Vauxhall Ampera review
by Sue Baker (18 August 2011)
Electric vehicles come with built-in angst: that nagging worry about the battery running down before you reach either your destination or a charging point. Current battery technology means a range limitation of typically not much more than 100 miles before the car is out of juice. EVs may be starting to proliferate on the roads, but the recharging infrastructure just isn't there yet.
It is all very well for eco crusaders to trot out statistics, trying to prove that electric car "range anxiety" need not bother most drivers because 80% of daily journeys are shorter than a typical EV's range. Many of us would still worry about finding ourselves stranded at the roadside on one of those 20% trips. It explains why EVs are selling like, well, cold cakes.
Here is one that deserves a warmer reception. The Vauxhall Ampera is the first angst-free electric car, because it is the only one launched so far with a built-in range extender.
In effect it works like a hybrid in reverse. A hybrid runs primarily on fossil fuel (usually petrol, sometimes diesel) and has an electric motor and battery as back-up, and for clean urban running. A range-extender EV is primarily an electric car with plug-in recharging, but it also has a small Atkinson cycle petrol engine as back-up to help recharge the battery or act as substitute if it goes flat.
It means that you have the advantages of an electric car - low-polluting, ultra-quiet running, swift accelerating - most of the time, but also have the safety net of an engine to take over when needed. By this means, the Ampera has a range of about three times that of a typical electric car. It is good for around 310 miles between refills. It is not a particularly impressive range when judged against the distances a modern diesel is capable of, but it is remarkably good by electric vehicle standards.
The Ampera can run for up to 40 miles in purely electric mode, which should be plenty for a typical city commute, for example. Drive further than that on an out-of-town trip or up a motorway, and when the lithium-ion battery pack is down to about a 20% remaining charge level, the car's 1.4-litre petrol engine automatically switches on to keep the car running. It can also be plugged into a mains socket for recharging (which takes about four hours).
To drive, the Ampera feel pretty similar to a Vauxhall Astra, the model on which is largely based. It has brisk acceleration, a calm ride and precise handling responses that seem to echo the behaviour of an Astra. At least, that is the impression gleaned from driving it on flat terrain with a notable absence of any hills.
Vauxhall chose the famously level countryside of Holland to showcase the Ampera, where walkers and cyclists predominate. But of course, it is obvious that flat terrain helps to optimise the performance of an electric car.
The Ampera's cabin is unlike other Vauxhalls, and we were urged more than once in the launch presentation to regard it as "space-agey". Maybe not quite that, but it does have a bolder than usual design, with a centre dash panel that looks iPad-inspired, and a techy kind of busy-ness throughout.
There are two information screens packed with eco aids, one ahead of the driver and the other located centrally, which does seem to be a bit of an overkill. The car's interior is quite spacious and airy, with back-seat headroom that benefits from a screen extending right up into the rear roof space.
When you switch on there is a momentary touch of theatre as the dashboard whirrs into life and the throttle pedal dips slightly. It is a ploy to give an otherwise lifeless-seeming electric car a touch of artificially-induced character, and it succeeds.
The Ampera is otherwise uncannily quiet as it pulls away, apart from the muted sound of the tyres and a faint whine of electric motor. It moves off pretty briskly: it is no sports car, but no slouch either. When the engine cuts in, it does so with unobtrusive seamlessness.
It is hard not to be fixated by the display that shows the car's range being counted down on the instrument panel as you drive, faithfully reporting how quickly you are depleting the battery. It makes intriguing reading. On one section of these test route, comprising a 63-mile cross-country drive, I tried to drive as economically as possible using the dashboard displays as a tutor and guide.
For three-quarters of the distance the car ran battery-only, with engine assistance coming in only for the other quarter. During that drive, the car consumed 10.3kWh of electricity and 1.88 litres of petrol. A quick calculation came up with the impressive result that it equated to 156.94mpg.
The Ampera's Achilles' heel is its price. On sale from February 2012, its £28,995 tag includes a £5000 taxpayer-funded green subsidy. That is a heavy outlay for a medium-sized family car with fairly average performance - the 0-62 mph acceleration time is nine seconds.
CO2 emissions of 40g/km make it very comfortably congestion charge exempt, though, and the annual tax disc is free. Best of all, the Ampera's EU-calculated 175mpg average economy figure is spectacularly more than good enough to trump anyone else's bar-room boasting. No range anxiety, either.