Renault Fluence ZE
The first affordable, practical electric car
First Look With Renault-Nissan now having splurged €4bn (£3.4bn) on its e-car projects, it’s about time we saw some iron beyond the frankly rather too US-oriented Leaf . That time has now arrived: Renault officially unveiled the Fluence in Lisbon last week.
The Fluence won’t be the first Renault e-car we see in the UK. That honour will go to the funky little two-seat Twizy ZE  that should arrive in right-hand drive form in March 2012. The Fluence four-door saloon will follow early in the summer followed by the B-class Zoe ZE hatchback  a few months later.
The Fluence ZE is the first on show thanks to Renault’s deal with e-car supplier Better Place. It has ordered more than 100,000 of the vehicles, primarily to lease out in Israel and Denmark.
With the exception of the electric-blue badge and headlight detailing, the Fluence ZE looks very similar to the regular Fluence, which we don’t get in the UK because it’s a saloon version of the Megane hatch and we Brits don’t buy small four-door cars.
Thanks to the vertical battery pack that sits just aft of the rear suspension - it weighs 280kg, deliverers 400V and holds 22kWh of juice - the Fluence ZE is actually a couple of inches longer than the conventional car.
To my eyes, the extra length improves the visual balance of the car but it doesn’t alter the fact that the battery pack seriously intrudes on boot space.
Vertical? Indeed, because the Fluence ZE works with Better Place’s battery-swap stations  that can yank out the empty battery and replace it with a fresh one in under three minutes - less time than it takes to top up a conventional tank of fuel.
It’s highly unlikely we'll ever see these battery swap stations in the UK - outside of large Renault dealers at least - but they are a key part of the Better Place initiative. It's a novel solution to the problem of e-car range and it shows that we're not going to be forced into a world of charging up cars at home, at work and on the street. There can be a role of 'filling stations' in the e-car era, and a EV need not be severely limited by range.
Of course, whether anyone will have the nous and - crucially - the cash to build out a network of battery swap stations in this country is another matter entirely. And I have my doubts that car makers will have the wit to realise they need to adopt a standard battery form-factor. But it's an impressive concept none the less.
Back to Renault, and the aforementioned Zoe will also have a vertical "Quickdrop" battery back. Renault is presumably working on the ‘always carry a condom’ principle of it’s better to have one and not need it than need one but not have it.
Get behind the wheel of the Fluence ZE and e-car optimised gauges, trip computer readouts and TomTom satnav aside, everything looks and feels exactly the same as a Megane.
The dashboard is far less hi-tech than the Nissan Leaf's dash, a nod to the fact that in Israel and Denmark it’s being sold as a regular family car with an electric drive-train rather than as an Electric Car. It’s the Zoe’s job to appeal to the e-car flag wavers.
The TomTom navigation unit isn't as accomplished as Nissan’s always-on tracking system - and Better Place models will get their own bespoke satnav - but it does all the necessary jobs, including showing your anticipated range and any reachable charge points.
Outside of Better Place markets, Renault expects 90 per cent of charging to take place either at home or at the workplace which is why the Fluence has 16A charge sockets in both front wings but no connection for high power charging.
A 32A three-phase fast-charge system will be available on the Zoe from launch, and on the Fluence from 2013, but only on new-build cars, not as a retro-fit to vehicles already on the road.
Influence your Fluence with an Android app. There's an iOS version too
Users can manage their car’s charging through Renault's ZE Services iOS and Android app, which not only controls charging and monitors how much juice is in the battery but also lets you switch on the heater or air con while you are still hooked up to the mains.
What’s the Fluence ZE like to drive? In a nutshell, pretty darned good. Dynamically, it’s the most convincing e-car I’ve driven.
Whether it was over the quaint but very bumpy cobblestones of central Lisbon or the sweeping mountain roads north of Cascais, the Fluence was every bit as composed as its diesel and petrol powered siblings.
Inside the Renault Fluence ZE
A spacious interior
Can you gauge the e-car optimisation?
The boot's not the biggest, thanks to the upright battery
The power plant
The charging port is fore, not aft
Though the battery pack is mounted higher in the Fluence than it is in the Leaf, the Renault still feels sharper and more agile, a result of the Leaf being tuned for Californian highways rather than European A-roads.
Despite having a slightly less powerful motor than the Nissan - 70kW vs 80kW - and a leisurely 0-62 time of 13.7 seconds, the Fluence also feels the more sprightly car and reacts urgently and silently to throttle inputs all the way to the electronically-limited 84mph top speed.
Do the arithmetic and the battery powered Fluence works out at around 160kg heavier than a fully fueled diesel car, but the weight is easily overcome by the 226Nm of torque that’s available from the off.
When it comes to range, Renault quotes New European Driving Cycle test results of 185km (115 miles) but is also being quite honest about that figure dropping to as low as 100km (60 miles) if you drive it like a lead-footed loon up a very long and steep hill with the air-con set to Arctic.
During the Portuguese test sessions, the assembled journalists were encouraged to aim for the maximum and win a camera. The team from Norway stole the honours returning an average power use that would equate to 230km (143 miles). The best I managed was a projected maximum of 170km (105 miles).
At this point, it’s usually necessary to say that a good idea though the (insert name of e-car) is, it costs the same as a BMW 5 Series so why on earth would you buy one? Not here. The Fluence will only set you back £17,850 after the UK’s £5000 e-car rebate and that’s not a million miles away from an automatic Megane diesel with matching kit.
Renault has achieved this fiscal sleight of hand by leasing rather than selling the battery. Lease rates start at £69.60 a month over 60 months and 6000 miles a year, and increase to £120.60 on a 12-month, 15,000-mile scheme with numerous permutations in between.
How much fiscal sense those numbers make to the end user will depend on their mileage and, more importantly, the price of a gallon of fuel. Let's be honest, you need to be very optimistic not to be thinking in terms of £7.50 or more a gallon by the end 2013 unless the global economy continues to flat-line.
Outside of the Better Place scheme, Renault expects to sell 70 per cent of Fluence production to commercial fleet operators so I doubt we'll be seeing a huge number of them on private drives in 2012, but it’s still fair to say that the Fluence ZE heralds the dawn of the affordable and practical electric car. ®
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