The French have landed on Indian shores, and without anybody else's assistance, as before. We take a look at their latest offering, the Renault Fluence, and find out whether it really is the French revolution we've been waiting for, or just another European sedan that can be ignored?
The French are known for making two types of cars – quirky little hatchbacks which are hip and put the ‘style’ in ‘stylish’ and practical saloons to bring with them some of that French panache, but offer a whole lot of no-nonsense motoring as well (OK, three types, if you count all those mini vans the French made so popular, but let’s leave that discussion for another day). Looking at the Fluence, it’s clear that it is a car that falls into the latter segment, the one that encompasses elegance and sense in one go. And looking at the kind of stigma the Renault badge carries in India, thanks to the highly competent, yet rather understated Logan, the Fluence is just what the doctor ordered to kickstart the French auto maker’s independent campaign in the country after having parted ways with Mahindra – a fresh face for a fresh start then.
But the Fluence isn’t just a fresh design for India, it’s pretty fresh for the rest of the world too. It’s a fresh car in general, and doesn’t have an illustrious history, or even a dark one for that matter. It pretty much has no history at all, if you discount a concept coupe bearing the same name Renault had showed off in 2004. But the car we have here arrived on the international scene just a couple of years back. The Fluence was unveiled in August 2009 and it went on sale in Europe the following year. Fast forward about a year more and we land up in the present with the beginning of the ‘real’ French automotive invasion of the country. But that’s enough of small talk and it’s time to get to the issue on hand – taking the diesel version of the Fluence for a spin to sort out what’s what and find out whether it’s the sort of car that speaks fluent French, or only manages to do a cheesy Hollywood-esque version of the French accent.
If there is one department where it is almost impossible to fault the Fluence, it is the looks department. While it definitely doesn’t break the mould when it comes to design, the soft curvaceous lines are very easy on the eyes. There is no hard shoulder line to speak of which has become the trend in most cars these days. Instead, the doors as well as the front and rear quarter panels are gently curved and exude a sense of smoothness that you just want to caress ever so gently.
The sharp lines have found their way up front, on the hood where a crease on each side moves from headlights to the A-pillars. Combined with the depression in the middle of the hood and those large, elongated headlights, the Fluence makes a face like a beautiful girl scowling at you, making her look even prettier and making you go “Awwwww”. And while that absolutely rectangular grille does tend to look a little silly in pictures, drawing your attention away from those magnificent lines, in the flesh, it doesn’t hold a candle to the car’s overall presence. As you move towards the back, the Fluence maintains its dignified stance, thanks to its dropping roofline which looks absolutely gorgeous and gives it an ultra sleek look. The shoulder line, or more appropriately the shoulder curve in the Fluence’s case, softly melds into the top of the boot, which too gently curves as it connects to the other side of the car. The result is a rump that gels, sweeps and strokes into a beautiful shape which highly accentuates the long wrap-around tail lights. Overall, the Fluence is a masterstroke of design, combining conventionality with the avant-garde, and one that should appeal to the sentiments of the Indian psyche rather well.
The inside story is of another kind though – one that does not read in the same note as that of exterior. While this disparity might be on the miniscule side for the petrol variant of the Fluence, on the diesel though, the disparity reaches alarming levels. On one hand, the interiors are rather spacious, offering plenty of room for the most generously sized of us thanks to the big seats and ample leg room, but on a design front, they leave much to be desired.
The fit and finish of all the bits is right up the mark for a sedan in this class, but the choice of colours and materials leaves us wanting more. The plastics have a drab quality to them, not cheap mind you, just unexciting and uninspired. For a car in this class of big boys, one would expect the interiors, at least part of them, to be swathed in materials that titillate the senses. The one bit of trim in the cabin which can provide some excitement – a strip of brushed aluminium running from the left AC vent to the steering column – tends to get lost in all the greys of the plastic bits. In fact, it can be best described as a sea of gray which creates a sense of gloom in the cabin and if you happen to be out driving on a cloudy day, it could even be downright depressing. Another gripe that we found with the interiors was that the sloping cabin, which gives the car its fantastic shape on the outside, might just limit head room in the back seats if you’re the kind of person who tends to tower over your peers.
When it come to the car’s heart, under the hood is based on the 1.5-litre dCi diesel mill that did the duty in the Mahindra-Renault Logan (now Mahindra Verito) and also runs in the Nissan Micra Diesel, thanks to the Renault-Nissan alliance. But of course, while it is based on the same block, this engine has been given a thorough once-over and it now produces a healthy 106PS of power and a walloping 240Nm of torque. This is thanks to a new variable geometry turbocharger (VGT) that the K9K motor really needed for all the extra oomph. What this means is that the Fluence is able to make its way off the line up to 100km/h in just about 13.76 seconds, which is not bad at all considering the size of the car and the nature of the engine. But what’s more important is that the maximum torque is available at just 2000rpm, which means that you can put your foot down in any gear at pretty much any speed and the Fluence will have the necessary grunt to effortlessly accelerate away. And then there is the six-speed manual transmission – a rarity in Indian automobiles. When doing the highway run, just slot the ‘box into the sixth cog and this Renault pretty much defines the term ‘cruising’.
Ride and Handling
Ever since the days of the Citroen 2CV and later on the DX, French cars have never compromised in the ride quality department and the Fluence is no different. In fact, what it manages to achieve should pretty much be considered the benchmark for family sedans. The ride is absolutely incredible. It manages a balance between comfort and handling that would be the envy of most other cars in its class. While it’s not really a ‘magic carpet’ experience, the suspension does an excellent job of isolating the passengers from the ups and downs of the outside world. There is some tautness to the chassis, but never enough to jar you even through fairly crater sized potholes. This stiffness really does wonders to keep body roll in check when you chuck the steering from side to side while going around corners. But the credit for this also goes in part to the fantastic steering, which though electrically powered in nature, imparts all the feel and feedback of a hydraulic system. That being said, it’s not like the handling prowess of the Fluence can be described as ‘sporty’ – far from it, with the car wafting its way through corners rather than sprinting through them. But behind the wheel, the driver always gets the feeling that the chassis is under his control and that’s more than what can be said for some of its rivals.
Living with it
Now comes the hard question – is this a car you could live with? And the answer is not so cut and dry. While all aspects of the design, performance, ride and handling might be up to the mark, there is the eternal question of fuel economy, something which takes the limelight in our country more than anything else, which needs to be addressed. And this is one subject where the Fluence should have studied harder before attending the final exam. While the highway mileage of 16.5kmpl might sound all right, one should remember that this is a 1.5-litre diesel motor with a six-speed gearbox. So it is natural to expect more from this otherwise killer combo. And then when we get down to the urban fuel consumption figures, things get even more woeful. During the city run, our road test editor only managed 12.5kmpl, which says a lot. With the overall mileage figure in the range of 13.5kmpl, it is difficult to see merit in this diesel motor, especially in such an economy conscious country.
Let us first get this out of the way – the Fluence is a great car. It scores very high marks especially when it comes to the way it looks. Other aspects such as ride and handling as well as performance are things to write home about too. But what makes this diesel variant of the Fluence a little difficult proposition to recommend is the lack of toys in the cabin and the overall feel of the interiors. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not like Renault can’t get those things right. The petrol variant of the Fluence is the perfect example of what the insides of a car need to have to match its gorgeous exteriors. Granted that the petrol variant is almost a lakh and a half rupees more than the diesel, but it’s not like the diesel is the epitome of affordability. Priced at Rs 12.99 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi), it definitely wants to tangle with the big boys, but the rest of big boys might just offer a deal that Monsieur Frenchman would find difficult to match.