If you’re looking for a small sedan, the Renault Fluence is easily the most underrated car on the market today.
Although it’s built in South Korea, you can tell just by looking at it that the Renault Fluence is European designed and engineered. It’s essentially based on a Samsung SM3, which itself is based on the previous generation Renault Fluence.
From the outside it exudes a simple but elegant sense of modern European styling with smooth flowing lines from front to end. Given it measures 4,618mm long, 1,501mm high and 1,809mm wide, the Renault Fluence offers an enormous amount of interior room for a car in its class (small).
Renault is very keen to make an impact in the Australian market, which means it’s packaging its cars with more features and reducing the price. It’s also doing everything it can to get you into a showroom. Drive away pricing, a huge five-year unlimited kilometre warranty, low interest finance, what ever you can think of. The French are not taking no for an answer.
The Renault Fluence range starts from just $22,900 for the six-speed manual and for the money you get a substantial amount of standard features. Bluetooth telephone and audio streaming, automatic headlamps and wipers, cruise control (auto only), fog lights, smart card key entry, dual zone air conditioning with rear air vents, electric windows front and rear, heated electrically foldable mirrors and 16-inch alloys are all standard kit. All safety features (ESP, ABS with EBD, emergency brake assist and 6-airbags) are also included for no extra cost.
Realistically, that’s the sort of feature-list you’d expect to get in a range-topping small car, for at least another $4,000. Renault isn’t fooling around. It wants sales and with this level of kit, it’s just a matter of getting the word out.
Our test car was a Renault Fluence Privelege CVT, the top of the range variant with a list price of $29,990. It comes with everything already mentioned plus an electric glass sunroof, black leather upholstery, satellite navigation system, uprated stereo speaker system with USB/Auxillary input, rear parking sensors and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The equivalent Toyota Corolla Ultimate is $31,990 and doesn’t have SatNav (plus Toyota only offers a 3-year/100,000km warranty). So in regards to value for money it’s hard to argue against this not so small Renault Fluence.
Sit inside and you’ll find out pretty quickly that the interior quality is better than its main Japanese and Korean rivals. Use of Soft touch plastics and silver highlights all around help improve cabin ambience whilst the basic layout of the instruments itself is pretty user friendly.
It does have its flaws though, the TomTom SatNav system feels very much tacked-on, all operations are done via a provided remote control only, with no input integration into the car’s main systems. This can get rather annoying as you use the centre instrument buttons to control the audio system and a remote to do the SatNav.
We found the actual audio system to be pretty good, with great bass and clarity. It supports Bluetooth audio streaming and telephone connectivity, which when tested did tend to provide average sound quality synched to our iPhone 4. To actually synch your phone or change the bass/treble settings, the Renault’s user interface is a little slow and counter-intuitive, which can at times be frustrating. Thankfully the SatNav system's user interface is pretty good and provides clear and understandable instructions.
Both front and rear seats offer generous amounts of room, with the rear seats easily accommodating two large adults without a hassle. Seat comfort also gets a tick for both short and long trips.
Once you’ve found your way around the cabin, simply press the start button and the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine (103 kW - 195 Nm) comes to life. Coupled to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the Fluence has no actual gears. The gearbox simply adjusts as you drive along, this allows for a theoretically infinite number of gears and the maximum extraction of power and efficiency out of the engine at all times.
The Fluence's power delivery is pretty good for a car in its class, it’s no Renault Megane RS 250 but it’s no slouch either. If you like to drive with your right foot regularly planted on the accelerator, the noise associated with a CVT can be a tad irritating as the engine will sit at the peak power/torque delivery RPM and simply continue to rev. To the unsuspecting owner, this might sound as if the engine is struggling but that’s not the case. During the course of the week our Fluence test car returned an average fuel economy of 8.4L/100km (officially it uses 7.8L/100km for the combined city/highway cycle).
As for the ride & handling on Australia’s relatively poor quality roads (compared to South Korea and Europe), the Renault Fluence does a pretty good job. It’s not too soft and floaty, but comfortable enough to take the bumps and potholes with relative ease.
Around corners it’s no better or worse than a Toyota Corolla, which means it does the job without complaining and is good enough for the majority of drivers. Where it does differ significantly from the almighty Corolla and other Japanese rivals is in sales volume. In August (2011) Renault Australia sold just 61 Fluences in comparison to the 3,100 Corollas that the Big T shifted (Mazda managed 4,234 Mazda3s). Given the high quality of the package and it’s very competitive pricing, this is a sign that Renault’s presence in Australia still needs some work.
If you’re thinking about a Fluence, it’s best to reframe your thinking this way: not only do you get more features for less money, but you also get a car which not every man and his dog owns, it also happens to come with a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty (something you’d expect from KIA/Hyundai). So any thought of ‘unreliable’ French cars should be instantly dismissed. Even if it had (and we are totally being hypothetical here) one or two more issues than its Japanese equivalent, the superior warranty will mean you wont have to worry.
Overall, the Renault Fluence is an extremely competent, safe and well-featured package. It’s only a matter of time before the market finds out, so if you’re looking for a small car, best get yourself into a Renault dealership for a test drive.