Renault wants more from Australia. The French brand has underperformed for years in the local market, and if it's going to improve then Australia's most popular vehicle segment - small cars - is an ideal place to start.
Aggressively pricing the Megane and offering an unlimited five-year warranty is part of its strategy. Introducing the Fluence, one of the largest small cars in the segment, is another.
Effectively the Renault Fluence is a Megane with a boot - though the former is built in South Korea and the latter in Turkey. Now, normally adding a boot to a hatchback makes little difference to the driving experience. But somehow, with the Fluence, it has made it better.
We found the Renault Megane, which we reviewed recently, quite disappointing (especially when taking the brilliance of the RenaultSport version of the Megane into account). Our Fluence test car is also a Privilege trim level, priced at the same $29,990 starting point, though it outshines the Megane in more than just a larger loading area.
There are subtle differences, starting with the longer wheelbase for the Fluence (2702mm versus 2641mm). A one-millimetre-wider track at the front and 16mm wider track at the rear further expands the sedan's footprint. The Fluence also sits 16mm higher off the ground, giving more room for suspension travel, especially when loaded. And it's in the suspension where one of the biggest differences is found.
The ride on the Fluence is actually quite good. Well controlled movements and little crash contrast sharply with the Megane's underdamped suspension. The Fluence also handles quite well - without endangering any dynamic benchmarks - unlike the Megane that leans through corners more noticeably. Perhaps the longer wheelbase contributes here.
Steering is also better. Where the Megane's steering creates a sticking point around the straight ahead when the electric assistance backs off and kicks in, depending on input, before becoming vauge while turning into a corner, the Fluence's steering provides more certainty.
The steering is consistent and, despite a lack of genuine feedback, the weighting is good and leaves you feeling reasonably satisfied. It's these differences that make the Fluence a more involving drive than the Megane, and on that basis alone it's worth putting it ahead of its sibling on your shopping list.
There are no differences under the bonnet, where the Fluence uses the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine combined with a continuously variable transmission. As with the Megane, the drivetrain can get buzzy at times and performance is rather lacklustre.
The back seats are where you'll find the biggest physical interior difference between the two cars, with extra legroom provided by the longer wheelbase. There's also more shoulder room - nearly 30mm more, according to Renault's measurements.
And, of course, there's the much bigger boot, though the Megane's rear hatch door brings its own advantages in terms of practicality.
Today's Hyundais and Kias are already showing how far South Korean build quality has come, and the Renault Fluence is another positive example. The dash plastics are soft to touch and the whole cabin has a smart presentation, with only the sat-nav display sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb.
At least you get sat-nav (a very quick and accurate TomTom unit), which is rarely a standard item in the small-car class. The Fluence Privilege also comes with a sunroof, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth phone and music streaming, CD/MP3 (the stereo is excellent), keyless start, auto headlights and wipers, leather seats, six airbags and stability control. A Dynamique variant, with fewer features, is available from $22,990 with a manual gearbox.
The Fluence certainly makes a case for itself in terms of its standard equipment and longer-than-average five-year warranty, though if you're looking for a small sedan with a zestier drivetrain and a more thrilling driving experience, rivals such as the Ford Focus Sport and Mazda3 SP20 are difficult to ignore for similar money.