Charging stations are okay, really. Battery swapping stations are even better, and I honestly have nothing against Lithium-ion batteries. But we love cars, not infrastructure, and that’s what has been missing from our Better Place coverage: real car related stuff. So here I am, in the front seat of Better Place’s actual electric car. Of course, when I say actual, what I mean is that this is actually a Renault Laguna, a rather bland French midsize car, and one car Renault doesn’t intend to electrify in its joint venture with Better Place. So what’s its business being green in the car park with stickers all around it reading ‘EV’ and flowers emitting from its exhaust?
The Electric Laguna (which sounds like a fun holiday experience) is a part of Better Place’s new visitor center just outside Tel Aviv, Israel. It’s one of a small fleet of demonstration cars visitors would be able to thrash – err, test drive – around a dedicated test track, which is a polite way of describing two turns, one straight and a roundabout.
This Laguna actually has a pretty interesting biography. It started off as a bog-standard diesel in Renault’s factory in Sandouville, France. In an ironic twist, it arrived into Motown, where its powertrain was converted to electricity by FEV, before proceeding to Germany to embark on a costly journey to obtain European specification.
From the outside, save for a handful of giveaway stickers, it looks normal. The cabin is also nothing exceptional; the stock Laguna’s excellent seats and driving position are still here, and there’s ample room for four adults, but not five. It’s European midsize, remember? That means it’s significantly smaller than your intentionally-accelerating Camry, and pretty close in dimensions to the real deal – the Fluence Z.E, itself an enlarged C-segment Megane. But the real deal is still a while away from serial production.
The Electric Laguna then, is remarkably unremarkable. And that’s a good thing, considering that the average EV asks you for compromises when it comes to interior space. Even the smartcard key, push-button ignition and electronic parking brake are standard Renault issue. The future, serial-production Fluence Z.E will have Better Place’s own AutOS operating system, which will provide the driver with a plethora of useful (as well as useless) information.
The only hint at what’s under the bonnet comes from the gearlever, or, more precisely, the lack thereof. Instead of the usual stick, there are four familiar buttons: P, R, N and D. Another giveaway: the tachometer is replaced with a power consumption scale, measured in KW/h , accompanied by Better Place’s ‘switch’ emblem.
If you’ve ever driven a Prius, the startup sequence of the Laguna EV probably won’t rock your world. You press the Start button, wait for the OK and push the ‘D’ button, which illuminates in blue. A few clicks sound from the back of the car and you’re ready to roll. To get started, you need to brush the pedal – there’s no creep – and once you’re there, Better Place’s mule accelerates linearly and swiftly up to an electronically limited speed (got that?) of 84 MPH, but it probably won’t set your tires alight or win any drag races.
It was a sunny day, and three sweaty journalists probably didn’t contribute much in the way of ambience. So we politely asked the Better Place employee riding shotgun to turn on the air conditioning, to which he agreed – rather reluctantly. Lo and behold, a breeze of cool air exited the air vents – probably reducing range by several tens of percents. Definitely a welcome addition to the electric car.
There were only two serious bumps on the Better Place track, but they were enough to ascertain that the Laguna EV isn’t the most comfortable car around. Physics are to blame: with such a big lump of air conditioned metal to carry around, there’s a big lump of battery too, 550 pounds of it, all stored in the trunk, which the tight-lipped Better Place rep refused to open. If we had gone past him, we’d probably discover that it was packed full, though the Fluence Z.E will compensate for this with a slightly bigger trunk.
From the outside, the Laguna looks balanced, so it’s obvious that someone has been tinkering with the suspension. Unfortunately, it still needs work, because it’s simply uncomfortable. Bumps trigger an erratic, bouncy response – not the cosseting type of bouncing, either. The same is true for handling – it simply feels heavy on the turns, doesn’t inspire much confidence and the rear weight bias shows, no matter how much uncommunicative the steering is. Definitely not a Tesla Roadster.
Like many hybrids and EVs, this Renault has a regenerative braking system, which recovers ‘lost’ energy from braking (read: bad) into electricity, which is then returned to the battery (read: good). In the Laguna, this system is less fierce than systems on other EVs – it simulates in-gear braking, but it doesn’t actually brake the car for you when you lift off the throttle. The typical driver will still use the left pedal, which uses a conventional disk brake setup, thus significantly dropping the car’s range.
So, what do we have here? An electrically-powered, zero tailpipe emission sedan that accelerates well enough, carries four adults comfortably and doesn’t neglect amenities like air conditioning. It demonstrates what an EV can do – and I emphasize could, because the Laguna EV has about 170 horsepower, compared to the Fluence Z.E’s projected 95 – but saying that is only telling half the story, understandable ride and handling imperfections aside.
We already know that the Laguna’s seats are excellent and that EVs are possible. What would be the car’s real-life range? How would it function in daily traffic? How much would it cost? How much would the batteries last? For these questions to be answered, we need to wait for the real-deal Fluence Z.E.