Renault Fluence ZE: firstdrive
September 9th, 2010: Bloomsbury,
London. Text and
images © ecodrive 2010-2012. No
reproduction without express permission.
Renault Fluence is a rather conventional looking 'three-box' saloon car which sits in Renault's range between the Mégane and Laguna models. Whilst the rest of the continent, even fellow RHD country Ireland, has known the Turkish-built Fluence as a petrol and diesel model for some time, the saloon-wary UK will get only the ZE ('Zero Emission') version, as a longer wheelbase variant, from the Spring. Its subtle styling will mean that it will take a discerning eye to spot the all-electric model amongst its conventional brethren in the segment on British roads. We first drove an early example back in September 2010 so it has had a long gestation period before coming to market.
Unlike most other EVs with their battery slung beneath the car, the Fluence ZE’s battery pack is a 'cube' between the rear seat and the bootspace. It eats up rather a lot of what you would expect to be a rather capacious boot, despite the specially lengthened (and more aerodynamic) body. The considerable volume really now makes this more of a four-box car (motor box, people box, battery box, boot box) Part of the reasoning behind this configuration is that it permits a battery swap function whereby the entire battery pack can be removed from underneath and replaced with a fresh battery, in a matter of minutes, in a fully automated process at special swap stations: think a very large cordless drill battery and you're not far off the mark.
Although not destined to be available in the UK, battery swap is being rolled-out in Israel, Denmark and parts of Australia as the first ‘Better Place’ projects. The significant investment and infrastructure requirements for this type of scheme lends itself to smaller geographical areas and it’s unlikely for widespread public use in Europe, although it might find favour in dedicated fleet projects such as taxi and other large, single-model fleets. But an economy of scale is needed to justify the expense of the swap station and additional stock of batteries above simply having more cars! And as a quick charging network develops and battery charge rates improve to the order of 10-15 minutes, the key advantage of time-saving will largely be eroded.
Fluence ZE’s interior is as comfortable and well-appointed as you would expect for a car of its size and Renault’s reputation for comfort and is carried over largely unchanged from the combustion-engined Fluence in other markets. The conventional ‘ignition key,’ manual handbrake and automatic transmission style selector lever with only P, R, N and D positions are familiar, not requiring special instruction or explanation. Rather than mere observation, we levy this as praise upon Renault for not over-complicating EVs and easing their introduction and adoption. There is a complete absence of noise (above ambient background noise anyway) which was disconcerting even to this experienced, daily EV driver! Neither the electric Power Assisted Steering nor the refined brake servo assistance gives any audible noise: something which the manufacturers have worked hard to refine since these noises are normally masked by an engine.
You can finely regulate your speed using just the
accelerator pedal: releasing the pedal progressively
introduces a significant amount of useful,
range-extending regenerative braking (or ‘regen’) to
recharge the battery on decelerations and hill descents
without wasting kinetic energy through friction braking.
Whilst this is unusual by comparison to a conventional
automatic ICE vehicle, you quickly learn not to
completely release the accelerator pedal the moment you
realise that you may have to slow down or stop rather
than move your right foot across to cover the brake as
with an auto, which would normally overrun readily.
There is an ‘eco’ mode - selected by a button on the dash - but it only limits the performance of the air-con or heating to conserve range, it doesn't change the driving characteristics. It is left to the driver to adopt a driving style to suit their requirements, balancing performance against economy and range.
Although they may appear old-fashioned compared to the
digital displays found in the Nissan LEAF and others,
the clear, easy to interpret 'analogue' needle gauges
give the information you require as an EV driver at a
glance: speedometer, State Of Charge gauge and the
econometer shows the flow of energy from the battery to
the motor, or vice versa. From our years of
experience these are far more informative than digital
gauges! They are supplemented by a small readout
showing the odometer, energy efficiency and estimated
range remaining and other digital data, should you want
The quoted range figure of 115 miles (185km) according
to the NEDC cycle is the highest of any production EV
thus far. But the real-world range of 70-100 miles
(110-160km) that the 22kWh lithium-ion battery pack
yields and the absence of any fast recharging will limit
the appeal of the early vehicles, especially after a
year or two when the new-spec vehicles emerge. The early
vehicles are cheaper to produce: a simple motor plus
controller (power regulator) plus charger is relatively
easy engineering. The second generation vehicles’
systems will be so much more integrated that the
boundaries will be blurred. And, of course, this bespoke
integration comes at higher cost.
History has shown that whilst the 1990s French EVs (a la Peugeot-Citroën and Renault) were subjected to only a very light duty with their first owners (mainly utility fleets) and largely ‘coped’ without using rapid charging (some facilities were installed in Paris and in a trial project in La Rochelle) subsequent private owners have often taken advantage of the ability of the vehicles to be (semi) quick-charged: the heavy duty cabling, external charging connections and control systems were built into the vast majority of vehicles.
Renault are sticking to their guns with the two-stage,
two-spec introduction, with AC (three-phase) quick
charging only coming later, in the face of stiff
competition from the early vehicles to market such as
the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan LEAF which both use the
‘two inlet’ approach of a single-phase 230V mains inlet
for ‘normal’ charging and a DC inlet for use with a
compliant off-board charger of up to 50kW, since these
Japanese vehicles are destined for world markets.
There are only a few of these chargers in the UK thus
far, mostly on Nissan forecourts, but as more appear
through Plugged In Places those vehicles will become
more practical and usable.
Uniquely among the new generation of vehicles,
Fluence ZE has 2 'normal' charging inlets: one on each
front wing, just ahead of the doors. 'Side
charging' suits European markets better in many
circumstances than a front mounted inlet, especially
at home in a (usually) small garage or on a driveway,
where the 2 inlets give greater flexibility for installing the
charging wallbox on the most convenient side whatever
the orientation of the car.
It also means that when using kerbside charging points
you can pull up next to the kerb on either side and not
have to stretch the charging cable around to the 'far
side' of the car, presenting a hazard to traffic,
especially cyclists. By way of comparison,
Mitsubishi's i-MiEV has its (single) normal charge inlet
on the right hand side of the vehicle: convenient for us
as a RHD country when charging on a private site but
when parking nearside to the kerb with the normal flow
of traffic this gives an unsatisfactory situation.
Renault are the first manufacturer to equip their
charging inlets with a locking mechanism to secure the
charging cable when the vehicle is centrally locked,
adding to the security of your valuable cable: other
manufacturers rely on the user fitting a padlock to the
connector: inconvenient and likely to be omitted in most
Like Kangoo ZE, the charging cable
provided with the car has the now-standard 'Mennekes'
type connection on the supply end for use at public
charging stations, in a custom blue colour to suit the
ZE branding! The 'granny cable' (or 'EVSE cable')
to use with a domestic socket is an accessory to be
purchased separately but is discouraged. This is
another first in the industry by Renault, underlining
the increased safety afforded by using a permanent
wallbox charger at home and dedicated charging points
away from home. All new public charging
installations co-funded by the UK government's Plugged
In Places scheme will, from April 2012, ban the further
installation of normal sockets and exclusively use the
new, dedicated sockets, improving safety both at those
locations and elsewhere.
Well, yes they are, but not in the purchase price! The battery technology is shared with the Nissan LEAF through the Nissan-Renault alliance, but Renault are returning to the 1990s marketing model of selling the car but retaining ownership of the battery which they will then rent to the end user, not least because of the battery swap facility available in some markets.
Whilst this frustrates some purchasers and had, until recently, confused the fleet sector, especially those organisations that try to calculate Residual Values for vehicles, we have long maintained that ultimately it is a more sustainable model for EV ownership. It must be remembered that these are not ‘consumer goods’ such as laptops which will largely be obsolete by the time the battery starts to wear significantly. Whilst EV batteries are now well-developed, the vehicle chassis and drivetrain will far out-last the battery in terms of its useful life: it is not unreasonable to expect the vehicle itself to cover 250,000+ miles (400,000km) in its lifetime.
Renault are promoting Fluence ZE as the ‘most affordable’ full-size EV, with the economics of a comparable purchase price to a conventional model and a similar running cost of battery rental + energy equating to fuel, making Fluence ZE around £8,500 cheaper than a Nissan LEAF (including incentives). Ultimately, the model means that as the batteries start to age (down to around 70% of original capacity after 100,000 miles) or are superseded in technology, the owner (perhaps the second or third owner) can have the battery replaced under the rental contract without needing to find several thousands of Pounds or Euros to do so, meaning that the vehicle itself can realise its potential of many hundreds of thousands of miles’ driving.
Renault’s line-up of Kangoo ZE, Fluence ZE and the forthcoming Twizy & Zoe, is certainly the most comprehensive of any of the mainstream manufacturers. Kangoo ZE is making early in-roads into the light commercial vehicle market; Zoe will be a popular sized hatchback EV; the innovative Twizy could redefine urban mobility. Whilst EVs can suit a lot of people, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all car, so a range of options is a smart marketing move.
In an increasingly competitive car market with
consumers becoming more discerning and demanding more
flexibility from their vehicles as compact city
vehicles, plus-sized hatches and ‘crossover’ vehicles,
we wonder where the Fluence as an EV will find a home:
it’s not a typical city car; its long saloon body and
initial lack of rapid charging means it won’t be as
practical (in the UK market, with the emerging
recharging infrastructure) as it’s cousin, the more
compact Nissan Leaf, but indications are that at least
the first generation cars will be a lot more affordable
and within reach of more people. But Renault themselves
aren't expecting huge sales of Fluence in the UK anyway:
healthy orders from Israel in connection with Better
Place and, we suspect, not disappointing interest in
Denmark will satisfy the global aspirations for EV
Carminat TomTom sat-nav as standard, with enhanced
EV-specific functions such as a 'range radius' overlay
on your current location even without entering a
destination and route planning incorporating charging
(or battery swap) stations give valuable driver
reassurance and is included in the price.
Additional features such as HD Live Traffic updates are
available at additional cost. Breakdown cover,
including running out of charge, is included in the
battery rental agreement which varies the monthly fee
according to expected annual mileage and will be
corrected upwards (or downwards) throughout its
life. An 'app' for most technology platforms
including iPhone/iPad, Android and BlackBerry allows you
to check battery State Of Charge, start/stop charging or
pre-condition the interior (heat it up in winter or cool
it down in summer) using mains energy to preserve charge
using whatever tech you already have rather than force
you towards one platform.
Fluence ZE is a comfortable, proven EV with some nice
touches such as the locking charging connection per
side, inclusive sat-nav and remote control app, with a
low purchase price making it very accessible. But
outside of Denmark, without battery swap nor any faster
charging than 3.3kW, Fluence ZE must be a very considered
choice for a very
well-defined daily usage. It will likely be most
popular in fleets but it's unlikely to chart highly in
retail sales. You simply cannot cover as high a mileage
in a day in this vehicle as you can, at least on paper,
in other EVs.
Fluence ZE will cost from £17,495 (including the £5,000 Plug-In Car Grant) + around £75 per month for battery rental when it goes on sale in April 2012.