A week with the Renault Fluence Z.E.

Or, ‘How I wanted not to worry about public charging but ended up in a fix’

By Will Dron on June 21, 2012 12:11 PM

Back in the late-Eighties, when I was still a very young lad in shorts, I can’t say I was terribly concerned about appearances. My mum cut my hair, multi-coloured shell suits were de rigueur and I imagined the neighbours’ caravan was probably a really cool way to go on holiday.

But then one day my stepfather came home with a Pontiac Firebird, an American muscle car made famous by movie 'Smokey and the Bandit' and cult David Hasslehoff-fronted TV show 'Knight Rider'. Our 5-litre 1983 model was similar in shape to the Knight Rider car but, unlike the sleak, black KITT, was red and featured a garish Firebird decal on the hood. I knew fairly early on that, while possibly at home in Los Angeles, this car stuck out more than a little around our dull Berkshire suburbs. We were being looked at, and they weren’t looks of admiration.

Skip forward 25 years, and I’m getting my first taste of driving the new Renault Fluence Z.E. around the streets of London. We road tested the pure-electric Fluence back in July last year, so I won’t go over the same ground here.

What I really wanted to know was what the ownership experience is like; how would a person who lives in a third-floor flat cope with a pure-electric car and no home charging opportunity. Could I (and the car) survive for a whole week of mixed urban, motorway and out-of-town driving using ‘opportunity charges’ only?

Except, driving the Fluence Z.E. I soon realised I was less preoccupied with running out of juice and instead my thoughts turned to that old Firebird. Why? Find out in my daily diary below…



Monday

…on which I felt the spectre of Clarkson

The car arrived at the office first thing. It’s not a bad looking thing in the metal, if a little uninspired. Starting up the Fluence Z.E. is remarkably unremarkable – climb in, belt up, insert key, turn and wait for a little electric chirrup to indicate the car’s powered up, slip into Drive and off you go. As it’s based on a petrol/diesel car, the interior of the Fluence Z.E. isn’t as dramatic and modern as the Nissan LEAF, which was designed ground-up electric, so it all feels terribly ‘normal’. Minus the engine noise, that is.

One problem: with a full battery I was seeing an indicated range of just 51 miles. That’s quite literally miles off the NEDC range of up to 115 miles. I could only assume the previous driver had spanked the poor thing; range is determined by how the car has been driven previously and the press notes told me it takes two full discharges and charges to adapt to your personal style. Perhaps Renault had leant it to Top Gear before me. No worries, it’s an 11-mile trip back to my flat so it was something to keep my eye on but not to be concerned about.

I glided back home from the affluent West London through trendy Shoreditch towards Bow, in the east of the city. I know I’m getting closer to home as the number of gears on the bicycles you pass decreases almost by the mile. When all you can see is single-geared ‘fixies’, you’re in the right neighbourhood. Why it’s cooler to have one gear on a bike is beyond me – surely these fixie-riders arrive at their destinations a sweaty, blubbering mess?

I arrived at my flat with an indicated 39 miles left but just under 7/8th capacity showing on the battery gauge; definitely no need to plug in yet.



Tuesday

…on which I couldn’t stop thinking of The Hoff

On the way to work the following morning, while rebounding off the various speed bumps and pot holes (it’s a firm but bouncy ride that could do with a wedge more damping) I suddenly realised that, despite driving an electric car I was being completely ignored. No heads were being turned as I slipped past cyclists and pedestrians.

I expected some kind of reaction – people tend to notice you if you’re driving a LEAF, but nobody seemed to give a monkey’s about the Fluence Z.E. To the untrained eye, it’s just like every other saloon car on the road.

That’s when the Firebird popped into my head. It occurred to me that if you’re the sort of bloke who likes to wear leather trousers, gold chains and shirts buttoned half way up you buy a Firebird. If you’ve got more style, want an electric car and want people to know about it, you buy a LEAF. But if you want an electric car because they’re cheap to run and you’d rather not make a song and dance about it, thank you very much, the Fluence Z.E. is the car for you. No fuss, no kudos, just anonymous electric driving.

All the time, the range indicator seemed to be exorcising itself of 'Clarkson'. Of course, it helped that the stereo was off, the air con was off and the weather was warm, so I wasn’t asking much of the car.

The Good Samaritan

At the end of the day I gave a work colleague a lift home, ostensibly as a favour to her but in reality I just wanted her impressions of the car for this write-up. The fact that she lives pretty much on my route home was a contributing factor.

To my surprise she loved the interior and was generally impressed with the car. EV-beginners still seem to expect to climb into something akin to a bubble car, or mobility scooter, when they imagine an electric vehicle. It’s pleasing to confound them.

She also told me she usually feels nauseous in cars, but the Renault didn’t do this, which I attributed to the smooth power delivery of the electric motor, but maybe the ride isn't that bad after all. A success all round, I reckon.

I was also impressed by a couple of things: the turning circle is pretty tight and the driving position was proving very comfortable for someone with a 6’5” frame. A quick run to the supermarket revealed the Fluence Z.E.’s lengthened rear section (it gains 13cm over the petrol car to compensate for the space behind the rear seats occupied by the battery) means there’s still a pretty usable load space.

Disappointingly, nobody at the Tesco car park gave the car a second glance. This was becoming a little frustrating – somebody has to ask me about it at some point, surely? Even if they told me electric cars are crap, at least they’d have noticed. Where's my gold chain?



Wednesday

…on which I gave the car its first drink

The following day, after arriving at the office, I had an indicated range of 12 miles and plugged in to the mains. I charged from 9am to 6pm using the 13amp from three-pin wall socket, after which the battery was full again. The car was going to be sitting there all day doing nothing, so it may as well have been charging.

You're better off getting a wall mounted charge unit installed as the Renault can be charged faster at 16amps, but obviously you’ll need to clear that with the powers that be at work. And you should probably talk about the cost of the leccy, but it’s pocket change per charge so not something they should be too bothered about.

New indicated range? 57 miles, so a slight improvement but it looked like it could take a fair bit longer to ‘normalise’.



Thursday

…on which we went to the movies

We’d earmarked Thursday to film the Fluence Z.E., so I gave the car an hour of charge once I’d reached the office, before taking it out on the road. The highlight of the morning was definitely passing a Renault Twizy, the Fluence’s little brother in the Z.E. family, while out on the road (around the top side of Regent’s Park). I waved at the driver, but I’m pretty sure he had no idea what I was driving as, rather than wave back he just looked at me like I was a nutter.

During the day’s filming we covered roughly 14 miles around Ladbroke Grove and the surrounding areas – not a big ask for the car. And once again, the hipsters around Portobello Road weren't in the least bit interested in what we were up to.

The evening was far more exciting – the Renault and I had a date at the London IMAX cinema to watch Prometheus at a midnight screening. Well, I had a date to watch Prometheus; the car had a date with a Source London charging point on The Cut, nearby.

A quick call to Southwark council revealed electric car drivers can park in EV spaces for free, for as long as they want provided they’re charging. That’s a seriously good deal, and I was thrilled when I turned up and the single EV parking space was empty. Of course, had it not been I’d have had to find the next nearest post, which I discovered while walking to the cinema was occupied by a Nissan LEAF, so it was just as well. As more electric cars hit the road, live data on whether or not a charging point use is going to be critical for drivers.

I had a little trouble working out how to open the Chargemaster-made post, which has both 3kW and 7kW (smart) sockets – my Source London RFID card didn’t seem to work at first but during my call to the 24/7 helpline I managed to pop the catch open by turning the card 90 degrees clockwise. Of course… why hadn’t I realised the card would only work at a precise 98-degree angle? In truth, this was slightly baffling, but the helpline was quick to respond and I was inconvenienced for perhaps five or 10 minutes, which I was happy to take given the electricity and parking was free.

Upon emerging from the cinema bleary-eyed at 3.30am I was able to give my friends all lifts home – there’s no London Underground after midnight, so they were looking at either a wait for a night bus going in roughly the right direction or a pricey cab. Boy were they pleased with me. And they were amazed to find my electric car wasn’t simply a glorified golf cart.

Equally, I was more than a little relieved to discover the car had a full battery and hadn’t been vandalised. I had half expected a drunken idiot to snap off the charge port cap –something you might want to consider if planning on charging in built-up areas.

After the drop offs, 17 miles later I was back home, safe and sound (and extremely tired) but with 7/8 battery and a new-found love for the car… and the Source London network. Magic.



Friday

…on which I kept the car juiced

After a fairly uneventful run into the office, I plugged in the car again. Not because it needed it, but because I knew I had a long journey planned over the weekend and want to minimise charge time needed on the day of the trip. After three and a half hours the battery was full, indicating a range of 64 miles (yes, it was continuing its upward trend).



Saturday

…on which I encountered a problem

A quick six-mile round trip to a local East London market on Saturday morning (get me) was a prelude to a trip to an evening event, which happened to be near another Source London charging post. This was proving to be brilliant – I would be able to park for free again and give the car a top up, ready for my trip out of London on Sunday.

The evening top up was an important part of the plan and, as Robert Llewellyn recently wrote for TheChargingPoint.com, running an electric car isn’t difficult, it just requires a bit of thought.

However, all the planning in the world goes out of the window when the only charging post for miles is out of order. On arrival at the post that evening, the Pod Point unit was unresponsive to the RFID card and simply stated it was ‘Initialising’. After 10 minutes on the Source London helpline I told my fiancée to head to our event while I sat on the phone… for a total of 50 minutes without answer. My estimations of the network took a battering, and I eventually I had no choice but to hang up and head off, leaving the car without charge.

Transport for London, the Source London operator, had this to say on the matter when I asked for comment:

“Transport for London provides a 24/7 customer contact centre for members of Source London. Service levels are constantly monitored and to date we have had no reports of excessive call waiting times. We can only apologise that the service experienced from the contact centre on this occasion was not up to our usual high standards. We take such incidents very seriously and are investigating the matter with our service provider.”

No reports of excessive call waiting times? Hmm. At least they’re investigating, and I can confirm that this was the only occasion on which I had an excessive wait while calling the helpline.



Sunday

…on which I had to make up for lost (charging) time

My out-of-town trip was to a friend’s house in Berkshire to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee (Gawd bless ya, mam, etc.). The 45-mile trip, involving city, motorway and countryside driving is possible on a single charge from full, but I knew I’d have to top up en route using a 16amp charging point and plug in at my friend’s house to make sure I had enough juice to get home.

Given I didn’t have a full battery thanks to the events of the night before, the 16amp top-up charge en-route was suddenly all the more important, and I’d have to charge for longer than originally planned (meaning an earlier start).

Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush was my chosen venue – nicely situated on the west side of town. Charging for electric vehicles is free and there are 10 charging bays so I was confident I’d find a space, which turned out to be true. I arrived, chose a spot, plugged in and walked off for a coffee and a shop… for four hours, for which Westfield charged £8 in parking. It’s ok, that’s fine; that’s still not too dear – don’t forget I was paying for parking but not fuel.

One thing I was irritated by, however, was that when I returned to the car, the other electric car bays were filled with ‘traditional’ petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles. If I’d have arrived now, I’d not have been able to charge.

A Westfield spokesperson has since told me, “Although we regularly patrol the car park, the use of the electric car park bays is based on a customer honour system. Westfield London always values the feedback from customers and continues to review its service.” Any current EV drivers reading might like to let Westfield know what you think about this “honour system”.

Back to the trip: with an estimated 59 miles now available to me and a near-full battery, I hit the road once more, travelling at the legal speed limit on the A40, M40, A404 and country lanes through rain and with headlights on at times. On arrival I had half the battery left and an indicated range of 30 miles, so plugged in at 13 amps for another four hours while I toasted the Queen.

For the return home I had 55 miles available, which was tight, but do-able in a single go; once near home I could plug in to another Source London post and have a full battery in the morning. Sure enough, I made it to the charging point nearest my flat ok, but with just eight miles remaining. A few miles from my detsination the car started asking if it’d like to locate the nearest charge point for me, like I was some kind of idiot. Apparently I had more faith in the car than it did in me.

I didn’t experience range anxiety, it was more range annoyance… it should have been much easier than this.

Having parked up I plugged in to the 3kW three-pin socket at the post in Hackney (whatever I tried I couldn’t open the 7kW side, which would have delivered a slightly faster charge), noticing that, strictly speaking I’d only be allowed four hours of charge before I’d have to move the car. Four hours wouldn’t do it, I’m afraid, and I wasn’t that close to home (not walking distance, anyway), so I left it charging and blagged a lift home with the fiancée, promising to return first thing to move the car.



Monday (bank holiday)

…on which it all turned sour

Sure enough, I forewent my lie-in on bank holiday Monday to return to the car (in my petrol burner) and free up the parking space. To be honest, I was expecting the car to have only charged for four hours, and I’d need to plug in again to get an extra top up. The reality was much worse.

On arrival I noticed all the lights on the side of the post were off, and the screen read ‘Initialising’. This is a different post to the one I had encountered on Saturday, remember, although the same make – Pod Point. Then it dawned on me that the cable was still locked in. I tried several times to release it with the RFID card, but of course, there was no response.

Fortunately, the Source London helpline was quick to respond this time I called, and I reported both faults I had experience quoting both post numbers. I was ensured an engineer would call me back as soon as possible.

I checked the charge level of the car – just over 3/8th battery with an indicated 26 miles. Which meant I could have driven away, but then I’d have had to leave the charging cable behind and it may have been stolen if the post suddenly popped open. I also didn’t see any point in moving the car as the post was clearly malfunctioning – in a way I was saving others from the same fate.

So I headed home again in the petrol car, assuming I’d be in for a long wait, but the Pod Point engineer got back to me while en route and I turned back. I won’t bore you with the details of what happened next, but the no lights on the side things was bad, apparently. It meant there was no remote communication with the post and we’d have to wait for the system to power down overnight. The best case scenario was that the software would reset and the post could be unlocked in the morning. Worst case – it’d be Wednesday before it was released. Wednesday… that’s 48 hours later.

In fact, I was quite fortunate – I had a second car and lived just a couple of miles away, so it could have been a lot worse. After venting my frustrations on the engineer, there was nothing to do but head home.



Tuesday (bank holiday)

…on which I was released

The following day I received two phone calls from the Pod Point engineer as promised. Things were taking longer than expected due to it being a bank holiday, but it genuinely seemed like he was doing what he could to help. To make a long story short, communication with the post was resumed at 6pm and the cable was finally released at 6.30pm.

I packed up the cable and got back into the Renault and took it back to my flat. The post was powered down pending technical assessment.

I should apologise at this point to the EV driver who left a note on my windscreen telling me I did not have the right to park there for so long – sorry, but as you can see it really wasn’t my fault.



Wednesday

…on which the car went home

The following day I took the Fluence Z.E. to work (passing an electric UPS van on the way), leaving it to be picked up with 1/8th battery left and an indicated 11 miles remaining.

To Pod Point’s credit, I received a note from CEO Erik Fairburn on Wednesday, which I’m sure he won’t mind me reproducing here:

Hi Will,

I understand you had a problem using the Pod Points…over the bank holiday. I would like to apologise for the disappointing experience you had. We have not previously seen this behaviour in the field, and these units are now being investigated in depth to discover why they displayed this behaviour when you tried to use them.

I can assure you that the issues you experienced are not typical of POD Point, and I hope that this experience will not deter you from using other Pod Point street units in the future.

Regards,
Erik Fairbairn
CEO
POD Point Ltd.

Erik also told me that Pod Point currently supports its hardware in Source London on a “best endeavours basis”, and there is no general service contract existing between the two parties. Thankfully, he recognised that this needs to change as the industry moves forward and more people start to rely on public charging infrastructure. He continued: “In the case where issues crop up, as they inevitably will on occasion, we (the industry) need to ensure the correct level of support is available.”

Hallelujah. Hopefully my plight will not have been in vain.



Conclusions


It was an interesting week. On the whole the Renault Fluence Z.E. worked fabulously – it’s extremely easy to drive, and very comfortable, would save me a huge amount in fuel and parking expenses and became a great tool around town. Yes, it’s a bit dull in styling and dynamic terms, and yes, it’s slightly compromised in boot space due to the electric conversion, but those are easily overlooked when using it as an everyday commuter car. It’s a very practical, usable machine.

And, had I not encountered problems with the on-street chargers, I could easily have lived with it as a flat-residing Londoner with no off-street parking. However, the fact remains that two of the five Source London charge points I used had technical faults, which caused me problems, and as such I simply can’t in good conscience recommend a pure-electric car to someone in my situation at this time, even if they’re able to charge at work during the week.

However, as Erik Fairburn implied, it’s important to remember that we’re still in the very early days of a brand new electric car industry, and we’re bound to encounter problems with public infrastructure as it builds into a solid, reliable network. There is every reason to believe that software glitches, hardware malfunctions and unhelpful operational practices (yes, I’m looking at you, Westfield) will be ironed out over time. With more and more people experiencing electric cars for the first time, that really can't come soon enough.

The Renault Fluence Z.E. may not be the most exciting electric car but, unlike The Hoff, I can deal with not being looked at. And the most important thing – it worked. Faultlessly.