Make / Model Search

Future models - Renault - Fluence - ZE

First drive: Electric Fluence closes on $40K

Charged and ready: Renault will release the Fluence ZE in Australia in the final quarter of next year.

Renault’s world-first electric sedan here in late 2012 at higher price than promised

24 Oct 2011


FLEET rather than private buyers will be Renault’s target when the world’s first mass-produced three-box sedan electric vehicle, the Fluence ZE surfaces in Australia in the last quarter of next year.

However, its proposed on-sale price of under $40,000 is somewhat adrift of an earlier statement from Renault that the ZE will be in the same ballpark as the equivalently equipped petrol-powered Fluence Privilege (which is priced at $29,990).

Furthermore, that price will not include the cost of leasing the battery pack from electric mobility and infrastructure specialists Better Place Australia.

Neither company will commit to outlaying specifics 12 months out from launch, although Renault Australia maintains that the Fluence ZE (for Zero Emissions) will be positioned “extremely competitively” in “the high-$30s” sedan segment, complete with a high number of features including a trick new satellite-navigation/communication system known as OSCAR.

The Better Place line, meanwhile, is that motorists spending $80 a week or more on petrol or diesel “will be better off financially” going with its business proposition.

This includes electricity – ‘green’, not coal-sourced – from a single charge box fitted at home or place of work, limitless use of its battery swap stations, guaranteed battery performance satisfaction for the life of the contract, and Australia-wide 24/7 customer service connectivity.

To help hammer the point home, a number of Australian-market, pre-release Fluence ZEs will be imported by Better Place in March or April as part of its first urban infrastructure rollout in Canberra.

Fleet customers are expected to take the lion’s share of sales, to the tune of 70 per cent.

35 center imageAt least one more Renault zero-emissions vehicle is also in the pipeline for Australia next year – the Kangoo ZE – placing the French car-maker at the vanguard of mainstream EV availability for both the passenger car and commercial vehicle markets.

Unlike the fixed-battery Nissan Leaf that is also due out in 2012, the Renault is a modified version of an existing model, the X38 Fluence launched in October 2010, but with a 130mm longer boot (all of it rear overhang) to accommodate the quick-release 280kg lithium-ion battery pack stacked vertically between the rear seat and bulkhead.

Renault calls this system of battery switching ‘Quick Drop’.

Codenamed ‘L38’ to reflect its extra length (4748mm), the electrified Fluence’s rear sheetmetal and floorpan are subsequently different, though the 2702mm wheelbase remains the same.

Despite the stretch, total cargo volume still tumbles from 520 litres to just 317 litres and the split/fold backrest function is also lost.

Visual ZE cues include the fitment of charge-point flaps on both front mudguards, a new grille and front bumper, redesigned tail-lights with Renault diamond-motif detailing, alterations to the boot lid and rear diffuser, a subtle blue tinge to the headlights, badges and body trim, and unique wheels and tyres.

Drivers will immediately notice the missing tachometer in the instrumentation binnacle, replaced by a battery gauge, and a new trip meter system designed for EV functionality.

However, keyless entry has not yet been developed for the Fluence ZE owing to interference issues associated with the electrification drivetrain.

A compact synchronous AC motor produces 70kW of power between 3000rpm and 8900rpm, and 226Nm of torque from just 400rpm to 2500rpm, delivered to the front wheels through a single-ratio Reducer gearbox.

The lithium-ion battery is rated at 398 volts, consists of 48 modules and 192 cells, offers 22kWh of energy, and has a capacity of 65Ah.

Maximum range is quoted as 185km, though – as with all EVs – external factors such as speed, topography, electrical load, ambient temperature and extra mass can reduce that significantly. In Eco mode, more than 210km of range is possible.

Life expectancy is eight to 12 years – though the Better Place agreement means Fluence ZE customers will not have to worry about that as long as they keep subscribing to the battery replacement program.

In the event of imminent battery charge depletion, the car resorts to a ‘reduced power’ mode that acts as a further warning, and allows for a few extra kilometres of low-speed travel. This means the driver can exit off a main arterial to a nearby charge outlet or park out of harm’s way.

Maximum speed is 135km/h and the 0-100km/h sprint-time takes 13 seconds – some three seconds longer than a petrol-powered 2.0-litre Fluence with CVT.

Tipping the scales at 1605kg, the ZE is about 150kg heavier than the regular Fluence, but is otherwise identical. It has a MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion beam rear end, electric power steering, ABS brakes and (modified) electronic stability control.

Renault says the Fluence ZE has been engineered to match its sibling’s five-star ENCAP crash-test result.

Extensive 50km/h side and rear anti-intrusion impacts have ensured no deformation or battery pack intrusion. This includes the ‘nail test’ that ensures no foreign objects can penetrate the battery pack.

The extra weight of the batteries over the rear axle creates a more favourable weight balance.

Tyres are Goodyear low-resistance units.

All Australian-bound Fluence ZEs will include climate-control air-conditioning, auto headlights and wipers, cruise control with a speed-limiter function, and the aforementioned satellite-navigation system, which shows a radius of travel according to remaining range.

An audible warning system will also be made available to alert pedestrians of the moving EV.

The Fluence – which resulted from meetings between Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn and Better Place founder Shai Agassi commencing in 2006 – was chosen because of the preference for three-box sedans in Israel, which is expected to account for more than half its sales volume.

Access to the swappable battery – which ordinarily takes less than four and a half minutes to complete – also influenced Renault’s decision to use the Fluence body shape, which was already being developed.

Nevertheless, Renault and Better Place expect Fluence ZE owners to conduct 95 per cent of all their charging needs overnight at home or during business hours at work, since most motorists travel within the range each charge offers.

European figures show 87 per cent of motorists do not exceed 60km daily, so the battery swap facility is there as a back-up for longer journeys than the daily commute.

Neither company will divulge sales expectations, but the majority of early adopters will probably use it as a second vehicle, in mostly urban areas.

Tax incentives, cheaper registration and insurance rates, and no road congestion tariffs are some of the incentives being used to lure customers into an EV, though none are yet offered in Australia.

However, Renault Australia will introduce special reduced car rental rates for local ZE owners to use for extended trips.

Key rivals will be the Leaf, as well as upcoming EVs like the Ford Focus BEV, Holden Volt and Opel Ampera, while Renault also name-checks the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid.

Like all Fluences, the ZE is built by OYAK-Renault in Bursa, Turkey.

Drive Impressions

REMEMBER ‘The Greatest American Hero’, a short-lived ’80s TV Superman spoof centred on a totally unremarkable schoolteacher who, after stumbling across a red outfit belonging to an extraterrestrial, finds out that he can fly (among other extraordinary things)?In a way, our short time with the Renault Fluence ZE in beautiful Cascais, Portugal, reminded us of this long-forgotten series.

The regular Turkish-built Fluence four-door sedan makes a solid value, safety and features case for itself, but is completely outshone by more dynamic, refined and appealing rivals like the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus.

But electrification turns the mundane X38 into a ‘super-Fluence’.

Sure, it may have an ungainly (130mm longer than standard) bum and tail-lights that look at you like Louie The Fly, but the L38 ZE – for Zero Emission naturally – is a brave new world trailblazer.

When it arrives in Australia this time next year, the electric Fluence will be (relatively) affordable, with a pioneering extra-cost battery lease/maintenance/swap arrangement with EV infrastructure and ownership specialists Better Place that promises to smooth the way for clean, green motoring without hassle or worry.

Whether the Renault is the first of many or merely a valiant but misguided road to nowhere, it is an historic vehicle that deserves to be remembered for trying to affect change towards an emissions-free future, if the Better Place spin is to be believed.

So, should you place your Fluence ZE order in now?At under $40K – plus around another $320 per month (by our calculations, not Better Place’s, for they’re keeping mum on pricing for another year) – the well-equipped Renault EV opens up a whole new world of electric driving.

What this means is that you can plug your car into the mains at home or the office for about eight hours, then drive like you normally do – which for most people is less than half its claimed 185km range.

If you need to go much further, you can ditch the battery pack for another freshly charged item at a planned Better Place Battery Swap Station, or rent a petrol or diesel Renault at significantly lower prices.

And you can brag about truly having zero exhaust pipe emissions because the power provided by Better Place’s charge box uses so-called ‘green electricity’.

It’s a win/win, right? Well, mostly.

Electrification makes the Fluence super-smooth, quick on the uptake and unbelievably serene at speed, backed up by significantly quieter running gear – save for an addictive (and perhaps too quiet) turbine sound coming from the motor.

Operating the Renault couldn’t be easier, either. You get inside, turn a key, hear a click and see a ‘GO’ light in the instrument cluster, slot the normal-looking T-bar lever into Drive, then zoom off.

The Fluence ZE feels quite energetic at lower speeds, but hills slow it down and extreme temperatures can result in reduced power. And these factors, plus things like extra weight, can slash the range between charges to well below half what Renault claims.

Driven enthusiastically over 65km of hilly but fast country roads, and with no regard for preserving charge, our ZE consumed a little over half, or around 8kWh, of the available electricity in reserve, which was a good result.

But we couldn’t help lamenting the actual chassis arrangement – the humble Fluence that surrounded all this impressive electrical hardware.

Why does the steering have to be so artificially light and numbing? It feels completely disconnected to the car, and so ruins it for keener drivers.

A more favourable front to rear weight balance results in composed and controlled handling, but the brakes also feel like a drag – especially when the regenerative braking kicks in off-throttle. Yes, it does help recharge the batteries, but they also make the Renault feel weirdly slower and ‘held back’.

And, despite the stretched boot, there is no solution to the low roofline that restricts easy entry and egress in all Fluence models. At least there is plenty of legroom and shoulder space once inside.

An oddly shaped boot area limits the Fluence ZE’s so-called family friendliness. It’s barely bigger than a coupe convertible’s like the Megane CC.

But this is the first EV under $40K and it feels special behind the wheel, despite the Fluence familiarity, because the drivetrain is so sweetly smooth and zingy. After a while it seemed completely normal, and never intimidating.

It is also worth noting that, in two days and about 150km of real-world driving, Renault never felt compelled to have an engineer or PR person accompany us, which points to a degree of confidence.

After enjoying the many virtues that electric motoring brings, it is easy to forget about the humble – some might even say humdrum – Fluence at the heart of this historic EV.

But, thanks to the advanced drivetrain, we are much more willing to forgive the Renault’s steering and packaging flaws. It even seems far less mundane than before.

The Road to Recovery podcast series

Read more

Click to share

Click below to follow us on
Facebook  Twitter  Instagram

Renault models

Catch up on all of the latest industry news with this week's edition of GoAutoNews
Click here