Renault aims to become the global leader in electric vehicles after Toyota snatched that title in the hybrid vehicles category with globally popular cars like the Prius. Time and again Renault has said 10% of car sales by 2020 will be electric vehicles. The French company signing plenty of private and public partnerships to set up a network of charging terminals to make lives easy for its cars and customers.
The very first Renault electric vehicle, the Fluence Z.E. was launched in some parts of Europe last month and I was invited to Lisbon, Portugal to sample them. In this edition, we’re going to answer all the questions hovering over the launch of an electric vehicle.
Why is Renault investing billions of dollars on electric vehicle technology?
There are three reasons for Renault to believe that electric vehicles are the next generation automobiles. The first reason is fluctuation of crude oil prices. Over the next few years chances are crude oil could become very expensive and drive up the cost of ownership of the automobile. Crude oil is a non-renewable source of energy and the primary geography school teacher was on the money when she said that fossil-based fuels will run out one day. The second reason is the number of countries that depend on imported crude oil. Car sales in fast developing countries like India and China which depend on imported oil is going to explode in the coming years and many of us are yet to work out a long-term solution to keep costs under control. The third reason is the tightening emission norms in Western countries. Governments are making car companies sweat it out to produce cars that are not only fuel economical but also emit fewer carbon dioxide. Electric cars don’t use gas and don’t give out harmful emissions from an exhaust pipe.
Doesn’t the energy to run electric vehicles come from burning coal? How can they be environmentally friendly?
Renault says scientists, energy companies and researchers at multiple levels are working on tapping every source of energy available on Mother Earth. Countries are pumping in billions of dollars into research projects that promise to find a better source of power. Renault says it can’t delay launches till a cleaner form of energy is available at the plug. It will continue rolling out more efficient and functional electric cars in the meantime. Clean energy can be tapped from forms such as geothermal, solar and wind.
Does Renault sell the Fluence Z.E. only in shades of earthly green or blue? Is it expensive? Are there visual differences?
No, Renault offers the electric Fluence in usual colors. After government rebates, the price of a Fluence Z.E. is 20,900 Euros, the same as the diesel variant. Maintaining a Fluence Z.E. is cheaper than a standard model as belts, filters and oil don’t feature on the service sheet. It’s easy to spot the EV as plenty of visual differences between the Z.E. and the petrol car exist. The Renault diamonds around the car are tinted blue and the Z.E. badge replaces the dCI on the boot. There are blue-tinted chrome decorations on the front fascia and the tail lights are unique with blue tint and LED lights stacked like a honeycomb. The wheels are unique and the dashboard readout lacks a tachometer. Instead the charge indicator and power usage icons are arranged. The electric car is 13cm longer to make extra space for the battery pack. Having said that, the batteries also eat into the boot space reducing it to 317 litres from the generous 530 litres of the diesel model. Long distance travellers will have to make other arrangements for their large suitcases.
To benefit range, how much equipment has Renault deleted from the Z.E.?
This is a real surprise to me. Renault has not deleted a single feature from the electric vehicle. What’s more, it has the same safety rating as the regular model. The equipment level is a carbon copy and that includes the rear air-conditioning vent. This is the most important aspect of the Fluence Z.E. as the occupants feel at home as soon as its doors open. Electric cars usually skimp on equipment to reduce body weight. They have cramped leg space, which is not the case on the Fluence. The Fluence range’s stands at 160 km but traffic, temperature and gradient play crucial roles in real world conditions. Realistic range estimations fall between 118-137 km, depending on the intensity of the affecting parameters for one full charge.
What powers the Fluence Z.E.?
The Fluence Z.E. (Zero Emission) has its drivetrain (a 1.5-liter diesel coupled to a manual transmission in India’s case) vacated to house a Synchronous AC motor that produces 70KW of power and 226Nm of torque. To give you a comparative idea, the diesel engine produces 78 kW of power and 240 Nm torque. The battery pack is a 398 Volt Lithium Ion that produces 22kWh and tips the scale at 280 kilograms. It is located right behind the rear seat and the motor wired to electricals are positioned up front where the engine would otherwise be. Batteries can be completely charged within 8 hours using a chord provided with the car drawing power from what Renault terms ‘wall box.’ By late 2012, Renault says 50,000 charging terminals will be planted across Europe’s public and private infrastructures and customers can charge their vehicles for a price of 2 Euros. The third type of charging is done using a household socket that can take up to 12 hours for one full charge.
In countries like Australia, Renault is providing the fourth option called ‘Quick Drop’ where the car drives over a raised platform and an automated mechanism switches the depleted battery with a fresh one within minutes. Renault is testing a charging system called ‘Quick Charge’ that restores full charge within one hour, expected on the market in the next few years.
If you feel there is still a chance of range anxiety, you don’t know that 87% of Europe drives less than 60 kilometers a day!
How does it drive?
The electric variant drives differently compared to the diesel Fluence. It has 100% torque available from the time you start the car. Since a conventional gearbox or a turbocharger is absent, there is no sweet spot or turbo lag. Every time you step on the accelerator, the car accelerates briskly and instantaneously. The car slows down rapidly when you take the foot of the accelerator as the kinetic energy of the rolling wheels is used to charge the batteries. The invisible braking allows you to negotiate curves with lesser drama. A notable difference is the absence of noise. A tick-tock noise when you turn the key indicates that the car is ready to go. The quality of the music from the standard sound system is much sweeter. The silent cabin also adds to occupant comfort. You hear a faint whistle when you accelerate hard and the low rolling resistance tires are designed to cut out road noise.
Is the Renault Fluence Z.E. the ultimate solution for India’s rising fuel prices?
It’s a fact that fuel prices have thwarted car sales and cars that are cheaper to run is the need of the hour. Having said that, many villages in India are yet to get an electricity connection. Power cuts are a frequent phenomenon in mega cities. The immediate challenge for the government is to overcome the power shortage at households and factories. Even if a case arises where electricity is abundant and there’s a huge demand for electric vehicles we don’t expect the Fluence Z.E. to be an overnight hit. Renault has to work with the Indian government to install charging terminals. Count in the fact that Renault India is preparing a foundation after the Logan debacle. It has to build its presence floor by floor. The next step is to compete in every important segment of the Indian market with petrol and diesel cars. Once they have established a strong foothold, they could bring down such technologies. Showcasing the technology capability is the only logical step for Renault India at this time to realize its electric vehicle dream and the Auto Expo is a solid platform for them to do so.
Shrawan Raja is the Managing Editor of the daily updated https://indianautosblog.com/