Wednesday 21 March 2018

Electric passage to Arona

After testing the top and bottom of the EV range, Campbell Spray came back to petrol with Seat's new small SUV

BIG IMPRESSION: The ruggedly handsome Seat Arona does the basics really well
BIG IMPRESSION: The ruggedly handsome Seat Arona does the basics really well

It seems so long ago now, but it was a pretty electric festive season for me, in as much as I was able to test cars at the top and bottom of the EV market. These were the Tesla Model S, which I reported on a couple of weeks back, and the Renault Zoe.

In between I was driving a BMW 530E, a plug-in hybrid, which showed both the advantages - no range anxiety ever; and disadvantages - a lot of plugging-in if you wanted to use the electric battery and less boot room of this type of midway point. The BMW was probably my favourite to drive as conditions were great for some really confident, fast driving and the car has a lovely feeling of class about it. The 530 is just the motor to ferry my son and his girlfriend from the airport when they needed a bit of cosseting. I could almost give it an ethical bill of health despite the price tag in the middle sixties - even after all the rebates were made.

However, I couldn't live with it; too much of trying to have your cake and eat it. Next year, it won't be just the Tesla that has massive battery life - cars like the impressive Hyundai Kona will have electric versions with a realistic range of 400km which could be real game-changers, so I probably wouldn't go the hybrid plug-in route now. Your returns won't justify it.

The BMW was preceded by the Tesla and then succeeded by the all-electric Renault Zoe, which initially palled in my affections because of its size and lack of luxury but grew to gain a grudging respect. It also taught me that you can really drive for almost nothing in an EV by good use of the regenerative power of the braking system.

GRUDGING RESPECT: The easy-to-handle Renault Zoe
GRUDGING RESPECT: The easy-to-handle Renault Zoe

One trip into the Dublin Mountains used only a handful of kilometres of battery life by letting the car do all the braking itself on the return journey. Another trip of about 25km also only used a couple of kms of juice, again by letting the car slow itself at every available opportunity and keeping to reasonable speeds. But don't do this if a big truck is coming fast behind you.

The car I was driving, the ZE 4.0, has the bigger range of the Zoes and doubles the kilometres that can be achieved over the car when it was first launched. While the Zoe Expression Nav, with a much smaller range, starts at €23,490 (including SEAI grant of €5,000 and VRT relief) the bigger battery comes with the Dynamique and Signature Nav versions at €27,4590 and €29,990 respectively. Both have massive amounts of spec but metallic paint pushed the test Sig Nav to €28,010. All Zoes now include the cost of batteries against the old and very poor lease system.

The car is brisk, very easy to handle and the space inside - including the boot area - is more than adequate. But at that price you expect something more. I'm not going to pay nigh on €30k for a small Renault even when I believe you will always get at least 200km of the claimed 400km range. The marque hasn't the name for reliability or resale values to make this a totally sensible choice yet. However, first adopters have a strange logic of their own. It could be a great second car and its ease of use will mean that you will be in it more than you planned. In Britain the Zoe is available at absolutely massive discounts, it should be here too.

It is good to see that the GoCar people have joined with Renault to put a lot of Zoe 4.0 models on the streets. It is the future.

My sojourn with the EVs ended when I picked up one of the cars I was most looking forward to, the Seat Arona.which is named after the Tenerife port town. This is one of the latest popular small SUVs, of which we have seen so many - before Christmas came the Kia Stonic, Citroen C3 Aircross and the Hyundai Kona - and we will see a lot more in the next few weeks like the Volkswagen T-Roc and Skoda Karoq.

At first glance the Arona makes a big impression with its contrasting roof and sculpted lines. It reminds me of my youth when I wasn't the most attractive boy. I played up to the insults at boarding school by calling myself "ruggedly handsome" without really knowing what that meant.

Unfortunately I had a lisp and a stutter so it came out as "w…w…w..wugg…". You get the point. However, I would give the RH title to the Arona, especially the test car with its Desire Red colour and grey roof. Could be me!

I was driving the Arona Xcellence with the gutsy three- cylinder 1.0TSI 115bhp petrol engine. It starts at €22,815 although the full range begins at a latte short of €18k but realistically think €20k. However, a lot of different packs - Spring, Winters, Connectivity Plus, Easy, BeatsAudio system, etc had been added to push the price of the test car to €27,591. But you don't need to go there. The basic car is very well-equipped and at just over €24k you would have a very fine car. The price "walks"are easy to follow.

Following on from its Ibiza hatchback sister the Arona is well built, although you will recognise a lot of VW bits. But the plastics are good, it all has a nice feel, room is excellent front and back and the split-level floor in the back is excellent. I liked the touchscreen and there are lots of engines and transmission options. The DSG automatic does tempt me.

Seat did well with the Ateca and this smaller model follows through, although some of the early launch hype might have been a bit over the top. One major UK reviewer reckoned it was better to go for the company's Leon "bigger, better and no more expensive".

But the Leon is no crossover and that's where the money is going these days. The Arona does the basics really well without showing off. In that respect it reminds me of the Hyundai Kona, which impressed before Christmas. The Spanish Arona could be a real alternative to the Korean car which is likely to be the class winner this year. However, Seat doesn't have the same reputation for reliability or five-year warranty.

There is a bit of wind noise on the motorway but there's really nothing that will intrude on the average person's enjoyment of a highly efficient car that is flexible, honest and confident. It doesn't have any special off-road capabilities - people who want a bit of extra traction should look at Peugeot's, Citroen's and now Opel's Grip Control.

I think that, as well as being a strong seller, the Arona will have good residuals now that Seat has put some real energy into its latest models but, as always, people should be warned about taking the first cars of a launch. There are usually a few little wrinkles that still need to be ironed out.

The Arona is definitely on my shortlist for a replacement car at Spray Towers but with an ESB car charger already installed in the garage it might just be prudent to wait for the electric Kona, or another EV, of which many will be coming in the next couple of years. You must try one.

Sunday Independent

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