Renault Fluence ZE 2011 review
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A lot of numbers are thrown around in talk about electric cars. But there are only three that really matter: range, recharge time and price.
And with the Renault Fluence ZE plug-in that will start arriving next year, we only know two of those three, with the final price depending on a battery lease program for which we don't yet have details.
Renault is racing to be first to market with an all-electric sedan, and is partnering in Australia with Better Place, who will provide the battery and 'distance subscription' and also roll-out battery swap stations and fast-charge points around the country.
Explore the 2011 Renault Fluence range
You can think of the strategy as being similar to buying a mobile phone and subscribing to a pre-paid plan - except that you are also leasing the phone battery from Telstra.
The program will start with "select customers" in Canberra in the second quarter of 2012, with cars arriving at Renault dealers towards the end of the year.
Renault says the Fluence EV will arrive in a single high-specced version priced under $40,000. But that doesn't include the cost of leasing the battery.
Nor do we yet know if the cost will include charges for swapping batteries over, or how long the lease terms will be.
The French brand wants to make a mark with the car, so the price will be as strategic as they can bear. At the moment Mitsubishi is offering the tiny i-Miev for $48,000, so an unscientific calculation for the total cost of the Fluence would be: somewhere under $40,000 + $8,000 wriggle room + possible extra amount because the Fluence is larger. Not much help at this stage, we know.
What buyers will have to weigh up when the Better Place prices are revealed next year is how quickly the total cost pays for itself compared to their weekly bowser bill. Better Place spokesperson Alison Terrey says any driver paying an average of $80/pw at the bowser will be better off with a Fluence EV. So if that's your bowser bill for a compact small/medium sedan with a touch of le style Francaise - le electrique could be the answer. As long as you don't live far from town.
The internal-combustion engine (ICE) Fluence sedan is $29,990 for the top-spec Privilege, with CVT transmission, 'smart card' key, dual-zone climate-control airconditioning, Bluetooth with music streaming, satnav, premium audio with multimedia connection, electric sunroof, leather upholstery, passenger seat height adjustment with lumbar support, rear parking sensors and 17-in alloy wheels.
So the electric could get pretty much all of that - except for the smart card, which has been replaced by a normal key because the transponder system location has been cannibalised by the battery. However the nav system will include locations of charge spots and battery swap stations.
Let's look at those other two crucial numbers first.
Range is claimed to be 185km with careful driving, but without having to be a green zealot about it. Zealotry will apparently get you to 200km. Our Aussie approach gave less than 100km on the test drive.
Recharge time will be six to eight hours with the special 16amp fast charger Better Place will fit at your home - and in public places - but that blows out to10-12 hours if you plug into a normal 10amp household socket. Alternatively, a complete battery exchange will take less than four minutes, once the swap stations are built.
Renault claims a 0-100km/h time of 13 seconds while the top speed is limited to 135km/h.
With a continuously-variable transmission driving the front wheels, the effort comes from a high-revving 70kW/226Nm electric motor powered by the 22kWh lithium-ion battery pack, mounted behind the rear seats - which has meant a strengthened structure to cope with the 280kg weight.
Although Renault and Nissan are partners, the motor is not the one from Nissan's electric Leaf, but a coil-rotor one that Renault says gives better range.
The drivetrain has to haul 184kg more than the ICE car, but several strategies are used to keep the drain on the battery pack low, including low rolling-resistance tyres on the 16-in wheels and an 'eco' mode that stops the airconditioning. You can precool/heat the car - and check charge and battery life - through a smartphone app.
The ICE Fluence on sale in Australia is a very roomy small sedan, but not roomy enough to cater for both the massive battery pack and usable boot space. So the electric version has grown about 13cm - but that still drops the car's 530-litre capacity to 317 litres, leaving you about enough room for a single large suitcase. So if you're having a weekend away with the family, you might be buying clothes at the other end.
Apart from the bluff butt's even longer rear overhang, the clean styling is much the same as the non-electric - and just as unlikely to either raise your pulse or offend you - with the main cues being larger air intakes to boost cooling, a charging socket behind both the front wheels, black rear diffuser and the blue-tinted light surrounds and badges.
Inside is a well-built cabin with quality materials and switches, but with the instrument cluster's tacho has been replaced by a power meter that lets you know much charge - and distance - you have left in the battery pack.
The Fluence is yet to be crashed independently, but Renault has done internal testing to demonstrated the safety levels - including piercing the battery with a large nail.
Safety equipment includes six airbags, stability control, cruise control with speed limiter and anti-skid brakes with brake assist for help in panic stops and brakeforce distribution to counter uneven loading.
Delivering all its torque right from the start, the electric motor is reasonably snappy, and the whisper of noise when you set off builds quickly to a Jetson-esque whine as you demand more from the system. Unfortunately it also demands more drain, and will savage the claimed range.
Lifting your foot off the pedal helps by recapturing energy -- although it doesn't capture from braking like some other system - and also deccelerates so strongly that you can often use the effect in place of brakes.
Over smoother surfaces, the ride is as composed as a much larger car, and well-balanced -- helped by the fairly even distribution of weight, with a bit of bias towards the rear.
But the suspension and tyres transmit rough patches to the steering wheel and into the cabin, and you notice it more because there's little noise from the motor.
Steering is very light at city speeds - which makes for easy parking - but some faster driving through hills showed that it firms up as the speedo rises, although it still lacks feel.
But the hill run also showed that the Fluence changes direction deftly, and sits flat even when pushed through corners at speeds well beyond your everyday commute.
It's aimed mainly at fleets, of course, and at families who want to drive without emissions. And it works well as a tractable clean sedan - if a little short on family luggage space. But any verdict on how well it will suit a private household will depend on how the final price fits that household's budget.
It will come down to how much you're prepared to pay to reduce emissions. So you might not buy one, but there'll come a time when you'll wish the driver blowing smoke in front of you had.
Range and Specs
|Dynamique||2.0L, ULP, 6 SP MAN||$6,950 – 7,990||2011 Renault Fluence 2011 Dynamique Pricing and Specs|
|Privilege||2.0L, ULP, CVT AUTO||$5,940 – 8,360||2011 Renault Fluence 2011 Privilege Pricing and Specs|
Lowest price, based on 3 car listings in the last 6 months