The Vauxhall Ampera is a special car. Or so we’re supposed to believe! It’s one step closer to the clean motoring future that awaits us all. I have not exactly been blown away by the electric vehicle offerings we’ve seen in the past, so I feel skepticism is an acceptable default position.
The Prius has never excited me. And, in any case, is the relatively energy efficient model really worth getting that excited about? I’m just not sure the green credentials are impressive enough to warrant abandoning conventional cars.
So, how is the Ampera, a so-called E-REV (extended range electric vehicle), any different? Well, put simply, the wheels are always turned by an electric motor, but there’s a 74 bhp, 1.4 litre petrol engine to help things along if need be. In other words, electric will take you as far as it can on its own, and then a relatively efficient petrol-driven generator kicks in to lend a hand.
It’s a clever idea, and the judges at the Geneva Motor Show obviously thought so too, naming it the ‘Car of the Year’. Clean, green motoring, with back-up. Great — no more range-anxiety. But is this a car you’d relish seeing outside your house and driving to work every day? Here’s what I thought when I took it for a spin:
The Ampera looks like a normal car. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but, for many, that’s important. In fact, it looks like a really nice normal car, with a curvy roofline and cool boomerang headlights (flavour of the month for Vauxhall).
The solid aerodynamics are very apparent from the front, particularly in the design of the wing-mirrors. In fact, I much prefer the Ampera from the front. The high-positioned lights at the back seem to create a slight impression of bulkiness.
How It All Works
The technology used by Vauxhall’s engineers for the Ampera sets out to solve the age-old problem of electric vehicles: zero emissions = not the best range! This is indeed an age-old problem, with the first electric vehicles being designed over 100 years ago. So did they crack it?
Well, for journeys of 25-50 miles, with a fully charged battery, you can be satisfied with the knowledge that you’re running on pure electricity. The lithium-ion batteries in the Ampera offer 2-3 times more power than the NiMH (nickel metal hydride) versions found in conventional hybrids. So, there’s plenty of juice on full charge, but when they become totally depleted, something happens:
The 1.4 petrol engine swings into action to power an electricity generator, which tops up the electric motor’s battery. With this system, you can drive on for up to 310 more miles!
So, at all times, the Ampera’s wheels are turned by electric power, which is a significant engineering step forward. Plus, the regenerative electro-hydraulic brake system converts braking energy into electricity, which is constantly fed back into the motor. This switches to friction braking when the battery is fully charged.
Driving The Ampera
I’m sure you can imagine how odd it is to move from stationary to 60mph in 9 seconds, with no noise! The weirdness of this was what first struck me when driving the Ampera. I found it very disconcerting at first (not least on behalf of passers-by who didn’t hear me coming!), but pretty soon I loved it.
Lots of people have observed that it’s rather like flying, and I see their point. Cruising around long S-bends at decent speed, in absolute quiet, is a really fun experience. The Ampera features hydraulic ride bushings on both suspensions, which helps to preserve the feeling of a smooth, effortless ride even on less than perfect roads.
The all-round performance is, unsurprisingly, very similar to that of the Astra. The solid build and rack-mounted power steering combines with McPherson strut front suspension, to produce sensitive and responsive handling.
Practicality — Is This A ‘Real’ Car?
So, the Ampera offers zero CO2 emissions on the electric motor, plus decent drive quality. But what would the reality be of owning one of these cars? For many people, the petrol equivalent, the Astra, is a very practical and reliable family car. Could the Ampera fill its shoes?
Well, for starters, there’s the drawback that it only has 2 backseats. For some families that ends the debate right there. But Vauxhall chose to sacrifice a third back seat by positioning the battery compartment where it would have been, in order to preserve the maximum possible boot space. That was probably quite a shrewd move, as, together with the absence of range-anxiety, it makes the Ampera a car that can deal with family trips and holidays (for families of 3 or 4 at least).
The driving area is not difficult to figure out. There are 2 colour LCD screens, on the dash and at the top of the centre console. The dashboard screen displays how many miles you have left on battery power and the miles remaining with the petrol generator. The centre screen gives you control of the entertainment system, temperature and so on.
I was pleased to discover that there are 2 horns available to the driver. The first is the usual full volume blast, whilst the second is gentler little ‘toot’, for alerting pedestrians who might be oblivious to your silent approach.
Filling up the Ampera with petrol for its petrol generator is done in the usual way, but what about charging the battery? Well, on the other side of the car to the filler cap is the connection point for the charge cord. Simply push it in, press the button and attach the plug to any standard 240V power supply.
It really is wonderfully simple to recharge your car using an ordinary wall socket, as you would a camera or phone! It takes about 6 hours to reach full charge, so if this were your main car it would simply be a case of plugging it in every night or so. The estimated cost per charge is around, wait for it, £1!
An electric car obviously presents a few unique safety challenges. But, according to Vauxhall, there are about 500 tests constantly running to check the battery is in good condition and at the right temperature. As a result, there’s actually far less chance of the Ampera catching fire than a conventional petrol car.
80% of the Ampera’s body is comprised of high-strength steel, and there are frontal, side, knee and curtain airbags. A handy ‘ISOFIX’ system makes it really easy to attach a child’s seat. The all-round safety record of the Ampera earned it the maximum 5-star EURO NCAP rating.
I think there’s no doubt the Ampera is a big step forward for electric motoring. It’s more than just a token for short trips to the shops! With a spacious interior, large boot, and complete absence of range-anxiety, this ticks all the boxes for a main family car.
Often the most groundbreaking products don’t actually invent something truly new, but make existing technology more applicable to the lives of ordinary people. With the Ampera, I think Vauxhall have just opened the door to realistic and practical electric motoring.
Author: Josh Austin works for County Motor Works, which have been new and used car dealers in Essex since 1907. He is a motoring enthusiast and has had the chance to put the entire current Vauxhall range through its paces.