A prominent investor in the electric car market, Renault already has four vehicles ready to launch in the UK this year. Very soon, the flagship Fluence will go on sale with a competitive price and good mileage range.
But is it time to step into the age of electric? I drove the new four-door electric saloon, available from March 2012, to find out.
The new Fluence is an understated car. There are no shouty details or look-at-me bodywork features, instead the design is quite restrained. It's good-looking, if a little boring.
The Z.E is distinguished from European-only petrol models with blue details such as the Renault badge and fog light surrounds to blue detailing on the dash and instrument binnacles.
Inside, the Fluence is spacious and inviting. The big leather seats are extremely comfortable (and expensive) option at £940 and the car benefits from lots of legroom. The dashboard is neat with solid switches and there's a healthy list of standard equipment including dual-zone air-conditioning, parking sensors, Bluetooth radio and cruise control. The Z.E. also features a TomTom sat-nav screen, which can guide you to the nearest charging points if you're running low on charge. The only annoying feature on our car was the ashtray, which stops you accessing the radio inputs unless you remove it.
A fully electric motor powers the Fluence to a limited top speed of 84mph, with a leisurely 0-62mph time of 13.7 seconds. Turn the key and a bong and illuminated "Go" light are the only indicators that the car is on. Then, simply slot it into drive and away you go. On the road, it remains quiet as a whisper. A slight whine when accelerating is all you'll hear from the motor, even at motorway speeds. Regenerative braking also makes the car effortless to drive as you use the brake pedal far less than normal.
Unfortunately, it's the low traction tyres that spoil an otherwise peaceful and relaxing drive. They introduce road rumble into the cabin and low traction also translates into low friction. Due to the strong low down 226Nm of torque available from just 400 rpm, acceleration is rapid from 0-30mph. With the traction control off and on a damp road, the tyres lose grip far too easily, even spinning the wheels at half throttle.
Cornering is also affected as the car is far too keen to understeer. Keeping the traction control on is recommended and dramatically improves road handling, keeping the car flat and in check.
At £18,395 as tested, the Fluence is certainly a cheap option. Compared to the Nissan Leaf or Peugeot iOn, it looks like a 'normal' car and may help the transition into electric motors far more bearable for buyers. It would make an ideal family saloon for short trips or even a commuter car for effortlessly munching motorway miles. You do however have to rent the battery from Renault, which on a 24 month contract at 6,000 miles is £78 per month or on a 24 month at 18,000 miles is £126.60. Yes, this is a large cost to factor in, but it's likely to be much lower than the average monthly fuel bill for most commuters.
One drawback is boot space though. The big battery pack takes up a lot of room and you'd struggle to get a pram and some shopping bags in. Range is still limited somewhat too. Although you can still get 115 miles out of a charge by driving economically, this may deter some business users. Still, for £414, a domestic 3-pin plug kit is provided offering a 10-11 hour charge time at home. The cost of a home charge is expected to be around £3.
Overall then, this is a competent car that doesn't look too futuristic or out there in terms of design. For that reason, it's much more appealing compared to smaller, more expensive rivals. If you're looking for a car that can take you up and down the motorway on short trips every day in total comfort as well as giving you a considerable saving over the price of petrol, this might just be the car for you.