"The Renault Fluence Z.E. is the first all-electric saloon, but that doesn't make the owning one any more practical."
The Renault Fluence ZE is a full electric vehicle and four-door saloon that offers the practicality and usability of a standard family car, so represents an attempt to make EV (electric vehicle) ownership more appealing to new-car buyers. You pay a monthly fee to essentially rent the expensive batteries straight from Renault, which reduces the list price, and the risk of high maintenance and repair costs. It is, of course, eligible for the government's £5,000 EV grant, which lowers the Fluence's price to rival a petrol or diesel engined Volkswagen Passat. The 95bhp electric motor provides decent performance, and the instant power means the Fluence feels faster than its 0-62mph time of 13.4 seconds suggests – with lots of immediate acceleration available from the electric motor. Its range is limited to around 100 miles, though, which reduces its use over long distances. However, the Renault's Fluence ZE is very relaxing to drive thanks and if you only need it for short trips then it's a genuinely attractive package. The Fluence ZE comes in two specifications – entry-level Expression+ and top-of-the-range Dynamique.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
Time to get the calculator out. If your regular fuel costs are less than the cost of the monthly battery lease, then the Fluence might be the car for you. It is worth remembering that there's no annual road tax to pay, while insurance and servicing costs are comparably low. There's also the added bonus of Congestion Charge exemption, which will save central London drivers an extra £10 per day. Which is great, so long as you don’t mind spending £1,000 per year on battery rental.
Interior & comfort
The good – it's so quiet, silent actually, and the single-speed gearbox gives the Fluence a lot of the qualities of a luxury expensive car for a small amount of the cost. But, the bad – the suspension is far too firm, so the ride is harsh and tends to thud into potholes, which tends to rattle the passengers around inside a bit. The interior is sort of futuristic, with blue badges and exterior trim, but, again, it's not very exciting. All the controls are well built but decidedly functional, while the use of soft-touch plastics was a wise move.
Practicality & boot space
The Fluence has lengthened dimensions to prevent the usual loss of boot space that occurs in electric cars, due to the need to stash the batteries somewhere. That extra length means that you can get three adults in the back in relative comfort while keeping the 317 litres of boot space that is available in the standard model (only available in mainland Europe). However, the shape of the boot is somewhat awkward because is it fairly deep but not very long, making loading and carrying bulky items tricky. And if you plan to drive long distances on a regular basis you should probably look elsewhere, because the Fluence ZE claims to only have a range of 115 miles - but in reality that can actually be as low as 50 miles.
Reliability & safety
With a lot less moving parts than in a petrol or diesel car, electric cars tend to be more reliable by default. Buyers must lease the Fluence's batteries on a monthly basis, though, but that lease price does at least include breakdown recovery and running out of charge – plus a promise to replace the battery if it degrades to quickly. Renault's dodgy reputation for reliability has also improved recently, with the French manufacturer actually climbing up the 2013 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey's manufacturers rankings. Placing 21st out of 32, Renault is on course, provided it can keep improving. Combine that with the simpler engineering of the electric motor and the Fluence should be fairly reliable – even though the car itself is far too rare to qualify for the survey on its own terms.
Engines, drive & performance
The star rating reflects the Fluence's lack of range and driving fun. If the aim is to match a standard car, then it falls well short. But, if you take it on its own terms, then the silent electric motor and single-speed gearbox make it very easy to drive. It's also very calming, with no vibration or harsh engine noise to bother passengers. Around town it feels zippy enough and there's a reasonable amount of power if you need to overtake, too – despite the relatively slow sounding 0-62mph time of 13 seconds. The handling is stable, if unengaging, and, to be frank, not much fun.
Price, value for money & options
The Fluence ZE does, at first glance, seem like better value than other equivalent electric cars – but that's because the batteries aren’t included in the list price. But you do still have to pay a monthly leasing fee of £81, which really does add up over time. The Fluence does qualify for the £5,000 government grant, which takes the price down a bit more, but in the end, whatever money you save up front is quickly counterbalanced by the battery rental. Charging is undeniably inexpensive, but again, you have to have the batteries to charge. The basic Expression+ model comes with cruise control, sat-nav, air-conditioning, and automatic headlights and windscreen wipers as standard.