Jack Carfrae and Stuart Collins travel to France to get Eco Car a sneak peak at Renault’s Fluence electric vehicle in development – and dispel some myths about electric cars
There’s still a real stigma attached to electric cars. Range anxiety this, lack of performance that. Try as they may, car makers’ best efforts are thwarted by naysayers and over a century of internal combustion stronghold.
So Renault has fought back. A huge advocate of the electric car, the French manufacturer opened its doors and allowed us a look behind the scenes at its latest electric saloon – the Fluence EV – during development, to prove that it really can work. Nicolas Remise, project director for the Fluence ZE, is the man charged with making it as acceptable and accessible to Joe Public as possible. He told us: “We have several goals – to demonstrate that we can launch real cars with electric power, to equip a country with a battery drop network and to lift range anxiety.”
The second of those is already well underway, as electric vehicle network provider Better Place has established a small number of battery drop stations in Israel, which is where many a Fluence EV will initially be sold. We’re told there will be 40 of them by the end of the year and they’re expected to filter into Europe and further afield.
Until then, Renault’s chief target is to spread the word about electric cars and let people know that there is nothing to be afraid of. “We’re trying to educate customers as much as possible to allay their fears,” said Remise, “We want them to test drive the car before a sale just to show them how similar it is to an internal combustion-engined one – and discover that it’s not just a golf cart!”
They may be different under the skin but for the most part, pre-production tests are identical for electric cars to those performed on conventional vehicles. We watched the Fluence being put through its paces at Renault’s Aubevoye Technical centre in Northern France, where it took on salt and fresh water fords, a dust tunnel, electromagnetic fields, heavily rutted surfaces and a high-speed handling circuit. “We aim to put ourselves in the position of the customer when testing,” said Fabrice Izzillo, the man in charge of the way Renault’s electric vehicles feel and sound. The only difference is that engineers pay particular attention to the battery and its connections. For example, during the ford test, the lower part of the battery is actually dunked into the water. It’s well insulated enough to be perfectly safe, but where engineers would normally be worried about a flooded engine, they were more concerned about the welfare of the Fluence’s battery connections. As Monsieur Izzillo told us, in his thick French accent: “400 volts and water – they are not friends!”
Rear-end crash tests are significant enough for all cars, but for a saloon with a 250kg battery in the back, they’re particularly important. We watched a Fluence EV meet its demise from the rear at Renault’s Lardy Technical Centre, where a rigid front trolley collided with the car at 50kph.
The photos on these pages tell most of the story, but aside from the obvious wounds, damage nearer the front of the car included a distorted panel gap between the front and rear doors and a dent in the roof. We were also unable to open the doors after the shunt, but Jaques Faure, Renault’s expert in passive safety, assured us that they would, given enough of a tug, and promised to look into this later on.
The company is openly proud of its good reputation for safety and consistent strong performances in Euro NCAP tests, but it refused to comment on whether the Fluence EV would receive the full five stars. Some knowing looks suggested that top marks are expected, though.
What’s an electric car like on the track?
An electric saloon might not be the last word in motorsport, but the Fluence EV nonetheless has to undergo high speed and dynamic handling tests. We rode shotgun while Renault’s test drivers made the tyres howl with protest around the sharp bends of the handling circuit at Aubevoye. It’s certainly quick enough from the off, as the torque kicks in instantly, but the challenge with the Fluence EV is its weight distribution, which, with the addition of the battery, mounted upright behind the rear seats, is 50:50.
If the Fluence was a sports car then that would be perfect, but unfortunately, it’s not. The ideal weight balance for a front-wheel drive saloon is front heavy (the petrol or diesel-engined Fluence sold overseas weighs in at 64:36), so the EV seems a smidgen rear heavy on the limit. To counteract this, Renault has added an extra 13cm to the rear of the car and made a number of adjustments including stiffer coil springs and anti-roll bars, recalibrated steering and reprogrammed driving aids.