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Renault Fluence ZE: Launch Review

words - Matt Brogan
As the first family-sized EV to market, Renault’s Fluence ZE offers a compelling choice in alternative motoring...
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International Launch

Cascais, Portugal

What we liked
>> Normal appearance and function

>> Drivable instant-torque motor
>> Competitive pricing

Not so much
>> Reduced cargo capacity

>> Compromised dynamics
>> Superlight steering response

>>An alternative reality
The first family-sized electric vehicle to go on sale anywhere in the world, the Renault Fluence ZE (Zero Emissions), has launched in Europe this month ahead of its local launch midway next year.

Built at Renault’s Bursa plant in Turkey, Fluence ZE is refreshingly mainstream in terms of its looks, distinguished only by “blue chrome” highlights in the front grille, boot lid garnish and badging, as well as blue tinted head and fog lamps and model-specific tail lamps.

The Fluence ZE shares similar proportions to that of its ICE-powered (internal combustion engine) derivative, growing 130mm in length to facilitate battery accommodation and allow more usable cargo space. It is powered by a synchronous AC electric motor drawing power from a lithium-ion battery positioned vertically between the passenger compartment’s rear bulkhead and the boot.

Cabin space is identical to the conventionally-powered model with small changes to decor, instrumentation and some functionality the only discernible differences.

Fluence ZE is charged by way of a wall-mounted 16 amp domestic supply box, via roadside charging stations, or by having its battery exchanged for a fresh one at automated drive-in/drive-out battery swap stations that promise changeover times of less than six minutes.

Renault’s mid-size electric sedan is available for order in Great Britain, Spain, France, Denmark and Germany from this month with the rest of Europe expecting deliveries next year. Australian fleet buyers can expect to see their first models arrive as part of a trial which will commence in Q2 2012, with retail sales to follow in Q4. During this time, Renault Australia hopes to sell some 150 units.


>> Batteries not included

Expected to arrive in Australia from less than $40,000, the Fluence ZE is significantly cheaper than other electrically-powered vehicles available currently; primarily due to a deal struck with partner Better Place which will effectively “own” the car’s expensive lithium-ion battery.

The car is sold with the battery installed, though this is leased from the third-party provider by way of a series of 12 month contracts, or plans, similar to those offered by mobile phone carriers. Being one of the most expensive components of the car, the scheme not only allows Renault to sell the car at a significantly reduced rate, but also allows customers the peace of mind of a maintained battery, fixed, “all-inclusive” fee, and access to new battery technology as it becomes available.

Otherwise, Fluence ZE is unremarkably normal, excusing the fact you plug it in instead of filling it up. It looks and drives like any other car on the road and includes all the features and equipment familiar to the ICE-powered version. Included as standard are dual-zone climate control, satellite navigation, Bluetooth telephony and audio streaming, trip computer, cruise control (with speed limiter function), single-CD tuner, auto headlamps and rain-sensing wipers.

Fluence ZE is offered with a standard flip-key in lieu of the usual Smartcard – Renault citing the battery’s metallic mask as the cause, saying it interferes with the receptacle’s transponder. It is not yet clear as to whether the hard point created from a traditional column-mounted ignition barrel will affect the driver safety score come test time.

Available in three colours (pale blue, white and grey), Fluence ZE is also available with wireless smart phone and PC connectivity advising the car’s state of charge and expected range, based on driving history.

Depending on how many kilometres are travelled annually, and therefore the price of Better Place plan, Renault estimates savings of between 10 and 20 per cent when compared to a comparable diesel-powered sedan. Local arrangements will be determined closer to launch.

>> Charged, but not as we know it
As we touched on earlier, Fluence ZE is powered by a Continental-sourced AC synchronous electric motor outputting 70kW between 3000 and 8900rpm and 226Nm between 400 and 2500rpm. From 2013, Renault will make its own motor for Fluence at its Cleon plant in France.

Power to the motor is supplied by a lithium-ion battery consisting of 48 four-cell modules which provide 22kWh at 398 volts (65Ah). The AESC-sourced battery has a life expectancy of between eight and 12 years. Before use, a converter changes the battery’s 400 volts DC to 220 volts AC for use by the motor, and vice-versa when decelerating (regenerative charging).

Weighing 280kg the traction battery forms a significant portion of the car’s overall weight, and, coupled with the car’s increased rear overhang (+130mm), changes Fluence’s weight distribution to 46:54 front-to-rear (or 736kg at the front axle, 869kg at the rear). Kerb weight is 1605kg, 277kg heavier than the entry-level petrol. For reference, the engine weighs 160kg, 40kg lighter than the entry-level diesel.

A 12 volt battery supplies all other ancillary systems, such as the radio, HVAC fan, lighting and wipers.

The front wheels are driven via a reduction (automatic) gearbox allowing Fluence ZE a 0-100km/h time of 13.0 seconds and top speed of 135km/h. Steering is electrically assisted and provides a turning circle of 11.0 metres.

Fluence ZE rides on 16-inch alloy wheels -- specially designed to minimise air turbulence, thus reducing drag -- and low rolling-resistance tyres suspended by a re-tuned pseudo MacPherson strut front / torsion beam rear arrangement. Braking duties fall to four-wheel discs and regenerative coasting (kinetic energy recovery), assisted by the usual electronic aids.

Tackling the all-important question of range, Renault says Fluence ZE is good for between 80 and 200 kilometres depending on a range of factors including driving style, temperature (or more correctly the use of air-conditioning and heating), topography and speed. The NEDC (new European driving cycle) quotes an official combined figure of 185 kilometres.


>> Same, but different
Measuring 4748mm in length, Fluence ZE is 130mm longer than its derivative model. The battery installation has created a reduction in cargo capacity, now totalling 317 litres (ICE model offers 530 litres). As a result of the battery’s position, the electric Fluence does not offer 60:40 split-fold rear seating.

And that’s where packaging changes end. The car’s width and height are identical to the ICE model, as are its internal dimensions. Fluence ZE offers seating for five, a height and reach adjustable steering wheel, remote audio and cruise control buttons and a traditional floor shift transmission selector.

An array of oddment storage includes a small glove compartment, console bin, door pockets and cup holders. A vent in the rear parcel shelf allows heat from the battery to warm the passenger compartment in cold weather (heat is vented to atmosphere when not required).

In addition to this nifty addition to the car’s HVAC system is a timer that can heat or cool the car’s cabin to a preset temperature whilst connected to mains power, thus alleviating the drain on the battery in bringing the cabin to the required temperature.

The instrument panel offers a battery charge indicator in place of the tachometer with a small “energy gauge” fitted to the other side of the speedometer, below the trip computer’s display. As the car makes no sound, a small, green “GO” light illuminates when running to show the system is operating.

Fluence ZE is available optionally with an external sound generator operable at speeds of below 20km/h to forewarn any unsuspecting pedestrians.


>> No compromise green machine
As expected from a manufacturer with more five-star cars than Volvo, Renault’s new Fluence ZE arrives with a suite of safety equipment and comprehensive crash assessment program conducted prior to EuroNCAP testing. This, the manufacturer says, should ensure top marks come test time, with special consideration given to the weight and position of the substantial battery, and the prevention of both its entry into the passenger compartment and anti-perforation performance.

Of course, the usual electronic and supplementary restraint equipment is included as standard which includes stability control and anti-lock brakes (with emergency brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution) specially calibrated for the electrically-powered model’s redistributed weight, anti-whiplash head restraints, three-point seatbelts with pretensioners (front seats only) and six airbags.

>> Oh so lonely
At this point in time Fluence ZE is, strictly speaking, alone in its category. Other EVs are of course available, including Mitsubishi’s diminutive and rather costly i-MiEV and the forthcoming Nissan LEAF hatchback.


>> Convincingly normal

With all of its torque available from the get-go, Fluence ZE is remarkably driveable, in spite of its seemingly meagre output. The car actually accelerates (to 50km/h) quicker than its conventionally-powered sibling, only lacking for power when overtaking at highway speeds. Around town, however, and arguably where the car is at its best, the drive is comparable to any same-sized rival, and in some cases even better. There’s no lag when moving from rest, while acceleration is brisk, effortless and intriguingly silent.

The same can be said for highway cruising where the car easily keeps pace with the flow of traffic. On level ground Fluence ZE can muster enough motivation to pass slower moving traffic, though hurried overtaking manoeuvres are best avoided.

Suspension is on the firm side, but not taut — the car managing to soak up most irregularities comfortably, the higher profile tyres obviously assisting here. Unfortunately, and despite its firmer tune, the suspension can be caught out by high speed manoeuvres, the stability control system failing to arrest the car’s course when unsettled at pace. Clearly, this is not something many Fluence ZE owners will ever experience and it’s far from the car’s intended purpose to be faced with such a task, but one worth keeping in mind should an evasive manoeuvre be required.

The car’s electrically-assisted steering, whilst direct, is extremely light of feel and does little to insulate kick back and torque steer under heavy acceleration.

On the plus side, the car feels convincingly normal to drive when compared to its conventionally-powered sibling. Brake modulation and pedal feel are equitable while the motor provides a linearity of acceleration ideal for regulating vehicle speed – or saving precious volts. On the 80 kilometre economy course presented at launch, the vehicle driven by myself and a colleague would have achieved 201 kilometres if we had continued to drive in the same manner – and that with the climate control switched on!

Fluence ZE will commence trials in Canberra from Q2 next year with retail sales to commence from Q4. Full specification, pricing and Better Place battery scheme details will be announced closer to the car’s local launch.

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Published : Tuesday, 25 October 2011

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