Beast has two hearts
Posted on: 17th Oct 2012
Sleek and stylish, the Vauxhall Ampera is fundamentally a very modern car.
It’s the kind of vehicle that almost defies description and certainly defies pigeon-holing.
Basically, this is an electric car with a range-extending petrol generator on board. But it’s more than that because there are so many intelligent touches and defining moments packed into it that it is quite a joy to drive.
It’s true to say that the public has struggled somewhat to embrace electric cars. Partly, and conversely, that’s because of the high price of petrol and diesel. Manufacturers have, now that they’re seriously under the cosh, become amazingly adaptable at wringing efficiencies out of the good old internal combustion engine.
With cars starting to hit the 100mpg mark, there’s less of an incentive to switch to electric. In part this is because of the high price of electric cars (although a £13,000 hatch is due out next year).
But Vauxhall think they have the answer – because the Ampera is basically two cars in one, an electric one and a petrol one. Sounds strange? Not really. More like a good idea.
Underneath that very modern interior, then, sits a beast with two beating hearts. There’s a big 16kWh lithium-ion battery pack that runs the length of the car’s middle that powers one of two electric motors. And there’s that 86bhp 1.4 litre EcoTec petrol engine under the bonnet as well.
The engine is charged from a mains supply – somewhere three and five hours should do it, although rapid chargers are on the way. You’ll need a garage or access to secure off street parking.
The battery will last up to 50 miles or so, which Vauxhall says is more than what the average driver does on a normal weekday.
For drivers like me who live a bit out of town, it’s more of a concern. I do about 36 miles a day driving to and from work – so an extra journey or two could easily put me past the battery range.
This isn’t a problem for the Ampera because the petrol generator kicks in when the battery runs out. So you won’t get left abandoned halfway up the M2 because the battery has gone flat. The good news this switchover happens seamlessly; so much so that you don’t really notice. Since the petrol generator charges up the other battery, there are no engine revs to notice and you still feel like you’re driving an electric car.
OK, so what’s all this kit and caboodle like to actually drive? Here’s the other pleasant surprise; for the Ampera drives very well indeed.
That low-slung heavy battery gives a low centre of gravity and the car grips well going into corners. Acceleration is excellent, yielding 0-60 in 8.5 seconds (it feels faster, though, because of the strong torque of the electric motor and the seamless gear-free acceleration). All this is despite a kerb weight of 1785kg, which is quite heavy.
The weight isn’t surprising given the car’s solidity – it’s well finished and build quality is very good.
Design and build
This sense of solidity gives the Ampera the feel of a quality product. High quality materials are used inside the cabin to excellent effect. The dash is dominated by a large touch-sensitive centrepiece that you’ll either take to like I did, or find a bit daunting.
The instrument panel is full of modern touches and the centre console screen can throw up computer-generated charts showing power flows within the engine and from the regenerative braking and so on. The styling is sleek and bold, rather than aggressive. There’s a sweeping and characterful front end, featuring black cut-outs housing LED daytime running lights and fancy halogen headlamps.
The car is very practical, featuring lots of storage space, a reasonable boot with foldable rear seats to add extra space.
Less positive is the fact that the Ampera is a strict four-seater because the middle-mounted battery runs between the two rear seats.
Model and ownership costs
There are three trim levels – Earth, Positiv and Electron - offered with an entry level price from £29,995 (including government eco grant). There’s a very rich kit list available including a 60GB hard drive. A very fancy infotainment kit will keep you, well, informed and entertained.
It’s hard to exactly calculate efficiency costs. That electric charge will cost about £1, which, for some 40-50 miles is very good value. The 30 litre petrol tank adds 311 more miles to the range, and with it included efficiency has been calculated to be as much as 175 miles per gallon.
There is no vehicle excise duty.
All in all, the Ampera is an impressive car. Revolutionary even. You won’t suffer the acute range anxiety of true electric cars and it won’t leave you stuck in the rain on a chilly night on the Newry bypass because it’s run out of electric charge.
It delivers style and driving ability in one eco-friendly package, too. It’s solid, well built, packed with kit and should be welcomed by anyone with an open mind.
The Ampera is not without its drawbacks, it’s true, but this is a young technology and in a couple of years, with rapid charging, longer range and a full five seats, it will start to win over even the flintiest of eco-sceptics.