Renault Fluence ZE review
by David Finlay (22 February 2012)
If you're reading this in fifty years' time you may (or, alternatively, may not) be astonished that back in these times we were driving anything other than electric cars, but the fact is that the Renault Fluence ZE will, at the start of March, be only the second family-sized vehicle of its type to have gone on sale in the UK in the 21st century.
The first was the Nissan Leaf, devised by Renault's alliance partner. Now, it often happens that when two related (or even only acquainted) manufacturers aim for the same part of the market they produce what is effectively the same car with different badges. Not so here.
There is no direct equivalent to the Leaf anywhere. The situation with the Fluence is entirely different. The "ZE" part of its name (it stands for zero emissions, referring to what is produced by the car itself rather than by whichever power station generated its electricity) is important because it distinguishes this car from the regular Fluence, a Megane-based saloon unknown in this country but nevertheless sold in many others.
Fluences destined for the UK are built in Turkey, where it seems fair to say labour costs are relatively cheap. And almost everything about the car suggests that it has been built down to a price in other ways too, including the fact that the steering wheel isn't reach-adjustable. This is categorically not a premium vehicle.
There's a plus side to that. Electric cars are notoriously expensive to buy, if laughably cheap to run, but Renault has been able to bring the starting price of the Fluence down to a relatively reasonable £22,495, of which the Government pays £5000 through its Plug-In Car Grant, leaving you with a bill of £17,495.
Even the Dynamique version, which gets dual-zone air-conditioning, automatic headlights and wipers, an auto-dimming interior mirror, cruise control, a Bluetooth-compatible with radio and AUX input, 16" alloy wheels, 60/40 split folding rear seats, foglights, a smattering of leather and much else not fitted as standard to the more basic Expression+, still costs "only" £18,395 after the Government subsidy.
It's worth pointing out here that, if you pay these sums, you'll end up with a car that doesn't move, because you haven't paid for the battery yet. You never actually own it - instead, you lease it from Renault for a monthly fee whose size depends on how many miles you do and how long you commit to the deal.
Your local Renault dealer will either supply you with all the possibilities or send you to another Renault dealer which sells electric cars (not all of them do), but the two extremes I've been given are £135 per month for one year in the unlikely event that you're going to drive 18,000 miles and £69.60 per month for three, four or five years if your annual mileage doesn't exceed 6000.
If you have better things to do than multiply those figures by twelve - as I'm sure you do - then let me tell you that they imply annual rentals of £1620 and £835.20 respectively. It should therefore be possible to buy and run a complete Fluence for three years for well under £20,000, not including charging costs.
Those costs obviously depend on when you can do the charging and who your supplier is. The quoted maximum range is 115 miles, but as usual it would be difficult to achieve that; a mix of urban and open-road driving over 60 miles or so should, however, be well within the battery's ability to cope with.
So much for the financial aspect. On the road, the Fluence ZE is far better than the much more expensive Leaf, with quite sporty handling and remarkably good ride quality. The only strange thing is that the battery pack behind the rear seats is heavier than the electric motor under the bonnet, so in rapid driving over a country road the Fluence rides rather like a rear-engined car, which may come as a surprise to people who haven't driven one of those.
A power output of 95bhp, a top speed limited to 84mph and a 0-62mph time of 13.7 seconds make the Fluence seem slow, but in real life it feels a lot perkier because it responds immediately to a heavy input on the accelerator pedal. As with all electric cars, you can also drive it quite hard without using the brakes very much (and even less in towns and cities) because releasing the pedal turns the motor into a generator for the battery and causes significant deceleration all on its own.
Whether it's pushing the car forward or hauling it back, the motor emits a distant but high-pitched whistle which is faintly annoying and ought to be extinguished at the next model upgrade. It goes away in gentler driving, though even then the Fluence isn't as quiet as you might expect, since quite a lot of road and wind noise works its way into the cabin.
On a more practical note, there's more than enough room up front for most passengers but rather less in the rear. I couldn't get comfortable back there, but being over six feet tall I rarely can in a car of this size. Carrying four more reasonably-sized adults shouldn't be a problem.
The luggage volume is 317 litres, or almost exactly the same as a Ford Focus provides but a little less than you get in the Leaf and quite a bit less than is offered by the Vauxhall Astra. The main issue with the boot is that because of the battery location it's an unavoidably awkward shape, usefully deep and wide but not particularly long.