Renault Fluence Z.E. pictures and hands-on

Renault has bet big on electric cars. Bigger than any other car company in fact - and by 2013 it’ll have four of them for sale in the form of the recently launched Kangoo Z.E. Van, Twizy scooter/car hybrid, Clio-sized Zoe and this, the Fluence Z.E. – the most conventional and normal of the all-electric range.

To herald the introduction of the cars, Renault’s been using the slogan "Drive the Change", so when it invited us to check out the Fluence Z.E. we thought we’d better go and see what the noise - or lack of – was all about.

A more traditional style

We’ve got used to electric and hybrid cars looking rather different from the norm. The Nissan Leaf, Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius all adopt a hatchback form, with a high rear end that’s chopped off for better aerodynamic efficiency. Those distinctive looks have been a real draw as this first generation of "green" cars took to the market, because early adopters were keen to shout about the fact they’d bought a hyper-efficient new car.

So the Fluence Z.E is surprising because of how normal and conventional it looks (massive boot and rear overhang apart). Pick one in a metallic silver or grey rather than the electric blue of our test car and you can just blend in. Partly that’s because - as we move in to a phase where more and more electric cars come to market - manufacturers reckon the desire to stand out and shout about what you’re driving will diminish. It’s also because Renault’s aiming this at fleet and company car buyers - electric cars benefit from huge tax breaks - who aren’t known for wanting to stand out from the crowd, and also that the Fluence Z.E. is based on the existing Fluence saloon that’s available in other markets - itself based on the Megane hatch that we get in the UK. We think it’s a bit of a shame it looks so bland and normal.

Understated with a small boot

But if you want an electric car and don’t want to shout about it, this could be for you. And as far as compromises go, Renault has done just about all it can to remove the stuff that might put you off buying one. The interior and dashboard is just like the one in the Megane - which is to say fairly plain, but nice enough with some good quality soft-touch plastics. In the back, there’s plenty of space and this car will seat four full-size adults no problem. The only issue comes when you open the boot and discover that rather than the massive space that protruding rear deck suggests, there's a fairly small luggage compartment, because the battery’s stacked up behind the rear seats.

Those expecting the kind of futuristic interior full of touchscreen that you get in the Toyota Prius or Nissan Leaf might be disappointed – there’s no giant screen or large futuristic display. Instead you get a Megane-like three gauges on the dash, with the rev counter replaced by a battery charge gauge, and the fuel gauge replaced by a small gauge which shows how efficiently you’re driving and a digital display showing how many kW of power you’re using and if power is flowing from or back in to the battery.

It’s all linked to Renault’s TomTom-based Sat Nav system, which knows how much charge is in the battery and will warn you if there’s not enough to get to your destination and try to find recharge stations along the route and also includes TomTom Live services.

Relaxed ride, good range

Jump in and set off and you’ll straight away realise why there’s a real appeal to electric cars. Up to about 50mph the motor makes virtually no noise. Sensibly, rather than trying to pretend the Fluence Z.E. is some kind of sports car, Renault has set it up with a lovely soft and comfortable ride and light steering. The result is the Fluence Z.E. is a relaxing, easygoing car to drive.

It also benefits from the usual electric car characteristic of providing max torque from zero rpm, which in non-jargon speak means, when you put your foot down it just takes off instantly. Above about 55mph you get a gentle electric humming whine, that has slight overtones of Eighties film spaceships, all the better for reminding you you’re driving the future. The range of the battery is up to about 110 miles, according to Renault – and after 45 miles behind the wheel the gauge showed the battery having lost just over half its charge. Given that a lot of those miles were at fairly high speeds on A-roads and dual carriageways, around town and with a gentler foot, 100-odd miles seems plausible as this car’s real world range.

The best thing is the price

It’s easy to look at the plain-Jane Fluence Z.E. and think "so what?" But the reality is that this could be the smartest and most-appealing electric car yet. Keeping the design simple and skimping on the visible tech has allowed Renault to wield one huge trump card, which is typically the biggest off-putting factor of electric cars – price. You can buy a basic Fluence Z.E., after the Government’s £5,000 grant, for just £17,495. The Dynamique version we drove here - which gets you a few extra toys such as air conditioning and cruise control - is £18395. Which means it massively undercuts rivals such as Nissan’s Leaf and Vauxhall’s Ampera.

There is a catch, because on top of that you’ll have to pay Renault a monthly charge for the ‘"rent" of the battery (it’s a bit like a mobile phone contract), which for the 9000 miles per year deal, works out at £81 per month over three, four or five years (other tariffs are available). But given that battery tech is improving and that many people are worried about the liability of a failing battery over time - Renault’s deal covers you for all that - it might not be a bad way to run your electric car. Plus, worked out over a typical four-year ownership period, it still makes the Fluence Z.E. cheaper, all in, than a Leaf.

The Fluence Z.E. goes on sale in the UK next month.

Is this enough to tempt you out of your combustion-based car?