Renault eyes electric vehicle dominance with Fluence Kangoo ZE MotorTorque

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RENAULT Fluence Electric Cars

Renault eyes electric vehicle dominance with Fluence, Kangoo ZE

Renault launched its Fluence ZE and Kangoo ZE electric vehicles this week amid some bold claims about aspirations for EV sales and the affordability of both models.

The Fluence ZE is an electric version of the mid-size saloon on sale on continental Europe that slots into the compact family car sector alongside the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Renault’s own Megane.

It’s a little longer than the combustion Fluence so that it can incorporate battery packs and offer the same amount of interior and storage space so appears more akin to a Mondeo, Insignia or Laguna.

The Kangoo ZE, on the other hand, is identical to the combustion models in the range. Available in Kangoo van and Kangoo Maxi — the latter with five or seven seats — it will only be offered as a commercial vehicle so does not benefit from the government’s £5K plug-in car discount.

The Kangoo — in its various incarnations — is on sale in the UK now while the Fluence will go on sale in the UK early in 2012. Both models will be sold as a battery-lease arrangement, meaning an extra monthly cost on top of asking prices that start at £17,850 (with government grant) for the Fluence ZE and £21,038 fior the Kangoo ZE.

The pair have an official range of 114 and 106 miles for Fluence and Kangoo respectively and can be charged using either a dedicated wallbox or charging point in 6-8 hours using a cable that is included.

Both can be charged using a normal household socket, but charging times extend to around 12 hours — and requires an extra cable that costs £414.

Sales and costs

Renault says its Fluence EV is the UK’s most affordable electric car — cocking a snoop at its more expensive sister-brand car the Nissan Leaf and the eye-wateringly expensive Mitsubishi I-MiEV, although the Japanese cars come with a battery pack included.

Renault says the price point is designed to make it comparable to a similar petrol or diesel model. The Fluence in either format isn’t available in the UK, but Renault says the comparable combustion car is the diesel Mégane Hatch Dynamique TomTom.

The Renault Fluence ZE costs £17,850 on-the-road following a UK Plug-In Car Grant that knocks £5,000 off any electric vehicle.

For that you get 16 alloy wheels, climate control, cruise control, ecoMeter and Carminat TomTom Live smart satellite navigation with EV-specific data on charging points and range — together with charging sockets on both front wings.

Monthly battery lease prices start from £75 per month for a 6,000-mile/three-year contract but differ according to the length of contract and annual mileages

Renault says that the cost per kilometre — presumably on the cheapest lease option and cheap night-time energy — of running either the Fluence of Kangoo ZE is around five Euro cents (four pence) when energy and battery lease costs are taken into account. That compares favourably with the combustion costs for either Fluence or Kangoo ICE models, put at eight Euro cents (seven pence).

With list prices the same for electric versus combustion models in the Fluence and Kangoo ranges, Renault will says it is doing all it can to give car-buyers a transparent choice between its electric and petrol/diesel models. Rather than being a more expensive option, the costs position the EVs as a straight alternative.

Green or economical?

Are electric cars green? That’s a rather vexed question. They emit zero emissions at source, but the question of where that energy derives from is difficult to answer in terms of putting a figure on how green electric cars are.

For the time being I’ll give EVs the benefit of the doubt and suggest that, in general, they’re probably responsible for less CO2 and other pollutants per mile. Electric motors are far more efficient than petrol or diesel engines, they’re more efficient in stop-start driving, where they’ll be used most and where ICE vehicles are at their worst.

Renault says the world has enough lithium to make six billion such battery packs for cars — and is investing in end-of-life facilities to recycle these lithium ion manganese battery packs.

The focus of promotional materials for electric cars seems, to me, to have shifted away from the green argument — perhaps because the point is harder to prove than it was once believed, but more likely because running costs are an easier sell in these tough economic times.

Residual values

Used values for electric cars like the Fluence ZE and vans like the Kangoo ZE are, perhaps, the biggest sticking point for those sizing up an electric-car purchase.

Renault says that it has worked hard to protect residual values for its electric cars and believes that its EV models will roughly shadow combustion engine counterparts in terms of residuals.

However, that equation will likely be decided by factors beyond Renault’s control. Incentives and infrastructure in different countries will probably have the most significant bearing on future used values for these electric vehicles.

Even if running costs are favourable and there are no problems with batteries or ranges, a lack of improvement in terms of a public charging infrastructure will make EVs unattractive to many potential buyers against petrol or diesel rivals.

For now an EV purchase is something of a trip into the unknown; I suspect residual values for the Fluence and Kangoo ZE will be strong, or at least comparable to petrol and diesel variants — but that’s only a hunch.

Warranty

Renault’s decision to lease the lithium-ion battery pack seemed like a good idea at the time – certainly a better bet than buying it outright, as Nissan Leaf owners must. When the car is out warranty, Leaf owners will have to keep their fingers crossed that old battery packs have long lives – or shell out for another.

Renault’s battery lease approach seems even more attractive now as a way to run an EV. While there’s still a question mark as to whether a Fluence actually works out as cheaper to run than a low-CO2 Ford Focus or Vauxhall Astra, buyers will enjoy the peace of mind of a battery pack that is guaranteed to hold at least 75 per cent of its full capacity. If it doesn’t, or the pack becomes damaged, Renault replaces it.

When it comes to resale, the battery pack stays with the car throughout its life, so a new buyer will either inherit an existing battery lease agreement or have to strike a new one. No agreement, no battery.

Battery safety, charging and life-span

Renault uses lithium-ion manganese battery packs to power its current range of ZE electric models. They use 48 modules weighing in at a combined 280kg, which each contain four storage cells.

The battery packs output 400V and can be charged from a home electrical socket. Renault’s preferred partner in the UK for wallboxes, which can cut charging times by a third and cost £995, is British Gas.

Renault says that 90 per cent of all charging will take place at home or at work, with the remainder at roadside stations or in car-parks.

On future models Renault will add a fast-charge facility that will return an 80 per cent charge from around 30 minutes of charging from a specialist outlet.

Renault says the battery packs will last between eight-ten years, by which time there may be more efficient batteries with longer ranges on the block. Renault says that it may be possible for Fluence and kangoo ZE owners to swap their first-generation batteries for improved second-gen battery packs in the future.

In some countries Renault will also offer battery swapping, allowing for very swift battery drops at specialist stations. Neither will be available for the current Renault Fluence of Kangoo ZE models.

RENAULT Fluence Electric Cars

Neither the Fluence ZE nor Kangoo ZE has any fast charge ability, meaning slow overnight or at-work recharge times only. That might raise eyebrows but Renault doesn’t believe that either will be required for the Fluence or Kangoo.

In the latter case that’s because the expeccted profile of Kangoo ZE drivers means that the electric vans will be pressed into low-mileage urban driving during the day and will recharge overnight, when it’s cheapest.

The lack of fast-charge ability seems to be to keep costs down to a minimum, but Renault’s coyness over the issue may point to a desire not to upset battery-swap partners BetterPlace.

Renault says that it should be impossible for its battery packs to explode, as occasionalyl happens with mobile phone or laptop batteries, diue to a number of failsafes in the battery packs. Should one of the 140 cells in the battery fail, it can be replaced.

Renault adds that in heat testing it took ten minutes for a ZE vehicle to catch fire, as opposed to between one and two minutes for a petrol tank to catch fire and explode. It also drove a nail into the battery pack and conducted repeat rear-impact crashes to ensure the pack didn’t intrude into the rear of the cabin.

Powertrain

In the Fluence ZE, the electric motor outputs 95bhp but develops a significant 226Nm (166lb-ft) of torque. That means that the Fluence can’t top 100mph — it’s limited to preserve battery packs — but it is very fast off the line, sprinting to 50kph in 4.1 seconds — faster than its internal combustion counterpart.

It’s good for a range of around 180km — or 114 miles — on a full charge but that range can vary significantly depending on driving style, temperature, driving, the kind of terrain and more. Allowing for those factors, full-charge ranges can be anywhere between 80-200km.

In the Kangoo ZE, there’s the same torque from the electric drivetrain, but power is limited to 60bhp


The battery pack can be regenerated when the driver takes his or her foot off the gas pedal, similar to how a KERS system works on a Formula One car and allowing for longer ranges for more careful drivers.

Powertrains in both Fluence and Kangoo EVs are covered for five years or 100,000km by warranty, while the vehicle is covered for three years.

Both cars are covered by 24-hour breakdown cover built into the battery lease costs — and batteries are guaranteed for as long as they are leased. If they degrade beyond 75 per cent of their original capacity or fail they are replaced.

Electric avenue

Renault reckons that ten per cent of all the cars on the road by 2020 will be electric, and it’s determined to be the leader of the pack on the electric vehicle front.

It’s ploughing cash into technology partnerships; it will make its own batteries at its Cleon plant in France; it will open specialist electric car stations with specialist technicians across Europe; it’s working with insurance companies to bring down the cost of running EVs; it has four cars virtually ready for market now and has plenty more on the drawing board.

There are huge advantages to being first to market with stuff like this. Toyota has never looked back as the ‘green’ leader in the car market since it launched the first Prius a decade ago. Renault is betting on being the first — and therefore best in the eyes of consumers — with a real-world electric car you’ll be seeing on the streets any day now.

Of course sister company Nissan and a couple of others beat Renault to the punch, but Renault is going flat out to embed its brand with electric cars.

If they truly are the way forward then the gamble will pay off. And it is a gamble — building new cars does not come cheap.

Renault does have its impressive diesel dci 130 diesel engines and will soon unveil a new range of efficient petrol engines too — but it has ploughed vast amount of financial and political capital into EVs.

Should EVs not take off — and there are many reasons to suspect they may not — Renault will be heading down a cul-de-sac instead of an electric avenue.

RENAULT Fluence Electric Cars

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