Renault Fluence Z.E: first drive

  • Check out our guide to Renault's latest electric car
  • Fluence Z.E. due to go on sale in the UK in mid-2011
  • Same price as diesel, battery lease costs around £80 a month

In the middle of next year Renault will be offering its electrically powered mid-sized Renault Z.E. saloon for the same price as an equivalently priced diesel version.  

For that reason the Z.E. - essentially a Megane saloon - does sound like great value particularly if you are committed to low-cost, low emissions motoring. You'll pay a moderate electric bill for charging and, since the Z.E. runs with zero emissions you'll have no road tax to pay. It's not all rosy in the garden however, because there are a couple of real issues to consider before buying. Is the Fluence Z.E. a sensible alternative? Here's the low-down:

The driving experience
We spent no more than 10 minutes in the car negotiating busy London traffic so it's difficult to give a real indication of how well this car handles or performs. In the back, just behind the rear seats, there lies a sizeable 250kg battery that massively eats into boot space. We didn't get the car over 30mph so we have no idea how that has affected the characteristics of the car. Still, it accelerated briskly and it delivered a noticeable chunk of pulling power. Top speed is limited to 80mph. Inside, it's just like a conventonal Megane auto featuring a central gear lever with drive, park, neutral and reverse gears. You just put it in drive and press the accelerator pedal. For city driving it's ideal. 

It is pretty near silent, except you do get a little whirr from the motor when you get up to speed. Pedestrians can't hear you coming and that can be problematic in busy city streets. On two occasions people stepped out in front of our path as we were accelerating because they were relying on an aural warning from a conventional engine. In a bid to combat this all electric cars will feature some sort of engine noise up to 20mph.

The cost
Because it is electrically powered the Fluence Z.E. will enjoy a government grant of £5,000, just like that on the £23k Nissan Leaf. Because Renault will offer the Z.E. at the same price as a car with a conventional internal combustion engine you might consider that a cynical marketing exercise since the headline purchase price does not include the lease cost of the battery. Because there are far fewer components on an electric car owners should enjoy better reliability. Apart from the battery, tyres and brake pads are the only consumables so maintenance costs should be very affordable.

The battery lease
Buyers will have to pay a monthly lease for the battery for a cost of between £70-£80 for the life of the car. Renault insists the total running costs including maintenance, the battery lease and the electricity will still be cheaper than those incurred by a conventional petrol or diesel-powered car. You will have to cover quite a few miles in order to make the Z.E. make more financial sense than a conventional diesel or petrol car because the cost will always be there regardless of level of use. Renault says you'll need to cover around 40 miles a day to make the Fluence Z.E. pay. Research has shown that 87% of motorists complete no more than 37 miles days and, of those, 50% complete just 12 miles a day. In that respect a large chunk of the potential market won't bother because they won't cover enough miles to justify the lease costs. Quite simply, you might as well go for a diesel.

The residual values
Used car valuation experts CAP will not give a residual value for the Fluence Z.E. because it questions the legality of selling a car that could potentially have two finance arrangements on it: the finance for the car itself and the lease cost for the battery.  

This could also have implications for insurance cover because Renault will be responsible for the insurance on the battery (because it owns it) and the owner will be responsible for insurance cover on the car itself. Although, that sounds simple enough it could be problematic when a claim is made because there will inevitably be questions over who is liable for repairs. 

The range
A single charge from the household mains takes between four and eight hours and that will deliver a range of 100 miles. This could compromise flexibility on travel arrangements, but there are around 300 charging points already installed in London, Milton Keynes and the north west of England. The aim is to install around 11,000 charging points all around the country and in urban areas in particular. There is a quick charge service available where charging takes just 30 minutes, but that can compromise the life of the battery which is normally around 10 years. As such owners will have to pay more on the lease if they use the quick charge on a regular basis. 

The green credentials
Since a large proportion of the UK's electricity comes from carbon-generating power stations, the zero emissions claim is arguable. The 'well-to-wheel' emissions figure gives the true picture and if you take this into account the Fluence Z.E. produces the equivalent of about 75g/km of CO2 when it draws its electricity from the UK's national grid.