The Renault Zoe, one of Europe's most popular electric cars, has been given a zero-star safety rating in the latest round of Euro NCAP crash tests, while sibling brand Dacia's new Spring EV was awarded just one star.
The Zoe previously held a five-star Euro NCAP rating but was entered into the tests following a substantial facelift last year which ushered in a bigger battery and extra power but also, the safety organisation notes, a new seat-mounted side airbag that protects just the occupant's thorax, rather than the head and thorax as it did previously.
This change represents "a degradation in occupant protection", according to Euro NCAP, which reported that in the side-pole-impact test, the "driver's head directly impacted the intruding pole and head injury values indicated poor protection of this part of the body".
The supermini's performance in the frontal offset crash test was also "poor", with Euro NCAP citing weak protection for the driver's chest area and the necks of children in the back seats specifically.
The Zoe is also said to lack active safety technology "commonly fitted as standard", such as lane-departure warning and standard-fit automatic emergency braking (AEB), which vehicle safety research firm Thatcham says can reduce "front-to-rear crashes with injuries by 56%". Therefore it achieved a rating of just 14% in the Safety Assist category, some 61% lower than the 2021 average.
Importantly, however, Renault will make AEB standard to all Zoe models ordered from 1 March 2022.
Overall, the Zoe achieved a 43% adult occupant safety rating (the lowest for 11 years), a 52% child occupant rating and a 41% rating in the Vulnerable Road Users category.
Matthew Avery, Euro NCAP board member and chief research and strategy officer at Thatcham, told Autocar: “Every few years, Euro NCAP raises the bar by introducing new tests which either exploit new technologies or lift the hurdle to make manufacturers do better. If everyone is five-star, we need to lift the barrier."
As a result of these alterations, he explained: “When we first tested the Zoe, it did reasonably well and had all the elements you needed back then to get a reasonable score. But if you've still got the same design 10 years later, you aren't going to score as well.”
He said that the inclusion of the previous Zoe's side-mounted airbag might have pushed the current model's rating up to one star, but “it certainly wouldn’t be any better”, as “we would expect to see the general poor performance and red areas on the dummy”. He also clarified that the previous model's five-star verdict wouldn't necessarily still apply, given changes to the testing process.
The Euro NCAP crash test process isn't mandatory so is either undergone by cars entered voluntarily by their manufacturers or by cars purchased by the testing body itself.
In a statement sent to Autocar, Renault said: “Renault takes note of the results published by Euro NCAP following specific tests on Zoe E-Tech Electric according to its new protocol implemented in 2020.
"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.”
Renault also pointed out that the Zoe “has been launched with several standard elements according to the equipment level to improve the safety of occupants and other road users (Active Safety): front LED headlamps, overspeed prevention, advanced emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane-departure alert, lane-keeping assist, traffic-signs recognition, automatic high/low-beam switching of the lights [and] blindspot warning.”
It continued: "The Zoe was launched in 2013 and received 5 stars with Euro NCAP protocol at that time. The Euro NCAP protocol has since 2013 undergone five changes. With the same equipment, a model can lose up to two stars in each protocol change.
"The evolution of the current Zoe was decided in 2017 adapting the passive safety equipment to real accidentology and updating the car with state of the art ADAS equipment such as Advanced Emergency Braking with Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection, Lane Departure Alert and Lane Keeping Assist, using a radar and a camera."
The new Dacia Spring EV, Europe's cheapest full-sized electric car, which is set to go on sale in the UK in 2022, was awarded its one-star verdict on the basis that "its performance in crash tests is downright problematic," according to Euro NCAP.
The electric city car is closely related to the Chinese-market Renault City K-ZE EV and combustion-engined Renault Kwid, which landed a one-star Global NCAP safety rating in 2016.
Euro NCAP said testing highlighted "a high risk of life-threatening injuries for driver chest and rear passenger head in frontal crash tests and marginal chest protection in side impact".
Despite being fitted with the head-protecting airbag removed from the Zoe, the Spring achieved only a 49% score for adult occupant protection, while a risk to rear-seat passengers resulted in a 56% child occupant rating.
The Spring is also missing "key active safety systems".
Avery said: "This is anything but a safe family car, despite being marketed as a good option for families."
Citing an Autocar article from earlier this year, Euro NCAP noted that Dacia wins appeal with certain buyers who don't want "useless features" on their car but said that the Spring goes "beyond no-frills".
Avery said: “Dacia argues that drivers don’t need collision-avoidance technology. We would argue that’s not right, because nobody wants to have a crash; nobody wants to feel what it’s like to be smacked in the face by an airbag, really. So active safety is just as important as passive safety.”
He suggested that the Spring’s shortcomings in the active safety segment (ie. a lack of advanced driver aids) isn't necessarily compensated for by a strong active safety performance. It has “very poor active and passive safety,” he said.
Commenting on the Spring’s one-star rating, Dacia said: “[The] Spring is a safe new A-segment car. It is homologated, complies with European safety regulations and goes even beyond."
Automatic emergency braking and fireman access are not mandatory in European regulations, Dacia noted.
The manufacturer added: “[The] Spring proposes a full list of safety features providing better protection than most of the cars on the roads of Europe today (including those of upper segments).
"However, the contradiction remains between the light weight/small size of the car (which makes them more efficient and more accessible) and the resistance in terms of crash; especially with Euro NCAP protocols getting more and more stringent every two years, in particular for small city cars.”
Meanwhile, in the same round of tests, Euro NCAP awarded five-star verdicts to the BMW iX, Genesis G70, Genesis GV70, Mercedes-Benz EQS, Nissan Qashqai, Skoda Fabia and Volkswagen Caddy.