This is not surprising, as the whole world of electric vehicles (EVs) is one that is largely unexplored by the vast majority of the general public. One universally appealing aspect of battery-powered cars is the cost of fuelling. Even with the increase in domestic electricity charges that is set to descend upon us later this year, a full top-up will still only cost €3 to €4. Putting the low-cost appeal to one side, and even the sticker price and the monthly lease of the battery (I’ll get to that later), the big question that people have is, are electric vehicles desirable as cars? And the answer is a definite, yes. Kind of.
I say “kind of” because there are a few ways of looking at this. Firstly, there are a number of different types of electric vehicles available to the public, so, like any petrol or diesel car, you must consider which will suit your needs best. A few months back I reviewed the Renault Kangoo ZE – and I loved it. It costs peanuts to run, it has bags of space for people and stuff, the driving cockpit is roomy in the extreme and you have an amazing view of the road. But it’s a van… and not everyone likes driving vans as much as I do. So, as an alternative, Renault also offers the rather pleasant Fluence ZE with an electric motor. And what an attractive alternative this is.
The Fluence ZE boasts a modern exterior with a comfortable and stylish interior; the only giveaway that it’s electric is the ZE logo on the back – unless of course you’re driving a press car, in which case it has all sorts of graphics emblazoned along the side to let everyone know you’re sitting on a bank of batteries! To be honest, I liked the fact that people knew I was driving an electric car – it meant they approached me to discuss it, and it gave me an opportunity to find out what people thought. And I was surprised with the reaction.
Now, either the recession is receding (?) or I only met fairly well-to-do folks while testing the Fluence. You would think that the over-riding attraction of an electric car is the low cost of fuel – but it would appear that the look of the motor is even more critical. I realise this is just anecdotal evidence, but every person I spoke with was amazed that a regular, full-sized saloon could be powered by an electric motor and offer all the looks and luxury of its petrol or diesel stable-mates. Without exception – those I spoke to were more likely to buy an electric car if it looked the part, a concern that trumped even the car’s driving range on a fully charged battery.
Apparently, the perception of EVs is that they are all either small commercial vehicles or golf buggies. So, it turns out in this particular straw poll, image came in ahead of low running costs. When I raised the issue of carry space, which is a little limited In the Fluence ZE because of the room in the boot taken up by the batteries, those I spoke to would be happy enough with the trade off, as they saw it as a city-driving, family car, not something to go holidaying in. Fair enough, says I, because with a range of roughly 120kms on a full charge, a driving holiday in the Fluence ZE would need to be very carefully planned. Funnily enough, the subject of performance hardly even came up. As it happens, this was one of the big surprises with the Fluence. Once you get used to the silent running of the engine, it becomes very clear that this car has plenty under the hood, or wherever the power plant is kept! I would liken the driving performance to a modern saloon with a 1.6-litre diesel engine. It has plenty of torque at the ready, and it cruises at a very comfortable 120km/h on the motorway. It is hard to say, however, if the cabin noise is any louder than a petrol or diesel model. Because there is no sound from the engine whatsoever, you can find yourself noticing the cabin noise that little bit more.
Speaking of noise, I would say that it is important for electric cars to come with a second, quieter horn. I was genuinely surprised how often I found myself slowly driving behind people walking on the road or in car parks, etc, because they couldn’t hear me coming. Something to gently alert them to my presence would have been nice.
So, in short, the idea of a handsome, modern saloon charging up each night in the driveway seemed a very attractive proposition to a great deal of people. Compromised boot space and limited range are traded off with good looks and comfort. The last hurdle for people to get their heads around is the lease on the car’s battery – this really is where people will suck air between their teeth in the showroom. In order to keep these cars future-proof, Renault, along with most other car companies, have opted for a lease arrangement with the battery so the owner can get a more improved unit as they become available, hopefully providing the cars with better range as the battery technology develops. The idea is a good one, but at roughly €80 per month, it will be a bitter enough pill for many to swallow.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of electric motoring. For the very same reasons, I heard back from members of the general public, and I overlook the downsides in just the same way. If I’m completely honest, the fact that the Government gets only a fraction of the money they would if I were driving a regular car, makes the Fluence even more attractive. I also get a kick out of the idea that the car’s range may improve with age as the batteries get better.
The Fluence ZE is available from €26,610, considering how little the running costs are, I reckon this is a good deal. This car impressed me, and if the range was better, I’d be all over it.