Actually that's a bit misleading because Renault never really went away. What they did was lie low as the divorce was completed and back-end put in place for a proper assault on the Indian car market. An enormous plant, a dealer network, key personnel, a product plan for the years to come and now the assault begins in right earnest â" with this, the Fluence. The car to erase the memory of the Logan, the car which Renault freely admits shouldn't have been their launch car.
And so with the Fluence begins the re-positioning of the brand in India. In rapid order Renault will make sure you know they're French with a uniquely French sense of style and flair. They will bombard you with new concept cars that mark their design renaissance, pulling it out of the styling rut that sired the Logan. They will tell you how three front running teams on the Formula 1 grid have Renault engines and that they pioneered turbo engines in road cars and F1. You will know that they're at the forefront of the electric car game. And they will urge you to walk into spanking new Renault dealerships for an experience that you will remember â" down to the smells in the showroom and the water you're served.
All of which will be of no use if the Fluence isn't any good.
It does look good and that's a positive start. As has become habitual we've got the car stuck in the sand as we nudged towards the ocean and swaying palms off the East Coast Road connecting Chennai to Pondicherry for pictures. As I wait for villagers to come to push us out (if there's one thing I've learnt it's no matter where you are in India if a camera is out people will come along soon enough) there's enough time to reflect on her lines. It's no short black Chanel dress or Louis Vuitton hand bag but it is unique and can hold its own. Particularly it is elegant. It has all the right cues for a stately, premium sedan â" generous length, long wheelbase, sleek flowing lines to accentuate the length, wide low stance and clean details. It's best viewed from the front, the nose is unfussy with large swept back headlamps, the bonnet heavily grooved, the airdam large and wide, the Renault diamond neatly sunk in and the grille so narrow you barely notice it. Then on though there's really nothing to say. The flanks are remarkably plain and unadorned save for the chunky rubbing strips at the base of the doors and the rear so unremarkable that the only thing I can say is there are tail lamps. Two of them.
There's nothing aggressive or sporty about the Fluence and maybe that's a good thing as even the most traditionally unsporting saloon of them all â" the Corolla â" is now going the sporty way leaving the field wide open for the Fluence. This is one of those cars that will please all and offend none. And no, this isn't the French flair and pizzazz they're talking about. The Fluence was penned before Renault got their design mojo back and the va-va-voom cars will come next year.
Step inside and that sense of the Fluence being a posh, premium car lingers. With the largest wheelbase in its class the Fluence delivers a very spacious interior with class leading knee, head and shoulder room at the rear while the seats up front are large and comfortable. The beige colour scheme makes the already spacious cabin seem even more inviting and on first glance the dashboard is handsome. The speedo is a digital affair whose sporty overtones seem out of whack with the rest of the car but is nevertheless an interesting element, flanked by the yellow-needled tacho and comprehensive trip computer. Material quality, particularly the soft-touch plastics for the top of the dash feel premium but there are some plastic bits like those around the air-con controls that don't deserve to be here. And then there's the quirkiness.
The wide sweeping arc of the dash is split into three levels horizontally. The top half has the air-con vents and a display for the stereo, the middle the air-con controls, the bottom the stereo. It all looks inoffensive but also unremarkable, a bit old school even. The climate control and stereo panels are carry over items from lesser cars and it looks and feels it; the buttons particularly are so small they can never be operated without taking your eyes off the road. The buttons you see on the steering wheel aren't audio controls, they're for the cruise control. Which, by the way, needs to be first activated by a switch near the handbrake. And that means the volume and other controls for the audio and telephone and all bunched up on a sturdy stalk behind the steering wheel. It's all a bit baffling, taking time to adjust to.
But what really baffled me were the interiors of the diesel Fluence. Somehow Renault have contrived a variant mix that sees the petrol available in only one fully loaded trim while the diesel gets a dramatically poorer trim level with a predominance of black and grey plastics. In isolation it might not be so bad but it truly shocked me when I swapped from the petrol to the diesel car; it's been so heavily stripped out that the steering isn't even leather wrapped. All the goodies on the petrol â" climate control, leather seats, rear sun blinds, rear air-con vents (even the petrol doesn't get electric seats) â" have been taken out which would have been okay for a stripped out base variant targeted at the taxi market but this is the only variant for now!
Renault says the black interiors are supposed to convey a sense of sportiness but the diesel is no sporty car. The engine is familiar â" the same 1.5dCi common-rail diesel engine from the Logan and Micra but with power boosted up to 106PS while torque goes up to 240Nm. It doesn't seem like much, and it isn't much for a car of this size and class, but when you compare it with the Corolla diesel's 88PS the negative remarks are neatly swatted aside. Performance is a leisurely 14.1 seconds to 100kmph but there is adequate bottom end grunt to make it a relaxed highway cruiser while dealing comfortably with city commutes. The 6-speed gearbox isn't among the slickest units around but it is never any bother either.
What Renault harps about is the fuel efficiency which at 21.8kmpl (as certified by the ARAI) is the best in its class though the Corolla diesel isn't too far behind with 21.45kmpl.
On to the petrol then, which feels so much nicer the instant you step inside and grab the leather wrapped 'wheel. The key (smart access card in Renault speak) is slightly larger and fatter than a credit card and slides neatly into a slot just ahead of the gear lever or can remain in your pocket. Thumb the start-stop button and the 2.0-litre petrol purrs into life. It makes 137PS of power and 190Nm of torque and is mated to a CVT transmission with 6 speeds. And if you're wondering, no, there's no manual for now.
Initial take-off seems leisurely but the CVT does get into her stride quickly posting a 0-100kmph time of 11.1 seconds which is in the same ball-park as the Corolla. Characteristically the CVT transmission makes for a very smooth and linear build-up of power with no jolts or steps. Equally characteristically there is the rubber-band effect where the revs linger at the peak of the rev range when the accelerator is mashed to the carpets though this isn't as irritating as we've experienced in the past. However the Corolla's 7-speed CVT transmission feels decidedly nicer and more refined with the rubber band effect virtually eliminated. Renault quote an ARAI fuel consumption figure of 13.42kmpl which falls short of the Corolla's 15.22kmpl.
On the road the Fluence remains plush and luxurious with the ride quality being one of its strongest suits. And it's not a soft wallowy sort of ride, the compliance doesn't come at the expense of body control. The ECR road doesn't have too many corners to explore the handling limits but the Fluence dealt with the few we found with composure and speed. There is body roll but it never gets alarming and the upside of the pliant ride is bumpy corners don't upset the cornering line of the car. The steering is light but up to the demands that will be made of the Fluence and if things do go wrong there's the safety net of ESP which is standard on both petrol and diesel cars.
If you're looking for something uniquely, distinctly French in the Fluence, well, there is nothing; this could have a Nissan badge for all you know. But as a car to re-launch the Renault brand, the Fluence is a step in the right direction â" the top-down strategy has been known to work and the Fluence has a clear advantage over the competition in terms of space and comfort. The pricing too should be competitive â" we expect the diesel to be in the region of Rs 12.5 lakh while the petrol will be around Rs 14 lakh. Usually it works the other way round, a cheap entry-level petrol and a fully-loaded diesel but Renault is banking on doing things differently as it goes about re-establishing itself and building a premium image until the small cars come and the volume game begins in right earnest.