Vauxhall Ampera hybrid e-car
The electric car comes of age?
First Look Only the most ardent electric-vehicle advocate would argue that the current state of battery technology and absence of recharging infrastructure isn’t an impediment to the widespread adoption of the e-car.
On paper, the new Vauxhall Ampera – the European version of the Chevrolet Volt – has the perfect answer to this problem: it provides short-range zero-emission motoring and long-range flexibility in the same vehicle.
Current model: Vauxhall's Ampera
First some basics. Most of the time, the Ampera is propelled by its 111kW (149bhp) electric traction motor. For the first 35 miles or so, this will be drawing power from a 16kWh lithium-ion battery that can be recharged from any domestic power socket.
When the battery charge hits the 22 per cent mark, an 85bhp 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine fires up to supply the drive motors and keep the next six per cent of the battery topped up as a buffer. To get the battery back to 100 per cent, or rather the usable bit between 22 per cent and 85 per cent, you have to plug it in.
Torque of the town
You will notice I say motors. That’s because there are actually two, the primary traction motor and a secondary 53Kw (71bhp) motor/generator. The latter comes into play as a drive motor when cruising at high speed in EV mode and allows the main motor to spin at a lower, and so more efficient, speed.
Under certain circumstances, the petrol engine can also drive the front wheels through the motor/generator with the transaxle and planetary gears blending power from the traction motor and the petrol engine.
The Voltec powertrain comprises two leccy motors
This explains why so many people get confused over the issue of the Ampera being purely electrically driven at all times. The system that General Motors’ engineers have cooked up is a little too clever and subtle for that question to be answered simply yes or no. The correct answer is, “most of the time unless circumstances dictate otherwise”.
Get into a fully-charged Ampera and the driving experience is much like a Nissan Leaf: you can sit back and enjoy the total silence and seamless acceleration. The 0-60 dash is dispensed with in 8.7 seconds thanks to a muscular 370Nm (273lb ft) of torque available from the off.
Once the Ampera is moving, the 30-70mph sprint takes only 9.9s and the 50-70 6.2s. A diesel BMW 3 Series can do better, but they are still not a bad set of numbers. Top speed is electronically limited to 100mph.
Economy is a more tricky thing to quantify with a range extender EV. After all, if you plug it in every night and only drive it for five miles more than the electric-only range each day then you will get hundreds of miles to the gallon.
Calculating the dual fuel savings will give you a run for your money
Vauxhall reckons a fully charged battery pack will get you anywhere between 25 and 50 miles down the road. My experience suggests 35 is about the average. Once the battery pack was exhausted and the petrol engine running I got just over 45mpg.
The fuel tank is a relatively small 7.7 gallons but that is good enough to add, in the worse case, another 310 miles to the electric-only range. Of course, the killer feature of the Ampera is that when you get to the end of that 310 miles you only need to find a petrol station and spend five minutes refuelling rather than a 16A 240v socket and three hours.
You get a fair amount of roll in the corners
I’ll have to wait until Vauxhall lend me an Ampera for a full week to come up with a substantive set of first-hand figures but, according to the official EU test, the Ampera achieves on average 235.4mpg and emits just 27g/km of CO2. That underlines how hard it is to judge real-world economy for a car like this.
One thing I can tell you from a day behind the wheel is that under most circumstance the petrol engine – when running – is barely audible. That’s a benefit of it working as a generator. Rather than chasing up and down the rev range, it simply spins at a more or less constant rate to the benefit of refinement and economy.
The Ampera's nose is more purposeful than the Volt's
If you're running in range extender mode and really put your foot down – for instance, to accelerate hard up a hill from standstill – then the petrol engine does rev higher and becomes more audible, but your foot needs to be buried in the carpet and the hill a steep one.
Thanks to the handy Hold Charge driving mode, you can run the car on juice from the petrol engine even when the battery is full and so keep it topped up until you need it. For instance, when you enter a zero-emission zone at the end of a planned journey.
Inside the Vauxhall Ampera in Pictures
Two 7in screens, hurrah. Touch sensitive controls, grrrr
Up front, it's all overtly hi-tech
Room for two - but only two - in the back
Plenty of room in the boot, and the seats fold nearly flat
The charge cable is kept in a floor cubby
On the open road, the Ampera’s transatlantic underpinnings are surprisingly hard to notice. The ride is comfortable and the handling on the mountainous B-roads above and around Ruthin in North Wales proved wholly competent. In range-extended mode, the engine and battery buffer always had sufficient power to offer even when I was pushing on.
The T-shaped battery limits the back-seat space
The overtly hi-tech cabin is dominated by two 7in LCD displays. These look – and in the case of the touch-sensitive one on the centre console, feel – great. I can’t really say the same about the touch-sensitive buttons on the centre console though.
They apparently use less electrical power than standard switches – as do the specially designed, smaller window and wiper motors – but are a bit of a faff to use, though familiarity may remedy that.
Plug it in here
The Ampera isn't is a particularly spacious car. The 198kg battery pack is arranged in a T-shape, with the cross at the back and the stem running through what in a rear-wheel drive car would be the transmission tunnel. This makes it a dedicated four- rather than five-seater because there simply is no central rear seat.
But even for two in the the back, it's a little short on head and legroom, especially if those up front are six foot plus and have their seats back. The battery doesn’t take anything away from boot space, though, which is the equal of what you get in a Ford Focus.
On the move
For my money, the Ampera is a good looking motor car too, more purposeful around the nose than the Volt. And it’s rather well screwed together, despite being assembled in America which can sometimes be a byword for cheap plastics and bad fit.
The current entry model will set you back £32,350 after the UK’s £5,000 e-car grant, though a lower-spec model costing £29,995 will arrive later in the year. That’s about £12,000 more than a five-door turbo-diesel Ford Focus but, to be fair, you do get a lot of standard of kit, including satnav on a 7in screen, alloy wheels, reversing cameras, leather upholstery and a stonkingly good Bose CD/DVD stereo with a 30GB HDD. ®
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