Seeking a surge but suffering range anxiety

 

Renault’s Fluence ZE may not scream its electric credentials to passers by, but it enthrals with its silent, serene progress and the immediacy of its power

BEWARE ELECTRIC CAR evangelists. Like any group of zealots who eulogise for moral or intellectual superiority over their fellow man, they become prickly after discovering the rock they built their church upon lacks some fundamental foundations.

The point they miss is that the unconverted are not Luddites or anti-electric. It would take a particularly churlish anorak to dismiss the merits of an alternative power source that could decouple us from our oil dependency. Unless you live by turf fire and candlelight, you know of the convenience of electric power.

Spend a little time in an electric car and even the most ardent petrolhead will appreciate the beauty and ease of its performance.

Take this Renault Fluence ZE for example. It’s a humdrum Fluence in every way except its source of power. The French brand has embraced an electric future, but in this car it has cloaked what is essentially the powertrain from sister brand Nissan’s Leaf in the body of its current affordable family saloon.

The Fluence may not scream its electric credentials to passers by, but it enthrals with its silent, serene progress and the immediacy of its power. In place of the regular engine is a 95bhp electric motor with a single-speed transmission and a 22kWh battery pack.

This pack is housed behind the rear seat and, to make room for it, another 13cm has been added to the car’s length, but only the most eagle-eyed Renault nut will notice. One telltale difference is the replacement of the rev counter with a dial showing the charge left in the battery and a digital readout of the expected range estimated on your recent driving style.

Even after a week in the Fluence ZE, I still looked forward to the silent magic carpet drive to work, while the performance up to 120km/h is impressive in both its pace and its smooth delivery. And you can’t help but feel a little smug as you whoosh past combustion-engined rivals.

So driving is not an issue with electric cars; in fact it’s arguably smoother in many instances than the average piston-driven rival.

But what about the much-discussed recharging? I did most of my charging at home. With a special ESB-fitted socket outside the house, it’s a doddle.

I’ve heard the usual array of concerns about forgetting to charge it and the like, but it’s a 30-second operation to plug it in or out and it quickly becomes as routine as pulling on your socks in the morning. With an official range of 115kms, you should be able to pop to and from work or to the shops without a problem. My nightly recharging on the ESB night rate cost just €2.20 for a full charge.

The official range of the electric Fluence is 185km, but even Renault officials say that in real driving conditions you will average between 90km and 120km, depending on driving style. Still, that’s bordering on the financial equivalent of 200mpg (1.3 L/100km) in the fossil-fuelled world.

So for the first few days, my smugness over the petrol-swilling primates knew no bounds. And then I had to go to Naas.

Normally a trip from Dublin to Naas requires about as much pre-planning as boiling a kettle. However, given that the estimated range reading the Fluence never exceeded 90kms, a quick visit to Google Earth was in order. It showed that route for the day was 101.3kms. To paraphrase Alex Ferguson, it was now “squeaky bottom” time.

It’s not that I didn’t want to have to stop and recharge along the way. On a regular charger that might take six hours to fully charge, but on a fast charge DC unit it’s only 25-30 minutes for an 80 per cent charge. The problem is the lack of public charging points. A quick visit to the ESB’s electric car website shows just one fast charger near the route. If for some reason it wasn’t working or was being used, then I was going to need a pretty long extension lead.

An overnight 12 hour charge didn’t help and in the morning, while the battery gauge showed the Fluence was full to the brim with excited electrons, the on-board computer was pessimistically predicting I’d be hitching a lift after 88kms. Who to trust: car or car company?

Against most people’s advice I opted for the car company. On the M50 at motorway speeds everything was fine and I purposefully didn’t lighten my right foot at any stage of the 53km trip. By the time I arrived, the battery gauge showed half a charge left and the onboard computer grudgingly admitted I still had 55kms in the bank. By the time I got back to the office and then home, I had completed a monumental 101.8kms and the well-beaten on-board computer was showing I still could drive another 19kms. Human - 1: onboard computer – 0. And yet the range anxiety was incredibly real. A trip from Dublin to Naas shouldn’t be an expedition. It’s these seemingly ridiculous range restrictions that will cripple electric car sales.

But it wasn’t the car’s batteries that caused so much angst. If the Government and electricity suppliers really supported electric cars, then charging points would feature on every street corner and forecourt.

Instead, we’re told that if the public buys more electric cars, more charging points will be rolled out. Yet again the private citizen must pay upfront and trust the Government and semi-states to deliver. Given their track record, trust is understandably in short supply.

Potential buyers must also trust the car firms. It’s one thing to take a punt on a new iPad for €500. It’s built by Apple, which has a reputation for bulletproof reliability and strong customer service. It’s another to take a punt on new technology costing €21,000-plus from Renault.

In fairness to the French firm, it is addressing these issues head-on. An obvious concern is that as battery technology improves, this early generation Fluence could quickly become obsolete. So, unlike Nissan, Renault is leasing the battery pack and will replace it with improved technology when it comes on-stream. The leasing deal starts at €82 a month, but buyers get the first two years free. It’s hoped that by then new improved batteries may be on the market.

The Fluence ZE comes with a five-year unlimited mileage warranty and customers also get a free recharging wall box fitted to their home or place of work. It has also launched a new extended test-drive trial, where those interested in purchasing can can test drive the Fluence ZE for up to one month from dealerships.

It’s the sort of common sense reassurance that customers need and the electric Fluence is certainly worth a test drive.

Yet motorists spending their hard-earned cash in the middle of a recession need to be reassured that it’s not a rash move to buy electric and they need to get those assurances from both the car firms and those tasked with rolling out the charging points. So far, only one side has delivered and that’s perhaps why so few people have made the leap to electric. Until that’s sorted, few are going to buy into the electric dream.

FACTFILE

ENGINE 95bhp electric motor putting out 226Nm of torque, powered by a 22kWh battery pack

PERFORMANCE 0-100km/h: 13.7 seconds

TOP SPEED 140km/h

RANGE 185km (official), 90km-120km (realistic)

EMISSIONS Zero from car (€160 motor tax)

PRICE €21,610 (with government incentive of €5,000)

RIVAL Nissan Leaf €25,595

OUR RATING 6/10 – worth a test drive if you’re an urban motorist who doesn’t stray very far, and doesn’t plan to


Twitter: @mikemcaleer