– Fairly economical
– Class-leading cabin space
– Good ride and handling
– Dull interior materials
– Very slow with this engine
– Lap-belt for rear middle seat
French carmaker Renault is doing rather well in expanding their GCC range with cars from everywhere other than France. One of their latest offerings is the new-for-2011 Renault Fluence, a car that wants to aggressively tackle the compact market, simply by offering more for the money, both in features and in size.
Indeed, the Korean-built Fluence is larger than most other cars in its class, as evidenced by that noticeably-long wheelbase. Styled to be anonymous yet pleasant, our mid-range Fluence sat on overwhelmed-looking 16-inch alloys and seemed a bit lifted to deal with unpaved ghettos.
Inside, the cabin design is typically French, assuming you’ve driven French cars before. The dashboard features soft-touch upper materials and chrome-ringed gauges, although the doors are hard-plastic with padded fabric inserts that match the cloth seats. Using beige for the hard-plastic lower panels keep the atmosphere from feeling too cheap. And the chrome-ringed gauges are a nice touch. The rubbery-plastic steering wheel can be had with leather higher in the model range. We’ve seen the leather-upholstered model at the showroom, and that was much prettier.
The simplistic cloth seats have limited side-bolstering, designed more for lounging than racing. While spacious up front, the rear space is the most impressive, and while still less than a typical midsize sedan, most adults can fit back there comfortably, with good headroom, space under the front seats for the feet, and even padding for the knees if needed. But our car does not have the optional central armrest in the back, and the middle passenger gets a lap-belt instead of a proper three-point seat-belt. The luggage boot is pretty damn big for a compact car, although the seatback does not fold in our mid-range tester, because even that is optional. Other storage spaces include a small armrest cubby, two small front cup-holders, door pockets and a cramped glove box.
In terms of features, there’s everything you need and nothing you don’t. There’s an average CD/MP3 stereo deck with small buttons, a dash-top LCD display, USB port and a control stalk behind the steering wheel, and the good bit is it has Bluetooth phone and streaming audio capabilities. There’s a simple three-knob manual a/c that cooled confidently in August weather. And there’s dual front airbags, keyless entry, power accessories, fog lamps, mirror-mounted indicators and the like, with things like sunroof, side airbags and all that available as options.
The engine in our tester was the base 1.6-litre 4-cylinder, boasting 112 hp at 6000 rpm and 156 Nm at 4400 rpm. Mated to a CVT automatic with faux “manual-shifting” capability, it was good enough for a 0-100 kph blast of 14.1 seconds in our summer test, stunningly slow for sure, but there is always the 2.0-litre option. Throttle response is instant, and even the CVT works fine, but the engine howls at full tilt with not a lot of speed gain. However, at highway speeds it revs less than a Honda Civic. And our car did get a fuel consumption figure of 9.3 litres/100 km, a fair bit better than like-minded Koreans like the Chevy Cruze.
Ride quality is reasonably good, on par for cars in its class. Some wind noise starts becoming noticeable above 100 kph, while road noise never reaches annoying proportions.
More interesting is the handling, which is very good. Being a Renault, we sort of expected that, but we still enjoyed it when we were proven right, with sharp steering and good body control. Body roll reaches only moderate levels in the sharpest turns, at which point the car understeers early anyway, making for safe tyre-squealing entertainment. We’d say grip is limited by the 205/60 Hankook tyres, and wider rubber would do wonders. The ABS-assisted brakes, all discs, work okay but you have to pay extra for optional stability control.
The Renault Fluence enters a tough field dominated by the likes of the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla. While those class leaders both offer arguably-nicer interiors, the Fluence counteracts that with more space and more features at a lower price, even with all the options ticked. Given its Korean roots and Renault’s partial dependence on Nissan nowadays, we’d even suspect the Fluence to be a contender in the reliability stakes.