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Driven – Renault Fluence Z.E.

Written on:March 23, 2012
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Renault is investing heavily in the electric car market, having spent £2.6 billion so far with their alliance partner, Nissan. The Kangoo Z.E. van went on sale back in November 2011 – and Nissan has the LEAF, which uses the same motor and battery pack – and it has now been joined by the Fluence Z.E., the cheapest all-electric family car on sale in the UK.

The Fluence Z.E. looks very similar to the standard car at first glance, but the astute observer will see that an extra 130mm has been added at the back to squeeze in the battery between the rear seats and the boot. This does lend a certain awkwardness to the shape but it still looks normal, which isn’t something that can be said of every electrically-powered car…

It sports discreet charging points on the front wings, but it is the industry-standard blue accents that alert the world to the fact that this is no ordinary Fluence. Apart from these it could be any mid-range, mid-size European car. That is a good thing.

It’s been designed as a family car, albeit one that is powered by electricity, and is large enough to seat five adults along with a moderate amount of luggage in the small boot. The (optional) leather seats are comfortable, the air-conditioning is powerful (and greedy…); everything is, in fact, reassuringly normal, the power usage meter and battery charge indicator in the dashboard being the only visible sign that this is an unusually civilised car.

Interior cues are subtle and will only be noticed by the driver

And civilised it is. Once you’ve twisted the ignition key the only sign that the Fluence is ready is a single green ‘Go’ symbol on the dash; there is no vibration and no engine noise. Pulling away in Drive you are rewarded by an unexpected turn of speed and a faint hum. The performance figures might suggest that this isn’t a fast car, but it feels like one, partly because an electric motor produces its full torque instantaneously and also because there are no gear changes to interrupt the flow. The sensation and noise is a bit like a jet taking off and is as much fun as you might imagine.

It surges forward and reaches 70mph very quickly, although it does slow down a little from that point onwards. Its top speed is limited to 84mph to conserve battery life – and range.

So shall we talk about the elephant in the room?

The Fluence’s electric motor

Electric motors are capable of producing remarkable power and they deliver it instantaneously. They are also very efficient, converting 90 percent of the energy that they consume into propulsion, a huge improvement on the 25 percent that is the case with an internal combustion engine. Electricity is, then, a fine choice of fuel with which to power a car.

The problem is with the storage medium, and despite recent strides in battery development they are still the limiting factor that determines the range of an electric vehicle. Renault claim that the Fluence can travel as far as 125 miles in urban use on one charge – or as little as 60 miles on fast roads. The car does have an Eco mode, which reduces the power output to conserve energy and increases the range by 10 percent, but much better to use the Fluence for the journeys in which it excels.

Boot space is reduced by the presence of the battery

The battery in the Fluence weighs 208kg, the weight of two stout men, and it makes itself felt in both the car’s dynamic behaviour and in how far it is possible to travel in one journey. Situated behind the rear seats it raises the car’s centre of gravity, inducing a curious wagging motion from the back of the car when you change direction quickly. It is never ungainly and it is offset in my eyes by the wonderfully satisfying characteristics of the electric motor; every car is a compromise and the Fluence strikes a very satisfying balance indeed.

It rides very well indeed (helped, no doubt, by that extra weight) and the need to use the (very effective) brakes is reduced thanks to the strong engine braking, a time during which the battery is being charged, converting the Fluence’s kinetic energy into electricity. The engineer in me likes this, even though I am only converting energy that I have already expended; better to accelerate judiciously than brake efficiently…

In city use – where the Fluence is most at home – the motor’s instantaneous torque delivery and light, accurate steering make it a pleasure to use. It becomes nippy and agile and is, of course, completely non-polluting at the point of use. It is an easy and rewarding car to use in the urban environment, and would make a fine car for city dwellers. And if they have the need to travel more widely than the Fluence Z.E. can they can hire a petrol- or diesel-engined Renault at a preferential rate.

The front of the Fluence is very nicely styled

A recent and increasing concern is the point at which the battery will fail. All batteries have a finite life and when they need replacing they can – as some Tesla owners are discovering – cost so much as to effectively write the car off. Renault has addressed this in rather a clever way, by leasing the battery instead of selling it. This ensures that the customer always has a functioning battery and will never be faced with an unmanageable repair bill. The cost is £76 a month for someone travelling 6,000 miles a year, rising to £103 a month for 12,000 miles a year, and the contract can be varied at any time other than in the final three months.

Charging the Fluence Z.E. can be done through a normal three-pin plug

Charging the battery is straightforward; I used a standard 13amp plug socket and got a full charge in ten-or-so hours at a cost of just under £3.00. Those who would like to accomplish the same thing in fewer hours can invest in a dedicated charging socket for around £800. I’m not convinced that I would bother.

Summary

I enjoyed driving the Fluence a great deal; it forced me to consider the expenditure of energy more carefully than I would normally do. It also demonstrates that an all-electric family car can be a practical proposition and is almost as easy to own as those powered by more conventional means – and it can be better to drive, too!

Statistics

Price: from £17,495 OTR after the £5,000 government grant has been deducted, plus the cost of leasing the battery

Maximum power: 70kW (95hp equivalent)

Peak torque: 167lb ft

0-60mph: 13.7 seconds

Top speed: 84 mph (limited)

Driving range: up to 115 miles (New European Driving Cycle)

CO2 emissions: 0 g/km

 

Images: ©2012 Carlton Boyce

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