Renault Fluence Z.E. First Drive

Renault aims to capture people’s attention with the recent release of the price for the first of four electric vehicles to be launched in the UK, the Fluence Z.E. - £17,850 (after £5,000 Plug-In Car Grant).  They also claim it will be UK’s most affordable electric car - not including the likes of G-Wiz or their own Twizy.  This is an important claim because not only will the car be less expensive than say a Nissan Leaf, £25,990 after Grant, or the smaller i-Miev, £23,950 after Grant, but it also introduces a new service.  The Renault Fluence Z.E. comes with batteries that are supplied and maintained by Better Place, a company dedicated to the supply of electrically charged battery swapping.  Better Place, that aims to retrofit gas stations with electric charging, has agreed to purchase over 100,000 Renault Fluence Z.E.s to test in Israel, Better Place’s base, and Denmark.  This service will come at a price of on average £75 pounds a month to a UK customer in the future.  Aha! A hidden cost!  Well, yes, slightly…but you will still be over £3,000 pounds in the green versus a Leaf or i-Miev.  What about the car itself?

The Fluence Z.E. is not available in the UK until later next year and proper test drives are scarce but we got lucky and the press team at Renault very generously invited us to have a taster first drive.  On the surface it looks like ‘any other car’, any other saloon for that matter.  The finish quality is up there with the Leaf, you really do feel like you are driving a real car.  But wait!  It is a real car, its just electric!  I don’t understand why carmakers try to make green cars just like any other car, any standard car, when inside it is anything but standard.  That’s precisely the image issue EVs had in the first place, people think they are no fun.  If someone is going to buy an electric car, they want everyone to know, they want a ‘special’ car not a ‘normal’ car.  It is sad to think that car companies feel the need to dumb down a product so that people will accept new technologies, unfortunately this has been the fate of the Fluence Z.E.  It wasn’t always this way…

Fluence Z.E. concept 2009

When Fluence Z.E. came out as a concept in 2009 at the Frankfurt Motor show it was one of 3 Z.E. electric show cars, the Twizy, Zoe, and Fluence and it had flare.  But 2009 was not a good year for the world's economy and it was not a good year for Patrick Le Quément as he retired.  Le Quément had a long-standing career at Renault, from 1987 when he turned Renault design strategy on its head he dedicated himself to making design a priority above engineering.  By the end he no longer was interested that much in turning design concepts into production and hence the discord in design between concept and production Fluence Z.E., Le Quément failed to follow through.  The standard Fluence is also a vehicle designed in essence for Asian and South American markets where the saloon is still a status symbol and is not really inline with Renault’s new European portfolio.  It is a shame that some of the original concept’s flare got lost in translation.

There are, thankfully, hints of French quirkiness left over on the exterior design such as the Renault badge pattern in the tail-lights, and a lovely creased section that flows from the hood to the side section.  The ‘bum’ is affluent, something French marques are fond of, round and smooth.  Fortunately the headlights also retain some elegance about them but overall its an engineering achievement above a design one.

Next year the ‘Prime Time’ trim, which can be reserved online for a £20 pound fee, comes with 16” allow wheels, climate control, cruise control, ecoMeter and Carminat TomTom Live, and charging sockets on both front wings.  It delivers 70kW (95hp) of power and as with all electric vehicles has instant torque on tap.  The range is interesting; it pushes the standard EV range of 100 miles up little further to 115 miles on one full charge.  Perhaps the Fluence Z.E. is intended to quietly push the envelope, to become the workhorse, the fleet car, of the electric revolution.  We drove the Fluence Z.E. literally around the block, and in that short time it really handled well, with deep acceleration and handling.  While it may not deliver on the emotional front it seems will definitely deliver on the performance one, it does what it says on the tin ‘just a normal car’…