Renault Fluence ZE: firstdrive

September 9th, 2010: Bloomsbury, London.   Text and images © ecodrive 2010-2012.  No reproduction without express permission.
Updated 2nd March, 2012

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.

Renault Fluence
                          ZE
Renault Fluence ZE © ecodrive

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.

Stepping inside

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.

Fluence
                          ZE interior
Pre-production Fluence ZE interior © ecodrive
Turning the key, pulling the lever back into Drive and releasing both the handbrake and then the footbrake, the car begins to ‘creep’ like a conventional automatic. In common with most EVs, the seamless acceleration is smooth and precise.

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 it.

Limited chargeability

Both Fluence ZE and the Kangoo ZE (until 2013) will be equipped with only a 3.3 kiloWatt on-board charger with no quick charge option, either on-board AC or off-board DC. This limits the recharge rate to a long 8+ hours (a potential challenge for even a normal overnight charge) and caps daytime ‘opportunity’ charging to recouping only around 10 miles of driving for each hour’s charge. This will restrict the early vehicles to the modest daily duty of a regular commute or a predictable day’s work schedule.

Fluence analogue gauges
Clear analogue gauges better than digital (Pic: Renault)
From 2013 the on-board systems on Kangoo will fundamentally change using new drive electronics to integrate a very fast on-board AC charger, needing very little in the way of off-board equipment, other than a generous three-phase power connection of up to 63 Amps. This will reduce bulk recharge times when necessary to the order of 30 minutes, although an intermediate supply capacity of a half - or a quarter - of this will be more commonly used with a proportionate increase in recharge time. Since the Kangoo and Fluence share a largely common design it could be available on Fluence too - but that may depend on the agreement of Better Place, at least in battery swap markets. This will be standard on the smaller Renault Zoe from launch (Autumn 2012)

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.

Small details, big difference

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 circumstances.

Renault
                  Mennekes cableLike 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.

*Batteries not included

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.

Not a one trick pony

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.

Renault ZE range
Renault ZE range, L-R: Twizy, Fluence ZE, Kangoo ZE, Zoe (Pic: Renault)
We are less convinced that there will be a huge market for a conventional 3- or 4-box saloon EV, especially with limited recharging capabilities on the early models. When three-phase charging is integrated that will be a different proposition, especially in Europe where it is readily available, even at home, but also within 'Plugged in Places' areas in the UK, most of whom are future-proofing new, dedicated infrastructure to support it.

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 domination.
 

Specification

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.

» Express your interest in Renault Fluence ZE now