Renault, that so traditional and straight-laced of car companies. It makes sensible family cars and MPVs for sensible folk. The Regie doesn’t do revolution lightly. But, for the past decade, it’s quietly been having an environmental revelation. Why? Because sustainability chimes perfectly with the way its family-orientated customers think, too. Which is how we’ve got this: a working, driveable compact MPV… with a fuel cell. And zero emissions. Wow indeed.
A fuel cell Scenic? How very exotic.
Well, yes, and no. ‘Fuel cell’ sounds space-age stuff, but it isn’t, really. See it as, like Renault, just a range-extender for an electric vehicle. Renault’s equivalent of the Toyota Prius’ petrol engine, if you like. The fuel cell is powered by hydrogen, but unlike BMWs combusting hydrogen, it isn’t actually burned. Instead, it’s electrolysed. Byproduct: water. ZEV, then. Zero-Emission Vehicle.
Why so conventional-looking?
Management wanted people to concentrate on the tech, not the swoopy lines or other-worldly interior. This isn’t technology that’s beyond the realms, but a sensible long-term solution to reduce our dependence on oil. Wrap it up in a spaceship and that’s the perception people will take of the tech. Wrong. It’s much more viable than that.
This Scenic still has five seats, still has the same interior, the same controls as a regular auto. It proves fuel cells can marry to today’s cars, that it isn’t ‘that different’ to drive than a diesel auto. That Renault’s sensible customer set won’t be blown away when, in a decade’s time, it arrives to extend the range of electric vehicles by then already in production.
So how Back To The Future was the drive?
Not very. Just as Renault intended. If you’ve driven an electric car, this is just like that – only, a very good one. With legs. Electric means instant torque from standstill, making it deliciously snappy in response to the throttle (they actually have to restrict power at low speeds). On the move, it’s smarter in response even than a petrol car, never mind a laggy diesel.
But, unlike many electric machines, this energy is still there at higher speeds. It can do 60mph in around 14 seconds, 100mph, and gets from 55-75mph as swifty as a 1.6 petrol or 1.5 dCi: that was a Renault stipulation. All, in spooky silence, too: the real weird bit. A faint whine, nothing else. Makes you realise how noisy those vibey old combustion engines are. Does the enthusiast in you automatically hate electric? Drive this, feel the benefits, and think how much you actually love that 2.0-litre Mondeo block. When it works, which this does, it’s very impressive indeed.
Hang on, you haven’t mentioned the fuel cell bit there.
That’s because you can’t detect it. All it does is extend the range, by boosting electricity supply when the batteries get low. Which, to be fair, is most of the time. Mind you, the test car’s standard Scenic trip computer showed a reassuring 300km range, so gone was the fear of really caning it and getting stuck in rural France. This really does change how you perceive electric power.
There’s not even any demerit in the drive. The ride’s better, in fact, and though you can detect the extra 300kg in corners, better weight distribution (no heavy lump up front) has the chassis engineers salivating. This is also the best Renault electric power steering we’ve sampled, and there isn’t even any of the tiresome Prius regenerative brake-snatch. Not bad at all for a project that took just 14 months.
So where did they get all this hybrid gear from?
Nissan. Three years ago, the Japanese company developed a fuel cell X-Trail. Renault fancied a bit of that, and wanted to prove it could be installed in a conventional European car, with no problem, so prepared a couple of Scenics and sent them over to Japan for mating with electric motor, fuel stack, hydrogen tank and lithium-ion batteries.
Apart from the tank, all the components are sourced from within the Alliance, and the lessons learnt here are already being studied for the next generations of car. Which, with even better batteries and higher-pressure hydrogen tanks (that, incidentally, have no safety implications, says Renault), should boast a range of over 300 miles. Just like today’s combustion cars, in fact.
Wow – out of nowhere, Renault’s future is in fuel cells
Not so fast. This, we’re sure you’ve heard before, is not for now – but a decade hence. There’s the small matter of a hydrogen infrastructure, plus economically mass-producing thousands of cars as impressive as this one-off. But it’s a cracking start. Not only the first compact MPV, but the first zero-emission fuel-cell compact MPV. Not bad for conservative old Regie. It even has the thumbs-up from Carlos Ghosn, who drive this very same car just a few weeks ago…