Opel 'Electrifying' Ampera

If the Geneva Motor Show were a popularity contest the winner would have been Opel’s brand new baby Ampera! With the global economic crisis creeping around the halls and press scant for a show who’s neutral location attracts all sorts the Opel stand was constantly busy, and why? All because of Opel’s new electrifying stylish addition, the Ampera.

This little number will be hitting the streets in 2011, if all goes according to plan, with minor manufacturing modifications but staying essentially as is. The man who has followed the project to the show and will follow her into production is GM Europe’s design newcomer Phil Zak, Director of Exterior Design Europe. Phil Zak came to the German studios in August of 2007 and has been busy ever since making sure the Ampera came to life. He gave us a design tour of the car before sitting down for a chat about Opel’s new claim to fame, ‘quality’, and the new Astra making its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show 2009.

Keep it simple could have been the design directive on this project. There is nothing superficial or unnecessarily designed, neither on the outside nor inside, of the Ampera, it is pure and simple. The white colour reflects this, the energy used proves it, and the shapes define it. Enveloped in a modern vocabulary of ‘form follows function’ the Ampera was conceived to propel Opel into a new era of electric drive in the company powered by GM’s signature Voltec electric propulsion. A four-person hatchback with plenty of trunk space and all the amenities of a ‘regular’ car, the range extender electric beauty was a pleasant surprise in terms of design - it is as easy on the eyes as it is on the environment.

A gentle face with boomerang headlights carried over from the Opel Flextreme concept, smooth and tight body lines from front to back, and a Insignia inspired posterior, the Ampera is sculpted by the wind…a gentle precise wind! It is back to school for most designers nowadays as aerodynamics once again is the key issue in design, a trend not seen since the 80’s. Zak shows us the trajectory of air as it travels over Ampera’s surfaces from the small grill in the front, round past the partially covered wheels (the clear plastic inserts create a larger surface area without adding visual volume and physical weight), up around the side view mirrors that are offset from the car to reduce drag, parallel to flush body sections, and finally back off the tail. It is ironic that when we chose to go against nature, and the environment, car design can get so ugly, but if we follow and respect it we can achieve true beauty – Ampera is an example of the latter!

Technically the Ampera is spicy, best of both worlds really. For those who want pure zero emissions one can stick to a daily achievable 60 km range based on an overnight charge. Others, who like variety, can still achieve daily charges with no emissions but because the Ampera is an extended-range electric vehicle (E-REV) there is an engine-generator that can be filled with gas/E85 fuel that extends distances to more than 500km. Tests so far indicate that when using the extender the Ampera will still only emit about 40g/km. With the Ampera not only has Opel overcome environtmental issues but also has addressed design and quality issues by surpassing anyone’s expectations, specially the customers’…we asked Phil Zak a few questions on the subject.

“Sculptured artistry and German precision is the direction we are taking the Opel brand”

GCD : The car looks very ‘comfortable’, why is that?

Zak : That's a good point to make. Some people have said that the technology is so new, what do you do with something so radical? The important thing is to get the product into people’s hands and make them feel comfortable driving it. We wanted it sporty, we wanted it dynamic, we wanted something that people could associate with as well, that they can park in their driveways and don’t have to explain anything to their neighbours. Some of the early cars that manufacturers made were kinda odd, we just wanted to make something ‘comfortable’.

GCD : The Ampera has a great face, strong and friendly at the same time, it’s difficult to pull off the cascading headlamp graphic but your team has found the right balance. Is this the face of Opels to come?

Zak : You gotta watch how you use it, we are not going to use the headlamp graphic on all of our vehicles. We are going to do faces that are more like siblings where you look and know it’s an Opel with overall character and impression. We don't want to do a rubber stamp like some manufacturers do, because for us we wouldn’t get enough market coverage, we want to be fresh and new.

GCD : Green thinking is in the details isn’t it. The interior for example has some cost/material saving design tricks right?

Zak : We have used touch capacitive buttons on the centre console to eliminate the use of buttons and create a smooth surface which is in turn easy to clean and take care of. In addition we have created door panel inserts that can be graphically customised and colour coordinated to the interior’s trim. The buttons here have been streamlined as well, reminiscent of the iTouch by Apple.

GCD : How does your team take on green car design? Is it an integral part of the design process?

Zak : We start out with ‘blue sky’ thinking because I don’t want to give them too much information early on so as not to stifle what their thoughts are on a project. In Europe it's a given that we have to adjust for CO2 regulations and it has been in people’s conscious for longer so there is a lot of history and therefore many green ideas. But even in the States nowadays people are more aware and has become more of a responsibility in places like California and to some extent the East Coast. If you were sitting in this car (Ampera) in traffic you would feel Zero guilt, it would only be your time that you are wasting.

GCD : We heard that Opel is gaining brand recognition and loyalty in the market, is this true?

Zak : Yes, it has. There has been a lot of articles recently in German press on increased automotive quality and Opel is currently the number 1 quality brand in Germany*. So from a quality standpoint we are up and if you look at the Insignia, from a visual standpoint, it is a huge departure from Opels of the past. The interior is very upscale while the exterior is very dynamic, and when you look at the price value equation its very enticing.

GCD : How much of that can you take credit for?

Zak : I am just getting here, I wish I could take credit for more. Really the Insignia was finishing up, that project was pretty much rolling when I came. I had a lot to do with the Ampera here, perhaps the first thing that the public has seen that I have touched with Opel. But it's the new stuff coming to Frankfurt, the Astra, that will be my first complete project…I don't think you will be disappointed.

* Opel was voted best European Brand in Autobild's 2008 Quality Report (Dependency, Longterm Quality, Customer Satisfaction) above Audi, Mercedes and Volkswagen. In total 22 Brands were covered and 24.000 car owners were asked.

Note - Phil Zak left GM effective March 20th, 2009 and will be joining the design team at Hyundai.