Whether in Chevrolet Volt or Opel Ampera guise, it’s not been a particularly easy gestation period for GM’s revolutionary range-extender. Concerns voiced regarding cost effectiveness, battery safety and scrutiny over it’s considerable funding have all taken their toll, but now GM’s eco-flagship in on sale on three continents and, as of this year, in the UK as well.
The importance of the Ampera cannot be understated; its introduction to the UK market represents a first for plug-in hybrid vehicles and if sales are strong, particularly to fleets, the Ampera may set the tone in the development of alternative transport for years to come. GM have got pedigree in this field too, having developed the battery powered lunar rover used in the final three ‘Apollo’ missions, and although the consensus is that nigh on £30,000 is too much for the Ampera, it’s certainly an improvement on the $38millon the lunar rover eventually cost.
The idea behind the Ampera is that it’s the only car you’ll ever need. Owners of pure electric vehicles such as Nissan’s Leaf or Mitsubishi’s iMiev will attest to the problem that inevitably arises when their car (rather quickly) runs out of charge. This is a problem that the Ampera neatly overcomes by using a 1.4-litre petrol engine generator, which kicks in after around 50 miles of zero-emissions electric only driving and allows the Ampera to cover an extra 310 miles. Total range, then, is up to 360 miles – comparable to a conventional ICE vehicle but with lower emissions and generally stronger fuel economy (more on that later). The important thing to remember is that although the Ampera houses an ICE engine, power is only ever delivered to the wheels via electricity. This is an important differentiation to make with more conventional hybrids that are, exclusively, either electric or petrol driven. Conceptually at least, the Ampera seems to present an answer to the many problems faced by drivers.
Achieving excellent fuel economy will be the driving force behind Ampera sales and whilst in battery mode it achieves an equivalent of around 225mpg. This soon changes when you run out of charge and the generator kicks in. From then on the Ampera’s economy figure will fall with every mile you drive and whilst this makes perfect sense, the question is “how much, and how fast, will it fall?”.
After covering 130 miles over of combination of motorways and B-roads, the Ampera finished up at just under 50mpg. In other words, around the same figure as a BMW 320d, a car that falls in exactly the same price bracket and, considering the BMW’s many strengths, makes the Ampera quite hard to justify. However, Vauxhall claim that the majority of commuters cover less than 30 miles each day and it’s in this scenario that the Ampera is almost indomitable.
Most owners would be able to use the battery exclusively during the week for example, which costs very little, and then use the Ampera as a range-extender for a longer journey at the weekend. After 100 miles of varied driving, the Ampera will still return upwards of 60mpg, and it’s this adaptability that sets the Vauxhall apart from everything else. If you regularly drive over 100 miles then buy an efficient diesel, and if you only drive in the city, then buy a far cheaper EV, but most drivers blur these parameters and it’s here that the Ampera makes sense. A lot of it. Usefully, in ‘Hold Mode’, charge from the battery can be stored (and the generator engaged) to used later. This would be particularly useful if you were to travel a long distance to a city.
Power output is healthy at 150bhp and with a limited top speed of 100mph the Ampera easily keeps pace with modern traffic, as many pure EVs fail to do. A high torque figure also means acceleration is more brisk than you might expect. Complementing these figures is a ride that has been set up reasonably well for UK roads although the steering feels a little disconnected, ‘feel’ is something electric and hybrid vehicles have yet to master (not you Tesla Roadster).
The Ampera sees Vauxhall’s newfound design language (pioneered by Mark Adams) developed a step further. Most noticeable are the black ‘boomerang’ headlight housings that extend down the front skirt as well as the glossy black shadows that form the windowline. The Ampera’s silhouette is well balanced and incorporates an aggressively raked windscreen with a high hatchback bootline. The Ampera does, however, look slightly odd directly from behind and this is because of the ‘hammerhead’ rear lights set into the bumper. The Ampera’s alloys also do a good job of avoiding the plate-like look of so many other aerodynamically efficient wheels.
Overall, the Ampera’s aesthetic is as striking as it is subtle and whilst nothing is truly revolutionary, remember that this is not a concept car anymore.
The interior is much the same as the Insignia’s, however gauges are replaced with digital dials, graphs and screens that present the driver with almost everything they may want to know. The centre-stack is also touch sensitive and this adds a futuristic touch to the cabin.
As an eco-friendly car that’s equally at home in the city or on motorways, the Ampera has no equal. It’s refined, dynamic, frugal and, most importantly, can be used as a household’s only vehicle. The only problem is the slightly exorbitant price that will initially hamper sales, although consider that new technology is always expensive and if it really is a solution then the sales will come and the economies of scale will duly follow. At 70% of the current price, the Ampera would no doubt fly off the shelves.
Vauxhall Ampera ‘Electron’
150PS electric drive unit/1.4-litre Ecotec Range-Extender Unit
100mph top speed
234.5mpg (ECE R101 test cycle)
27 g/km CO2 emissions
£33,995 (inc £5000 Plug-in Car Grant)
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