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Renault Fluence ZE

The Renault Fluence ZE is one of the new crop of electric vehicles coming your way soon from a major motor manufacturer, and Green Car Guide has driven the car in the UK.

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Renault and Nissan are partnering in the development of electric vehicles. However despite this relationship, there are a number of differences between the approaches of the two companies. Renault will be offering us a range of four electric vehicles over the next few years. The Fluence is the saloon option, but there will also be a small hatchback, currently named Zoe, and a vehicle that is best described as a four-wheeled scooter, called the Twizy. All these vehicles are due in 2012. However before any of these vehicles appear in the UK, there will be the electric Kangoo van, due in mid-2011, which we also drove at the same time as the Fluence.

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We know from extensive drives of the Nissan LEAF that there is basically nothing to fear from electric cars. Both the LEAF and the Fluence share the same attributes, being smooth and quiet, having instant torque and acceleration, and of course zero ‘tailpipe’ emissions. Electric cars such as these make complete sense in cities such as London. There are no gears to change, and there is no engine producing noise or emissions when you are stationary in traffic – something that is obviously a very regular occurrence in our urban areas. However the silence of electric cars can be a problem as well as a benefit, and legislation in Japan and the US is ensuring that EVs make some form of noise in the interests of pedestrian safety. Manufacturers in Europe are working together to come up with a noise solution for speeds under 20mph before they are forced to act by legislation.

The Kangoo ZE van actually makes even more sense than the Fluence; what could be more perfect for lots of stop-start deliveries in the centre of London than a zero-emission electric van? Like the Fluence, the Kangoo ZE is preferable to drive around the capital than a conventional petrol or diesel vehicle, especially if it requires frequent gear changes and clutch action. The Kangoo has a top speed of 81 mph, a 650 kg payload, and it gets our approval.

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The 95 hp Fluence takes 6-8 hours to charge and has a range of around 100 miles. Its lithium ion battery has no ‘memory effect’, so you can do lots of small charges without damaging its capability. In order to protect both the car and the circuit in the house, Renault recommends that charging should be done from a wallbox, and the company is working with energy providers to make this happen. In fact the Renault-Nissan Alliance is developing a huge range of partnerships across the globe (63 so far and still counting), not just with energy companies, but also with governments and other organisations to ensure the infrastructure is in place to support their EVs.

In terms of infrastructure in the UK, the government’s ‘Plugged In Places’ project has so far provided funding to three consortiums – London, Milton Keynes and the North East – to install 11,000 electric charging points. By 2015 there are likely to be 25,000 charging points in London alone.

Whereas the Nissan LEAF is designed as an electric car from the ground up, and it has unique exterior styling, in comparison the Renault Fluence is based on an existing combustion-engined saloon, albeit one that isn’t on sale in the UK.

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However it’s the interior where the big difference lies. The LEAF has a very modern and refreshing design, and everything about the dashboard and its information read-outs gives the impression of a futuristic high-tech car. After driving the latest pre-production incarnation of the LEAF less then 24 hours before testing the Fluence, it was surprising to sit in the driver’s seat of the Renault. Rather than feeling like a car of the future, the current interior feels like a 10-year old Laguna. There’s no high-tech instrumentation, and even the control for forward and reverse motion, which is similar to a computer mouse in the LEAF, comes in the form of an old automatic transmission shifter in the Fluence. You’re very aware that the Fluence is a pre-production vehicle, whereas the LEAF feels like a real, finished car. We’re expecting the interior of the final Fluence that arrives here to be more modern.

There’s another difference in approach between the two companies when it comes to the battery. The LEAF comes complete with its battery, whereas Renault wants you to lease the battery separately (this is likely to cost around £70-£80 per month). The rationale for this is that the battery is expensive, and you don’t buy ten years of petrol or diesel when you buy a car, so why buy ten years of battery life up-front when you can spread the cost over that time? Renault sees that this approach will have less impact on residual values when the car is 6-7 years old. The lease option also allows owners to upgrade their battery if units with improved performance become available.

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Renault also subscribes to the idea of swapping batteries when yours runs out of charge. The company is pursuing this model in Israel, where there will be 100,000 Fluences, with a number of garages along the main highway being set up to do this. They will have pits that the car will drive over, and an arm will reach under the car, lift out the depleted battery, and replace it with a fully charged unit. This initiative is being developed with Project Better Place, and although unique circumstances of one main linear road and a motivation to remove dependence on oil may make this viable in Israel, it’s unlikely that this model will happen in the foreseeable future in the UK.

In the UK it’s likely that you’ll keep the same battery in the car for 8-10 years. By that stage its capability is expected to start to deteriorate. The consumer will only ever use 80% of the total capacity, and any deterioration prior to the 8-10 year point will only impact upon the 20% that the driver never uses, so the day-to-day performance won’t suffer.

However that’s not necessarily the end of the story for the battery. There are plans to re-use the batteries for possibly a further five years as energy storage devices in our homes. This could work to store surplus energy generated from, for example, wind farms, when they produce energy that isn’t needed instantly, such as during the night. However this concept needs more work, in conjunction with the National Grid and energy companies. After around 12 years the battery will finally reach the end of its life and will be recycled by the Alliance back at its battery plants – one of which will be located in Sunderland, as well as facilities in Japan and the US.

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A common accusation levelled at electric car makers is that there isn’t enough lithium for all the batteries that will be needed. However Renault claims this won’t be a problem, as one battery requires 3 kg of lithium and there are 40-70 million tonnes of lithium reserves in the world.

Having observed the differences between Nissan and Renault, you’re reminded of the basic purpose of the Fluence – it’s a saloon that can be propelled around town without the need for petrol, diesel, or any other fossil fuel. However, having said that, it’s not exactly completely true. All electric cars need to get their electricity from somewhere, and unless the electricity is produced from 100% renewable sources, then there are carbon emissions involved in the production of the energy to power the Fluence.

And that leads to an interesting story. Renault has calculated that, if the Fluence is charged from the average European mix of electricity generation (comprised mainly of a gas and coal mix), then its emissions are 62 g/km CO2. In the UK this would rise to 72 g/km. With the worst-case option – coal-fired power stations – the emissions would be 128 g/km. These emissions are higher than those of class-leading diesels. Although the Fluence would have zero ‘tailpipe’ emissions, you’d still be emitting 128 g/km for a car with a range of just 100 miles.

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The opposite to the coal-fired scenario is evident in France, where due to nuclear power the emissions of the Fluence would be just 12 g/km. A nuclear-powered Fluence suddenly makes more sense.

Renault admitted that these figures are based on a slightly out-of-date set of energy generation statistics, but with renewables becoming an increasing larger proportion of the UK’s energy mix, the situation should be improving.

Renault Betting on Electric Vehicle Technology

So is Renault investing in the right technology? It certainly thinks so. By 2050, it’s predicted that 70% of us will be living in cities. This is compared to 50% of us living in cities in 2007.

Combined with this, there are some interesting figures about car usage. The key one is that 80% of people drive less than 37 miles per day. However another figure of note is that 32% of ‘B-segment’ cars are never driven more than 95 miles in one journey. The Zoe will be a B-segment car, in other words Clio-sized. Renault’s reasoning therefore is that 32% of superminis could be electric.

Based on all this, Renault sees that EVs will account for 10% of the total car market by 2020. By this time the fleet average for cars in Europe will have to be 95 g/km CO2 – otherwise manufacturers face huge fines. EVs will play a significant role in helping manufacturers to reduce their fleet CO2 averages. And the Renault-Nissan alliance aims to be the number one seller in the EV market by then.

Renault and Nissan are starting to move towards that aim now, with a strategy to offer mass-market EVs. To make EVs more affordable in the UK, there will be a 25% grant, up to £5000, towards buying an electric vehicle. However this vehicle has to be a car not a quadricycle, therefore the Twizy won’t qualify. And at the moment the grant won’t cover the Kangoo van.
The Zoe, after the separately-leased battery is taken out of the price, is likely to cost less than £20,000, so unless the battery can be included in the package, as it is with the LEAF, then Zoe buyers won’t benefit from the full grant entitlement. So we’re left with the Fluence – but by the time that is here, there’s no guarantee how much longer the grant will still be around for.

Despite all this, Renault is still saying that the purchase price of its EVs, after incentives, will be the same or less than a diesel version. The running costs of the EV should be less.

Green Car Guide is always asked the question “will we all soon be driving electric cars?” The answer is no; we will be driving cars with a mix of technologies, depending on what’s most suitable. Renault’s electric range provides a new solution for those who live in cities and who are able to recharge their cars. If you live in nuclear-powered France, then the Fluence’s 12 g/km CO2 emissions make it even more of an attractive proposition.