First Drive: Renault Fluence Z.E.
Key features: Renault’s first passenger electric car on sale
Our view: At last Nissan’s Leaf electric car (EV) has a direct rival, and it comes from sister brand Renault.
The Fluence Z.E. is a four-door family saloon, the second prong of Renault’s intensive four-vehicle EV strategy that began last autumn with the Kangoo van. It will continue in April with the car/scooter combination Twizy and at the end of the year the one everyone’s waiting for, the Zoe supermini.
The Fluence is not a specifically-designed EV – since 2009 Renault has offered it in petrol/diesel form in markets (mostly on mainland Europe) where saloon body styles are rather more popular. It fills the gap left by the decision not to make a saloon version of the latest Megane, though it is a bigger car.
Converting the Fluence to an EV makes it even bigger, simply achieved by lengthening the rear end by 130mm and putting the lithium ion battery pack behind the rear seats.
As a result, while offering a reasonable profile, the Fluence does suffer from a degree of Prius/Insight effect – it’s noticeable when parked alongside traditional cars, portraying itself as “one of those slightly odd electric cars” when others, notably Vauxhall’s Ampera, are more successfully integrating themselves into the mainstream.
There are some nice styling touches – I particularly like the cool blue tinge to the chromework, apparently a cue reserved for Renault’s EVs.
Slip inside and there is plenty of room up front and in the back. Open the boot and you might assume that the large bluff wall hiding the batteries has resulted in space being compromised. In fact it’s the same 310 litres as the stock Fluence, just an awkward shape, high and not very long.
Ahead of the driver the dash looks quite normal, except that the rev counter has been replaced by what appears to be a very large fuel gauge but is in fact a range indicator – Renault does not want you running out of battery juice… There is also an econometer, a needle gauge that moves into a red zone when you are driving in a fashion that eats up battery power.
Turn the key to on, put the auto gear lever in drive and nothing happens. Take your foot off the brake and the car moves almost silently forward – almost because there is the tiny whistle of the electric motor, rather supercharger-like, that increases in intensity as you increase speed, though never to a level that is off-putting.
There are some techniques to learn when driving an EV of this type, not least the fact that all the power and torque is available instantly – floor the throttle when moving away and the tyres can briefly break traction.
The Fluence accelerates cleanly and constantly – while the 13.7-second 0-62mph time is not that quick, getting there is seamless, so you arrive at the typical urban traffic speed of 30mph or so rather more rapidly than you might expect.
That acceleration continues without pause up to the electronically-limited maximum of 84mph and once you get used to it, the Fluence handles with confidence.
Going downhill the ‘engine braking’ really makes itself felt, slowing the car markedly without any need to use the foot brake. You might be tempted to shift the stick into neutral, but you don’t want to be doing this as that regenerative braking is putting useful extra juice back into the battery.
Similarly while constant motorway speeds stretch the economy of a traditional car, they are bad news for EVs as the lack of significant downward gradients means no regenerative braking and a significantly shorter range.
The official test range of the Fluence is 115 miles. My first drive, which included some harsh acceleration, suggested a ‘real-world’ range of 70 to 80 miles will be the norm, and the Renault people on the event concurred with this.
Where the Fluence does let itself down, however, is in the charging. Currently there is no fast-charge option, and a full recharge can take anything from six to eight hours.
The only current extra aid is an optional cable which will give you a possibly vital 25 miles of travel after a three-hour charge. Renault says a fast charger is coming, but can’t say when – or if the first Fluence owners will be able to use it on their cars.
While Renault doesn’t shout about the fact, the Fluence’s direct rival is the Leaf from sister brand Nissan, and there are reasons to choose the Renault, mostly on price.
The Fluence sells from £17,495 but unlike with the £26,000 Leaf you have to add on a monthly battery hire price – Renault prefers to keep responsibility for its batteries in house (In Israel, where many Fluences are being sold, there are a network of ‘battery change stations’ where the car drives in and the discharged battery is automatically removed from underneath and replaced with a charged one – just like going to a petrol station…).
Battery hire costs vary depending on the length of contract the owner signs up for and their annual mileage. But with average motoring you could buy a Fluence and own it for three years and pay around £5,000 less than its Nissan rival.
Is the Renault a viable option? If you tool down a motorway on a daily basis, no. But if your daily commute totals around 60-70 miles in a significant amount of urban traffic, or you can drive 60 miles to work and then plug the car in all day, then yes, it might well be worth looking at.
Model Tested: Renault Fluence Z.E. Dynamique
On Sale: 1st March 2012
Price: £18,395 (range starts £17,495) – battery hire from £69.60 per month
Engine: Synchronous electric motor
Power (bhp): 94
Torque (lb/ft): 167
0-62mph (sec): 13.7
Top speed (mph): 84 (limited)
Fuel economy (combined, mpg): N/A – 115-mile range
CO2 emissions (g/km): Nil
Key rivals: Nissan Leaf
Test date: February 2012
Words by: Andrew Charman