Rating: 5 stars
Range: 50mls EV
Power: 148 + 74bhp
Top Speed: 100 mph
0-60mph: 9 secs
Weight: 1,600 kg
By Will Dron July 18, 2011 5:30 PM
Europe’s first range-extended electric car, offering the best of both worlds – pure electric short journeys and petrol-power back-up for the battery if you need to travel further afield.
For many, the Vauxhall Ampera will offer the best of both worlds - an electric motor (two, in fact, but we'll get to that) powered by a lithium ion battery that gives you 25-50 miles of pure electric motoring (depending on driving conditions), plus a petrol engine that cuts in when the battery reaches a minimum charge level to generate more juice. Starting a journey with a full battery and a full tank of petrol will mean you can go more than 310 miles, depending on conditions, between stops. A top up of the battery or fuel tank and you can keep on rolling.
Emissions from combined driving are exceptionally low – less than 40g/km CO2 – and fuel economy is outstanding at 175mpg (based on preliminary data). Vauxhall reckons 90% of trips will be done on battery power alone - 80% of European journeys being less than 40 miles - which improves these figures further.
TheChargingPoint.com had a drive in a pre-production version of the Ampera in May and we were suitably impressed, but we wanted to try out a full production version before we passing judgment. Our comprehensive road test tells you everything you need to know about this game-changing car.
The Ampera shares a great deal of DNA with parent company General Motors' Chevrolet Volt, which has been on sale in the USA since July last year and goes on sale in the UK at the same time as the Ampera, next Spring. For example, both cars are based on GM’s Delta II chassis platform, which was developed by Opel in Germany, the ECOTEC petrol engine is lifted from a Corsa and the electrical components were also developed collaboratively by European and US engineering brains.
But in fact, the two cars have less in common than you might expect – Vauxhall says the Ampera is very different compared with Volt, with chassis set-up, software, design and trim being unique. As a result, says Vauxhall, the experience will be quite different in each.
Vauxhall is positioning the Ampera on a par with upper mid-size cars, clearly targetting BMW and Volvo drivers. We have our doubts that BMW 3-series owners would go for the Ampera based on design and driving refinement, but on the whole the Ampera looks good, inside and out. It's at least knocking on the door of premium.
The Volt’s nose has been completely reshaped for the Ampera, and we think it’s a superior design. The boomerang headlights give it a strong, confident look without being too overtly aggressive.
The contours of the car have been optimised to reduce drag and thereby improve the car’s economy. The five-spoke wheels include an insert to improve airflow and the rear lip on the hatchback boot is an aerodynamic feature, too. The Ampera is low and wide but the rear has a high stance, accentuated by a neat horizontal taillight arrangement.
The complexity you encounter under the bonnet can be a bit daunting. This car doesn’t have one electric motor, it has two – a primary 148hp motor and a secondary 72hp motor – powered by a 288-cell 16kWh lithium ion battery pack. The 1.4-litre petrol engine is attached to the electric motors. At speeds of less than 60mph the front wheels are driven by the primary motor only; above that and both electric motors engage seamlessly via a planetary gearbox. The petrol engine is used to generate electricity after the battery reaches a minimum level of charge (around 30%).
The question of whether or not the engine ever drives the wheels is a matter of great debate in the EV world. There is one scenario when the petrol engine can also provide some drive torque – in range-extended mode, when driving at high speeds – but even then, Vauxhall says the car is still technically under electric power.
When trying to understand the complexities of the engineering you start to consider one of the real attractions of pure electric cars – simplicity. But despite the mechanical wizardry in the Ampera, Vauxhall says servicing is reduced by 15-20% over a modern internal combustion car because the petrol engine is not used nearly as often.
The Ampera is a five-door hatchback but it doesn’t have five seats – the T-shaped battery installation runs front to rear all the way along the centre of the car, dividing the two rear seats. But let’s be honest, three adults in the back of a car this size is always a tight squeeze, and this arrangement means the two rear occupants get proper, contoured seats with a central armrest and cupholders. Leg- and headroom is decent even for the tall, so the back of the car is not a bad place to spend time.
For the front occupants there’s a good deal of room and tall people will have no trouble here, either – long journeys can be achieve in relaxed comfort. Outward visibility is not bad, although slightly compromised by the thick airbag-equipped A-pillars – a common feature on modern cars.
We had the luxury of leather seats but fabric will be the basic specification. Whichever covering you go for, heated front seats will be standard.
The difference between the prototype we drove and the production model is very clear – the fit and finish of panels is greatly improved. The attention-grabber is the centre console, a flat panel with touch sensitive controls that lend a high-tech feel to the cabin, but we’re still not entirely convinced by the plastic finish.
The boot capacity is 300 litres with the rear seats up, 1005 litres with them down, which is good going considering the space-invading technology packed into the car and plenty big enough for most purposes. The interior is slightly let down by the velcro-fastened cloth spanning the gap between the rear seats – it covers the ski hatch opening to the boot. It looks like an afterthought, and inevitably the carpeting on the inner edges of the rear of the seats will become frayed over time with use of the flap.
The traditional dashboard dials have been replaced with a high res screen that can be tweaked to your own taste, but always displaying speed, battery level and electric driving miles to go, trip distance/odometer and warning lights. You also get a gauge with a green revolving ball that shows when you’re accelerating hard or braking hard – keep it in the middle and you’re driving efficiently. Balancing your ball becomes a bit of a game in the end, but whether you're aim is to be most efficient or least efficient depends on how playful you're feeling. We enjoyed both strategies - driving quickly is fun but inefficient while driving economically is surprisingly satisfying.
The main display at the top of the stack is a geek’s dream. It shows all the usual infotainment and climate control details, but also power flow around the car, energy usage info/tips and charging details. It’s also a touchscreen, and the software is highly intuitive. One very useful feature is the ability to set a charge timer, meaning the car will automatically take advantage of lower electricity rates at night. Another neat feature enables you to programme the car to be at your preferred cabin temperature when you get to it in the morning so that energy isn’t wasted on heating or cooling the interior once you’ve unplugged from the mains.
The screen also displays the climate control details, which can be set according to how eco-minded you are. Even the Bose sound system is specifically designed to reduce energy use – the components are 40% lighter, 30% smaller and 50% more energy efficient. Despite that, it’s still a seriously good audio system with the usual tweeters, woofers and mid-range speakers dotted around. A 60GB hard drive will allow 30GB of music storage alongside the usual iPod and MP3 player compatibility via USB and Bluetooth.
Sat nav was included on our test car but it will be an option when the car hits market, and the reversing camera was very useful given the slightly restricted rearward vision (although the dark area below the rear ‘wing’ is actually tinted glass, through which you can see objects behind) but Vauxhall is unable to confirm if the camera will be standard fit just yet.
And there’s another crucial safety feature that allows pedestrians to hear you coming if you’re in pure EV mode – at speeds lower than about 20mph (above that and they’ll hear tyre noise) you can press a stalk button that emits a chirruping sound. The idea is that it’s a less alarming noise than a typical car horn.
Ampera drivers also benefit from ‘My Ampera’, a dedicated 24-hour hotline, as well as a smartphone app that, amongst other things, will navigate you back to your car if you’ve forgotten where it’s parked.
Max power output from the electric motors is 148hp, which is 5hp more than a BMW 318i ES. The Ampera also has oodles more torque than a 318i – 273ft lbs vs 140ft lbs. However, the extra weight of the Ampera (1732kg or 300kg more than the BMW) evens things out in the acceleration stakes. 0-60mph in the Ampera, whether in pure EV or range extender mode, takes nine seconds vs the 318’s 9.1 seconds. And the BMW has a top speed of 130 mph, 30mph more than the Vauxhall. But the point is, the Ampera is not a slow car. In fact it feels pretty quick – somewhere in the region of a powerful V6 saloon.
There are two selectable driving modes in the Ampera – ‘Normal’, the standard setting, and ‘Sport’, which automatically reconfigures accelerator map to give sharper torque response. When accelerating hard, we did notice a delay while the gearing engaged the secondary motor, which felt akin to turbo lag.
There are two more useful modes for occasional use. ‘Mountain’ increases the minimum level of charge in the battery from 30% to 45% before the petrol engine cuts in, so that the car never struggles with low power (needed for extreme inclines rather than hills). The final mode is even smarter – select ‘Hold’ and the car will switch over from pure electric to extended range before it’s really needed, meaning if you enter a zero emission zone (they’re coming!) later in your journey, you’ve got a reserve of battery power to draw from.
The Ampera’s Astra-based chassis is a pretty good one and copes with the extra weight that comes with the electric drivetrain very well. That extra weight also helps the suspension smooths out larger bumps and ridges on the road – the set up is MacPherson struts at the front and semi-independent at the rear. The car also handles well through corners, with the T-shape battery arrangement keeping the weight low and central in the car.
The electric power steering has dual pinions offering variable turning effort depending on speed. It's pretty well set up, too – not too light, as we found the Nissan LEAF’s steering to be.
The Ampera has been put through 50 crash tests during the design phase to ensure its safety, and while it has not yet been rated by Euro NCAP, the European safety standard, its sister car the Chevrolet Volt has and earned the highest possible rating of five stars.
The passengers are housed within a rigid safety cell with impact-absorbing zones surrounding it. There are eight airbags: driver and front passenger get them in front, at the knees and around the head while there are curtain airbags above both seating rows for side impact/rollover protection and front seat mounted side airbags for thorax and pelvis protection.
The centrally mounted battery pack is also protected by ultra high-strength Martensite rails to prevent the high voltage innards from becoming exposed in an accident. Its casing is also watertight to protect against shocks in flooded conditions. Emergency services can also easily disconnect the battery pack.
RANGE & CHARGING
The Ampera can do 25-50 miles of pure electric motoring – depending on conditions - before the range extending petrol engine cuts in, offering a further 310 miles before you need to fill up again. Obviously, this means the car effectively has unlimited range providing you can find a petrol station to top up the 35-litre fuel tank.
However, with 80% of European journeys being less than 40 miles, Vauxhall expects Ampera owners to be running on pure electric 90% of the time – drive to work, come home and plug in to charge, ready for the next day’s running. A UK domestic 13amp socket will charge the Ampera’s 16kWh battery (via a port always located in the left front wing, regardless of whether the car is left- or right-hand drive) in less than four hours.
The biggest issue here is the Ampera’s very high purchase cost when compared with similarly sized petrol and diesel saloons. There are, though, some significantly mitigating factors.
As an electric car, the Ampera currently benefits from the £5,000 plug in car grant, road tax exemption and a 100% reduction in the London congestion charge. In some areas it will also be exempt from parking charges and company car drivers will be happy to learn that tax on the Ampera is reduced to 5%. The Ampera also comes with Vauxhall’s standard ‘lifetime’/100,000-mile warranty, while the battery has a separate 8-year/100,000-mile warranty.
Combine that with the fact that Vauxhall reckons servicing costs will be 15-20% less than a mid-size petrol/diesel car and that charging will cost between 40p and £1.70, depending on your electricity rate, and the Ampera works out significantly cheaper to run over time than traditional combustion-engine cars.
Vauxhall’s claim that the Ampera will play a big role in establishing electric vehicles in Europe seems a fair point. The Ampera offers all the benefits of a pure electric car without the one thing that holds back the average buyer – the limited range.
The £32,250 price tag includes the UK government Plug-in Car Grant of £5,000 and gets you the medium trim 'Positiv' model, which includes a leather interior, climate control, 7-inch colour touchscreen controller, cruise control, heated front seats and Bluetooth. The fully-specced Electron model is £33,995 (£38,995 excluding PiCG) and adds navigation with voice control (also for telephone and audio systems), a Bose® Energy Efficient Series sound system and 30GB HDD storage with MP3. In June a cheaper base model will be available without leather seats.
But while the prices seem high, we think the Ampera deservedly sits within the premium mid-size segment. It certainly feels like a special machine when you’re behind the wheel and owners will also get the satisfaction of knowing that they’re driving a real game-changer.
Without doubt, the Ampera will give people enough confidence to buy electric. Indeed, some urban owners will realise they never need the petrol engine, at which point they might wonder why they’re lugging around a spare petrol engine and 35 litres of fuel. But for others, especially those one-car households, this one does it all – quickly, efficiently, comfortably and economically.
VAUXHALL AMPERA IN NUMBERS...
Trim level tested: Trim TBC, but high end
Range: 25-50 miles electric plus 310 miles extended
Acceleration: 0-60mph in 9 seconds
Top speed: 100mph
Max power: 148bhp
Torque: 370Nm (273ft.lbs.)
Kerb weight: 1,732kg
Type: Lithium ion
Recharge time: Less than 4 hours at 13 amps/ 240 volts
Thermal control: Yes - liquid
Range extender engine
Type: 1.4 ECOTEC
Power: 84hp at 4,800rpm
Torque: 130Nm (96ft.lbs.) at 4,250rpm