doubtless update the Zoe further, in pursuit of a better NCAP score, the zero-stars result has opened up something of a debate about the relative safety levels of vehicles.

In the same round of tests that saw the compact Zoe and Spring score so badly, NCAP gave a maximum five-stars to the BMW iX, the Genesis G70 and GV70, the Mercedes EQS, the new Skoda Fabia, the latest Nissan Qashqai, the Volkswagen Caddy, and the MG Marvel R. As noted, the compact electric Fiat 500e received four-stars.

It’s notable, looking through the long list of NCAP test results, that many of the top-scoring cars are large SUVs. It’s much easier to make a large SUV safe, not merely because a bigger car gives you more space to protect occupants, but because they sell at a higher price point.

A higher price point means that more standard safety equipment can be easily included, and the buyer won’t notice the addition to the price tag. For smaller cars, it’s much trickier, and it’s notable that increasing levels of legislation to fit high-end safety kit as standard is effectively driving small cars to extinction.

Many car makers are calling into question the likelihood of creating next-generation small cars, because the twin pressures of safety equipment and electrification may render them unprofitable. It’s noticeable as soon as you look at current price lists - a small hatchback which, not very long ago would have cost you €14,000 is now nudging €20,000, even for a basic model.

The problem is that NCAP’s tests take place under laboratory conditions - of course they do, as how else would a fair baseline be established?

But the fact is that, increasingly, it’s the bulky, heavy, two-tonne SUVs that are racking up the best scores, while smaller, lighter cars are being marked down because they don’t come with the same levels of standard safety equipment.

In the laboratory, such things may produce results. In the real world, vulnerable road users - and that means all of us at some point - may choose to disagree.

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring