ITS BEEN a couple of months spent with the Fluence Z.E. now, and its been interesting getting to know it. You dont drive it quite like you would a petrol or diesel car.
Yes, youve got what looks like the control layout from a normal automatic car and it looks pretty like a normal car unless you know the tell-tale differences, but there are a number of peculiarities both good and niggly that define the driving experience.
The most obvious thing is the quiet. Its not silent because you can hear the motor spinning up with a Star Trek-like hum, but trundling around supermarket car parks is an absolute joy. The Fluence feels substantial but the hush at low speed is marvellous. At those sorts of moments it feels a lot more prestige than it technically is.
The next most obvious factor is the braking force thats applied when you lift off the throttle. The motor changes phase and turns into a generator that aims to put some charge back into the battery. The faster youre going when you lift off, the stronger the deceleration starts out and it feels very odd until you get used to it.
According to the handy live power transfer display as part of the trip computer, this regeneration process can put quite a bit of energy back into the battery if the physics will allow it. As far as my understanding of battery science goes, it takes a little time to get the electrons in any battery to change direction, so unless theres some fancy way of getting around this the apparent regeneration going on in any electric car will always be less than it says.
But lets forget the science. This strong deceleration, comparable to engine braking but stronger, is actually quite useful. It means that at the very least you can get free mileage downhill with careful throttle pressure, and it means you dont have to use the brakes much once youre properly used to the car.
Ive found myself only using them to come to a final stop, and its then that you notice one of the odd niggles in the driving experience. Although the low rolling resistance tyres often a bugbear on eco-special cars have been optimised to be genuinely quiet, the brakes havent.
Their grinding noises are completely normal, but you dont normally notice them over engine noise. Some other electric and hybrid cars have technology to minimise brake noise and the Fluence could definitely benefit from some of that.
Onto more normal characteristics now, and its time for the electric motor to shine. Trundling along at low speed in traffic and spying a gap in the faster-moving lane next to you, you need instant torque to get you out into the gap and up to speed as quickly as possible. The Fluence has it in spades, and the rate at which it picks up pace with a good squeeze of the throttle is amazing.
It feels slightly different in cornering compared to front-engined cars. Most of the weight is at the back and even if you dont really know much about driving dynamics you notice the slightly different feel.
Its nothing more than a curiosity though really, and whats much more important is that the Fluences controls strike a good balance between weighting and ease of use. Its not designed to feel like a featherweight at low speed, but its nice and stable at faster dual carriageway speeds.
Its perhaps not the ideal supermarket car for families, since part of the boot is taken up by the batteries. Its done very neatly in fairness, leaving as practical a shape as possible. The cable bag slots away to one side of the battery area and the tool kit slots to the other. While large cases are off the agenda, shopping is really no problem. I put a number of carrier bags full in there with plenty of room to spare.
For this first two months Ive kept exclusively to the city, charging the car at the three-pin plugs in a city centre car park whenever I need to visit the town, picking up four hours of free electricity during late night cinema trips and meals out for a bargain £2 parking fee. Ive even done a full charge from flat for that fee, which equated to the same as doing around 250mpg in a petrol or diesel car.
So far Ive covered about 250 local miles, which feels like a lot more than it sounds because its mostly been in three-mile bursts. But as with internal combustion, in town driving your total range is lower.
Next month Ill be trying it out on some runs into the countryside, to see whether Renaults 100-mile range predictions are about right. Heres hoping they are, but this is new tech and I think Ill take baby steps
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Renault Fluence Z.E Dynamique, £18,395 on the road (£20,324 as tested).
Motor: Synchronous electric motor producing 94bhp and 167lb.ft.
Battery capacity: 22kWh.
Performance: Top speed 84mph (limited), 0-62mph in 13.7 seconds.
Cost per mile (mileage only): 6p
Average range: Approx 70 miles.