You can’t come back from a day spent driving three disparate battery-powered Renaults without having your ideas changed quite a bit.
Sure, we’ve known for at least a year about the French company’s determination to be first with a range of pure electric models cars (Renault bosses want four on the market by the end of 2012) but it’s still highly instructive to actually slide your backside behind the wheels of these machines, and feel the actual thrust of their engines.
First impression? This thing is genuine. We really will be driving cars like this in a few years’ time, and despite what many people think, the fun of driving will still be there. Just modified a bit. Even in this tentative early form the Twizy, Renault’s four-wheeled rollerskate, has terrific steering, a great natural driving position, awesome stability and a general zip about to its character that makes you want to escape the Renault boundaries and stick it briskly up the Champs Elysees.
The bigger cars, Zoe and Fluence, have a smoothness and grace about their low-speed performance that gives their departure from rest the same sort of polish as a Mercedes S-class. And they feel so strong as they accelerate away from rest.
There’s enormous potential here: by the time the industry’s best dynamics experts get to work on what Ford calls the “driving quality” of these cars, they’ll be deeply impressive. My only concern is for the absence of gearchanging, but this kind of thinking hardly makes sense, given that I’ve enjoyed increasingly refined automatics for years, and – right now – I’m having a good time driving a Honda Insight, complete with CVT. Another impression? Strikes me the central job of making a vehicle work with battery-electric power — whether a new design or an adaptation of an existing model — is easy meat for today’s motor industry. At the Renault Technocentre outside Paris, where we were allowed to try Zoe, Twizy and Fluence, nobody bothered to boast about the complexity of their electric powertrains. Compared with conquering the technical intricacies (and labyrinthine regulations) that surround diesel and petrol engine design, it’s child’s play. The scary thing is the infrastructure that’s going to be needed. Renault foresees worldwide networks of fast-charging stations and ‘Quickdrop’ battery exchange facilities (which, it says, will look rather like roadside car washes). It must all be do-able, I suppose, because by the ‘20s we managed to cover the Western world with petrol filling stations fast enough for Henry Ford to build two million Model Ts a year.
But it still looks daunting, given the convergence that’s going to be needed among dozens of manufacturers concerning voltages, plug sizes, battery specifications, charging methods, cruising ranges and many, many more intricate details. Maybe I’m just being defeatist. But I’m increasingly sure that designing, building and driving these electric cars is going to be the easy bit.