Renault Fluence Z E review (2012 onwards) MSN Cars UK

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Electric Cars

Renault Fluence Z.E. review (2012 onwards)

What: Renault Fluence Z.E.

Where: Lisbon, Portugal

Date: October 2011

Price: £22,850 (£17,850 with £5,000 government electric vehicle grant)

Available: May-June 2012 (tbc)

Summary: The Nissan Leaf has put electric cars on the map in a big way — how does the first effort from alliance partner Renault fair by comparison? In more ways than one, the Fluence Z.E. is a car defined by its batteries.

Renault

There’s no getting away from it — the Renault Fluence Z.E. is a funny looking beast. Not funny looking in the way a Chrysler Ypsilon is funny looking, but rather in the manner of a subtle optical illusion: something about it just isn’t quite right.

And there’s a reason for this. The regular Fluence is a Turkish-made compact saloon based on the Mégane platform; we’re not much interested in buying compact saloons in the UK, so Renault has never bothered trying to sell it to us.

Until now. The Fluence Z.E. we’re getting is the Zero Emissions version — which is to say it’s an electric car. In order to accommodate the batteries required to drive the 95hp (70kW) electric motor, Renault has been forced to make it longer.

The resulting bulbous back end allows the Z.E. to retain some boot space — though not as much as you might think, since there’s a 280kg battery pack lurking behind the rear seats — and match the interior room of the standard car.

Renault

Add a smattering of sparkling blue details, and you’ve got a fledgling assault on the fledgling electric vehicle (EV) market. And it is potentially an assault: with prices starting at just £17,850 it’s some £8,140 cheaper than the £25,990 Nissan Leaf (both with £5,000 government EV grant).

The value is certainly aggressive; even once you calculate the cost of leasing the battery — unlike Nissan, Renault doesn’t include the power pack in the cost of the car — it remains a more affordable solution.

But is more affordable what the early adopters of the EV world really want? Sure, we all love a bargain, but the Fluence is not only ordinary-verging-on-ugly on the outside, it’s decidedly unexciting on the inside as well.

With the drama of the new reserved for two of Renault’s other forthcoming electric efforts, the Twizy and the Zoe, and the functional taken care of by another, the Kangoo Z.E. electric van, the Fluence Z.E. is apparently an electric car for the earnest.

Performance

Renault

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, we just find ourselves wondering exactly who is going to buy it. It does have a slightly greater range than the Leaf — 115 miles versus 109 miles — but as with all current electric cars (sorry), it might not take you as far as the relatives, let alone across continents.

Obviously, that isn’t the point. But given the range-related limitations, won’t you want to feel like you’re piloting something a little bit special? The interior certainly isn’t going to give you this impression, so what about the driving experience?

This is very much a.n.other electric car in terms of straight-line performance. Initial pick-up is exceptionally good, since the motor develops 166lb ft of torque instantaneously, and with basically a single gear, acceleration is seamless.

Turn off the radio and you’ll be treated by a faint electric whine, but refinement is otherwise impressive — and given there’s no vibrating fossil burner under the bonnet, it should be. Top speed is 84mph, but it’s keenest up to around 55mph.

Ride and handling

Renault

Driven in an undemanding fashion on the dry, smooth roads of Portugal, the Fluence Z.E. is comfortable and competent, with a modest amount of lean through the corners and good bump absorption.

But it is a touch weird. Renault says modifications to the suspension mean the Z.E. handles just like its more ordinary Fluence brethren, yet there is now less weight up front (the electric motor being lighter than the internal combustion equivalent) and that 280kg battery pack at the back.

This sees its 1,605kg total weight split 736kg front and 869kg rear, and since the batteries are positioned in an upright stack, the balance of the vehicle is considerably altered compared to the original. It feels far from natural from the driver’s seat.

Push harder and the steering weight seems artificially exacerbated as if compensating for the reduced mass over the driven wheels, while the back end feels decidedly cumbersome. The car resolutely refuses to misbehave, though, which is credit to the chassis engineers. Or whoever sorted the stability control.

Renault

Step into a Leaf, a Vauxhall Ampera or its cousin, the Chevrolet Volt, and you’ll instantly know you’re in something different — these electric vehicles go out of their way to ensconce you within a high-tech, futuristic environment.

There are no funky graphical flow-charts or animated energy consumption diagrams — the central screen reserved for the Carminat TomTom satellite navigation system. And while this has special Z.E. functions, ours was still displaying petrol station locations for some reason.


Plymouth Electric Cars

Renault

Keeping the car so ordinary no doubt helps to keep the costs down. But again it’s clear that the Fluence Z.E. isn’t reaching out to early adopters in the way other EVs are. It has the look and feel of a boring pool car, so no surprise Renault is expecting to sell 70% of them to fleets.

Having said that, it is a full five-seater. Rear legroom isn’t brilliant but it offers marginally more headroom than the four-seater Ampera/Volt duo, making the accommodation back there comfy enough for medium length trips (which, let’s face it, is all the Z.E. can offer anyway). Shame about some of the plastics.

Amusingly, given just how much space is occupied by the battery pack, Renault included no pictures of the boot in the official photography. This still offers 317 litres storage, however, so while it’s smaller than the exterior of the car would suggest it’s not tiny.

Economy and safety

Renault

The 115-mile range is calculated using the same principles as modern fuel economy — so you can expect reality to be rather variable in comparison to that official figure. Electric cars are even more susceptible to driving style, weather and environment, so the difference could potentially be dramatic.

Given the average European daily commute is less that 60 miles, the Fluence Z.E. could serve perfectly well as a daily driver for many people. Driving it produces no emissions (although recharging it inevitably will), and based on present electricity prices running costs are much cheaper than petrol.

Renault

Recharging the Fluence Z.E. takes six to eight hours using a home Wall-Box (£799 including installation by UK partner, British Gas) or public charging point, or 10 to 12 hours using a suitably robust 240v three-pin socket (requires a specific cable, priced at £414).

Servicing costs are said to be 20% less than in a conventional car since there are fewer moving parts, while the battery lease is between £69 and £120 a month, depending on the length of the term and the number of miles you’re expecting to cover each year.

In terms of safety, the car comes with electronic stability control and traction control — both of which are handy for containing the electric motor’s instant torque — plus six standard airbags.

The MSN Cars verdict

The Fluence Z.E. is, you sense, a car Renault is selling in the UK because it can. Globally, EV network provider Better Place is committed to buying 100,000 of these cars over the next five years — so building a few for other markets like ours isn’t going to cause Renault too much hassle.

You won’t actually be able to buy one here until the middle of next year, however, by which point Renault will already be selling the Kango Z.E. van and the radical Twizy. In their own individual ways, both make a better case than the Fluence seems to.

The fourth and final stage in Renault’s initial EV … is the Zoe supermini, set to arrive in October 2012. This promises to be much more in tune with UK buying tastes and should significantly alter the electric vehicle landscape. This is the Renault Z.E. superstar we’re all waiting for.

But we shouldn’t dismiss the Fluence Z.E. altogether. If nothing else it represents one of the most cost effective EV solutions around at the moment — and for some eco conscious buyers perhaps that really is enough.

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