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.