Cars ampera review test drive

Published on June 25th, 2012 | by Guest Contributor


The Vauxhall Ampera — Experienced By A Doubter

June 25th, 2012 by  

ampera review test drive electric vehicleThe 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.

On 100% electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf or Mitsubishi i, I’d still like a bit more range, or a lot more fast-charging stations, before going for one of them.

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:

Looks Matter!

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!

Safety Points

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.

Image: Ampera at Geneva Motor Show via Gustavo Fadel /

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  • You guys…..geez….read it again……the 1.4 engine doesn’t runs the wheels…….it’s a generator. It says the electric motors ALWAYS drive the car…(“so at all times, the motors power the wheels”)….so, you have the regen brakes always active when the batteries aren’t fullly charged…..they top the battery off continuously, and the same for the 1.4….it’s function is to keep the battery charged.
    I’m a scientist in the renewable energy sector, so I am qualified to say, that all these electric cars are designed backwards….,just like most all renewable energy devices…….my company is just now patenting 4 new technologies, which are a giant step forward in renewable power generation……look for us….Advanced Consulting & Scientific

    • Bob_Wallace

      “The Volt’s 149-horse electric motor spins the sun gear. When starting off, the ring is locked to the case and power flows to the wheels through the planet carrier, providing more mechanical advantage than the Prius’ 80-horse electric motor gets driving the wheels directly. At about 70 mph, the Chevy’s motor is starting to spin too fast to be efficient, so the ring gear unlocks from the case and locks to the smaller motor/generator. Now both e-motors spin, propelling the Volt to 101 mph turning at reasonable rpm in electric mode. The Prius’ gas engine must start turning when vehicle speed exceeds 62 mph.
      Once the Volt’s battery is depleted, the engine fires up and clutches to the generator to produce the power required to drive the car. Above 70 mph, when the generator couples to the ring gear, the engine gets a more efficient direct mechanical connection to the wheels. In defense of Chevy’s earlier stance, the only way this gas engine (or the Prius’) could ever drive the wheels without lots of help from the battery is if you somehow MacGyvered up a way to jam the sun gear to a stop.”
      Read more:

  • Great job!  However, unless the Ampera is different from the Chevrolet Volt, which I don’t believe it is, the gas engine also powers the wheels when needed making the whole Extended Range Electric Vehicle bit far fetched.  It’s a great plug-in hybrid.

  • Ross

    Vauxhaul/Opel Ampera has nicer styling than the Chevy Volt which is the same car.

    Is it possible to fully recharge the battery using the built in petrol engine if there isn’t a charging point nearby? I know that’s mad from a cost perspective.  Is it really any old 240volt outlet, do the local power distribution utility not want to certify it because of the load? 

    •  I don’t think the Volt/Ampera actually charges the battery with the ICE — they supply electricity to the electric motor and/or power the wheels directly with the ICE; but they do not charge the battery.

      Which is a poor design decision, in my opinion.


      • Bob_Wallace

        There would be a power loss from driving a generator -> charging batteries -> powering the electric motor.

        Possibly less loss to go directly to the power train from the ICE.

        • Ross

          Assuming that in extended range mode the petrol/gas engine is driving all the cars electrics it would be unnecessary for it to do an inefficient recharging of the battery. 

          Presumably regenerative braking does still work and charge the battery.

        •  Hi Bob,

          The ideal serial (aka series) hybrid has several advantages that I think make them much more efficient than a multi-mode hybrid; or even a pure parallel hybrid:

          The engine required is much smaller because it only needs to charge the battery a little faster than the average consumption rate.  (Any engine that has to be able to drive the entire vehicle all by itself must meet the peak rate.)  So the serial hybrid engine weighs a lot less, it has no multi-gear transmission, and has correspondingly smaller and lighter fuel and cooling systems, too.

          The serial hybrid’s engine only runs part of the time, so no fuel wasted for idling, and the cooling system can be closed up when it is not needed, which greatly improves the aerodynamics of the vehicle.  By using the battery as a buffer, the engine can be run as little as 1 hour out of 3.

          The smaller engine warms up quickly, and most importantly — it can be fully optimized to run at a fixed RPM because it can drive a fixed load; the generator.  This eliminates the need for variable valves and the intake and exhaust systems can be finely tuned to always be running at the peak efficiency.

          So, a serial hybrid has a much smaller displacement engine (500cc-1L) that is purpose made for a fixed RPM at it’s peak efficiency.  This is ideal conditions for any ICE.  It weighs much less, and it can run in electric mode much of the time, so the aero drag can be optimized as well.

          A pure parallel hybrid also has some of these advantages, but the engine must be bigger than a serial hybrid because it has to move the vehicle in less than ideal conditions (say up hills) and over a range of speeds, so the RPM must vary and it may require a couple of gears.  Also, it cannot charge the battery, so you would often be left without a charge for the end of a long trip, and would have to limp along on the undersized engine at low speeds.

          A multi-mode hybrid has more complexity than any other drivetrain — read: has much more weight, and none of the modes are fully optimized.  More often than not, both the electric and the ICE have to be used together, hence the uber-complex CVT transmissions in both the Volt/Ampera and the Prius.


    • Gaz

      Why would you want to charge the batteries from the ICE

    • Yeah, much prefer the look of the Ampera.

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