Affordable electric for the family

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Electric cars are too expensive and not useful enough if you believe the critics, but have a look at this.

Renault’s Fluence Z.E. electric family car is aiming to be the first genuinely affordable electric family car in the UK.

Someone at Renault obviously saw the buying public’s worries about battery life coming, so the Fluence takes batteries out of the purchasing equation altogether. Its batteries are rented, not owned, and wouldn’t be the responsibility of any Fluence owner to replace whether they bought the car new or second hand.

If the batteries stop performing as well as they should, Renault will swap them for new ones. The upshot is that after the Government’s £5,000 incentive discount, the zero-emission Fluence can be yours from £17,850 before you even haggle in 12 months’ road tax and a free tank of fuel. Oh, wait...

So it costs about the same as an entry-level diesel family car. Exactly the same as a diesel Fluence, not-so-coincidentally.

But as an entirely electric model, the Fluence is about as cheap to run as they come. It’s road tax exempt, gets into central London free, and at current rates a full charge won’t cost any more than about £3, or less if it’s done overnight. Call it one twentieth of the cost of refilling a diesel Fluence.

Not being especially gentle with my test car, I had a quarter of a ‘tank’ left after driving more than 50 miles involving a lot of steep uphills and a stop/start stint through Lisbon.

I think 100 miles on a charge is entirely realistic with a little restraint.

Do the maths and the Fluence works out at - at worst - roughly a fifth of the cost of a diesel equivalent per mile, and potentially the gap could be much bigger.

It’s no surprise how normal the Fluence feels most of the time, since it’s heavily based on the Fluence saloon that’s sold in other worldwide markets than ours.

But in a rush to satisfy Israeli demand (and I bet you’ve never read that phrase before), the Fluence platform was adapted, an extra 13cm was wedged in behind the rear wheels and the Fluence Z.E. was born.

But despite its less-than-pure origins, the Z.E. version rides superbly even on cobbled streets; it’s much better than the vast majority of £18,000 cars.

It’s relatively heavy at more than 1,600kg, and it can feel it in the corners with quite a bit of body roll, but once settled on a line, it’s both planted and grippy enough.

Although the 0-62mph time is far from rapid, acceleration from rest up to about 40mph is excellent, and more than enough for a quick getaway from the traffic lights. As with most electric cars, the Fluence has no manual gears.

The electric motor lets out a quiet, high-pitched whine which isn’t unappealing, and the novel displays speak more or less the same language as your current dashboard does, such as with a battery power gauge that functions just like a fuel gauge. It’s designed to be as easy and natural to use as an internal combustion-engined car. Where it falls down is boot space. In terms of design it’s a bit bulbous at the rear thanks to the extra 13cm, but the batteries required by the system do chop down on the luggage-carrying capacity. A weekend away for two should be fine, but the load area is quite shape-sensitive so owners will need to pick their bags carefully.

For an extra £414 you can also add a charging lead with a normal three-pin plug. As standard the car comes with the higher-capacity lead that will need you to have a charging unit installed at your home, and although it costs £799, the Fluence will recharge more quickly.

All in all it’s the first electric car that presents itself as a genuinely sensible financial decision for the man and woman on the street.

You don’t need to have a corporate eco-agenda or a wallet fatter than Jamie Oliver’s Christmas turkey to enjoy the laughably low running costs it offers.

If you’ve never considered an electric car, the time is now.