First there are no electric Renaults, then four come along at once – all at this year's action-packed Frankfurt motor show. This might sound like a case of poor scheduling, but it is actually one of the most important indicators yet of how Renault believes the future of battery-powered cars will play out.
By launching three disparate designs, shown from left to right below – a car/scooter called Twizy, an electric version of the Fluence family sedan, and an advanced supermini dubbed Zoe – as well as an electric van called Kangoo, Renault is underlining its belief that battery cars won't try to be the catch-all designs of today but will be aimed at specific duties. The new cars are all grouped under a “ZE” banner, for Zero Emissions, and Renault reckons that battery cars (including plug-in hybrids) will make up 20 percent of its sales by 2020.
Buyers will understand, Renault believes, that it's OK for a tiny and stylish city runabout to have a range of 60 miles, a top speed below 50mph and room for only two occupants – provided it delivers the compactness, agility and low running costs that are top priorities for urban use.
Of the world's motoring giants, Renault seems to have thought the most deeply about electric cars. It proposes three different charging procedures, the most eye-catching of which is a network of “Quickdrop” centers where a car's near-flat battery can be changed in mid-journey for a fully charged replacement in just three minutes. While others fret about the expense and difficulty of setting up such a network, and about the effect of leased batteries on a car's residual values, Renault has dived straight in and signed a deal with logistics company Better Place to import 100,000 Fluence electric sedans into both Israel and Denmark, where governments have created favorable conditions for such cars, and to establish a network of Quickdrop centers to support them.
Renault is so convinced this is the right path, and so determined to be a leader in electric cars, that it has already built its Frankfurt show prototypes into running vehicles and announced that all four will be in showrooms – with production modifications – by the end of 2012. The first, the electric Fluence, will take to the roads of Israel and Denmark a full year earlier. Last month, Renault invited Autocar to its technical center on Paris' southwestern outskirts to get behind the wheel of all four Frankfurt electric cars for a taste of motoring's brave new (high-voltage) world…
In concept, the Fluence bristles with interesting features, like touch-open door handles that light up, a filled-in grille (because electric cars' cooling requirements are different), exotic shapes along the body sills and some neat aerodynamic details for a rear end without exhaust pipes. The interior is even better: a single-spoke steering wheel sprouting from an avant-garde dashboard; a convex center-screen showing harmonious colors and patterns; a simple, console-mounted gear selector (reminiscent of the Jaguar XF's, but with less mechanical feel); gel mats to support your feet and interesting colors all about.
Given a conventional sedan layout, it shows that the potential for new ideas is as great as ever. The total effect is a distinctly more “emotional” sedan than current production cars, even if the regular gasoline/diesel Fluence, also shown at Frankfurt, brings us down to earth with a bit of a bump.
Although future electric cars will be more focused, says Renault, this one shows that “generalist” designs are also possible. It is the first in the world to use the Quickdrop process; after 100 miles on the freeway, you'll call in at a Quickdrop center, pick up a new battery in three minutes, and continue on your travels. Great if it works.
Driving is a rather languid experience, given the prototype's weight and fragility, but you instantly feel the typical torquey step-off of an electric car and, when you're rolling, the car is remarkably quiet. Don't look for performance: this Fluence has just 95hp and modest torque (for a 3,500lb car) of 167lb-ft. Think of an ultra-quiet standard sedan with no gearshifts and a maximum range of 100 miles, and you've got it.
The Twizy car/scooter isn't meant to be fast. Its appeal is agility and utility to transport two people, one behind the other, in crowded cities where a 10ft turning circle, a 7.5ft overall length and a width of just over 3ft really count. The Twizy weighs just 926lbs and needs no more than the performance of a typical 125cc scooter (top speed 47mph), which is provided by a 20hp, 52lb-ft electric motor that drives the rear wheels from a position between them. The battery is under the driver's seat and lasts about 60 miles before needing a recharge. There's a small trunk under the passenger's seat.
Cuteness is another thread. The front and rear panels are a matrix display of honeycomb-shaped diodes that can display messages, expressions and patterns at the driver's whim. The instrumentation is highly original; a large yellow flower displays battery condition by opening or closing, and there is a simple numerical readout for whatever assorted data (usually speed) you care to call up. Textures, surfaces, colors and lighting are all modern.Having tried the Twizy, all we can say is that these are going to be an interesting 60 miles. The Twizy – which, sans wheel spats, will be almost the same in production as the one we tested – is great fun to drive, with light, accurate and high-geared steering, an ideal driving position, terrific visibility and a surprising feeling of security courtesy of the wide, lifting side beams (which probably won't survive production). Again, this car doesn't feel exactly quick, but its production readiness is obvious. The main thing for the driver will be the huge fun of driving it, and the unparalleled look-at-me factor. Agility and economy will be side issues.
The Zoe electric supermini, although slated for a 2012 launch, is the one member of Renault's electric quartet that won't look very much like the version here. It's hard, for a start, to imagine any forthcoming supermini with a large gull-wing door on each side that allows access to both front and rear seats at once. There will definitely be a Clio-sized car (not related to the Clio, insiders say) but today's design is much more a testbed for ideas that particularly suit electric cars – hence the highly aerodynamic teardrop shape (drag factor 0.25), the solar-cell matrix roof (which, on your first drive, gives you the impression of a flock of sparrows flying overhead) and a highly original central screen that features an avatar (a Lego-like Fernando Alonso, in our car) that gives you economy driving tips or corrects mistakes. The air conditioning has a hydrating, detox or active scent function.
Renault says the car – a four-seater about 10cm longer than a Clio – is for “short daily journeys in urban areas.” Its beetle-back rear panel has two lifting sides rather than a hatchback, and the backrests of the rear seats fold ingeniously into the rounded body sides to clear space for large loads.
The Zoe's 95hp, 167lb-ft nose-mounted motor – the same power pack as that used for the heavier Fluence – drives the front wheels and delivers a top speed just below 90mph, with a real-world range of about 100 miles. Again, this car can be slow-charged from a 220-volt household circuit, quick-charged from 400-volt three-phase points or can use a Quickdrop center.
To drive, this is the least capable of Renault's prototypes, but it still showed the validity of battery engines as motive power: impressive step-off torque, no gear changing, near-silent cruising and smoothness to shame the best gasoline engine.
With partners, Renault is working hard on the infrastructure that will support its electric cars. Fast-charging stations and Quickdrop centers are only part of the story. Another is optimizing the range using an intelligent navigation that proposes best routes based on power consumption, shows charging points and battery exchange stations, displays a car's exact remaining range and can make an advance reservation at a charging station. Work has been proceeding for two years, the company says.
At its present development stage, Renault's electric lineup drives well enough to be promising – and looks distinctly exciting – but there is much to prove. Three of the four prototypes were in the first throes of development (there are, of course, many less handsome back-room prototypes) and the extent to which the customer needs education about charging points and Quickdrop centers seems large indeed. Behind it all, Renault must make a profit from all this and, despite recent suggestions from group boss Carlos Ghosn that Renault may begin manufacturing its own batteries in France, this looks like a rocky road. But if it works, it will be one of the greatest and quickest technological revolutions in the 125-year history of the motor car.