Road Test: Renault Fluence

The Renault Fluence is as ordinary as cars get, but it does do certain things brilliantly and it'll keep you comfy.

Larger diameter alloy wheels would further the Renault Fluence's image of looking like it costs more than it actually does. Kevin Hackett / The National
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There are times when it's the simplest thing in the world to write a car review. When the experience behind the wheel has been exciting, when the car in question has been exceptional in some way, when it has deeply impressed by either its quality of finish or in the way it harnesses technology to deliver a drive that sets new standards. I can sit at my desk, while the words just pour out.

But when I'm faced with reviewing a car that ticks none of those boxes, that's when things become difficult. That's usually when I have to resort to simply stating facts and figures, because there really is nothing to get my teeth into, nothing interesting to report.

So let's take a look at the Renault Fluence, shall we? I've experienced a fair few exotic, luxury and prestige motors over the past few weeks, so it's probably high time I got into "normal" mode and drove a car that almost anyone in these parts could afford to own. Having said that, handing back the key to an Aston Martin Vanquish and immediately picking up the Fluence did smart a bit. No matter, I ignore the complaints from Mrs H and introduce her to the delights of normal, no-frills motoring.

Make no mistake, this is an ordinary automobile, but it doesn't offend. The cabin is quite drab, with dark grey plastic overload, but at least much of it is soft to the touch. The steering wheel on this poverty spec example does feel cheap, though, and the seats are too firm for my liking.

On the move, however, the Fluence does feel extremely refined, well damped and comfortable. The worst of Dubai's road surfaces are smothered by the car's supremely compliant suspension, which is probably why it's aimed squarely at the Indian market. In fact, it's one of the most cushioned cars I've ever driven and that has to be good news for anyone with a family to transport.

From the outside, the car could actually be pleasing to the eye, particularly if it had been fitted with larger diameter alloy wheels, instead of the 15-inch steel and plastic hub-capped items here. They seem lost within the wheel arches, making the entire car look a bit top heavy. But styling wise, while lacking the flair that Renault used to be known for, it does a decent job of looking like it costs more money than it actually does.

While the Indian market favours the diesel-powered Fluence, the UAE has a choice of two petrol engines: a 1.6L and a 2.0L, both four cylinders. I'm in the 1.6 and this is where the news starts to turn sour, because it's only available with a dreadful Nissan-developed CVT transmission. According to Renault's sales literature, "this gearbox allies sobriety, performance and fluidity. This technology allows to keep an almost constant driving regime without jolts during the acceleration, and so to optimize the use of the engine for lower fuel consumption".

Something must be lost in translation there, but the fact remains that this transmission is the one thing I cannot stand about this car. The engine is a bit gutless, which is hardly surprising given the car's physical size. But the CVT makes it seem even more so, like it's a constant struggle to attain any sort of forward motion. It always sounds stressed during acceleration, like it's being thrashed within an inch of its life, and for the life of me I cannot understand why a normal automatic wasn't fitted here. CVTs are, indeed, able to provide improved fuel consumption, but the differences are marginal at best, non-existent at worst. The 2.0 is available with either this hateful set-up or, curiously, a six-speed manual 'box. I know which I'd choose.

If you're prepared to dig a bit deeper into your pockets, the LE trim level is available with leather upholstery, a Bose stereo system, electronic park brake and loads of other goodies that might make a Fluence owner feel that all is well with the world. Certainly, with a more luxurious interior, larger diameter wheels and, most importantly, a proper gearbox, this Renault could make a convincing case for itself as a potential purchase. In its most basic form, however, it remains a comfortable, quiet and keenly priced way of getting the kids to school. And there's nothing wrong with that, is there?

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