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Vauxhall Ampera review (2012 onwards)
What - Vauxhall Ampera
Where - The Netherlands
Date - July 2011
Price - £28,950 after £5,000 government grant
Available - April 2012
Key rivals - Nissan LEAF, Toyota Prius, VW Golf BlueMotion, Honda Insight
Summary - Intelligent electric car from Vauxhall that's easy to live with and won't leave you stranded.
We like - Electric mode driveability, no range anxiety, contemporary design
We don't like - It's expensive for the size, only four seats, some concerns about driving long distances with the low power petrol engine.
Where to start? This electric car from Vauxhall is another twist on alternative power for the family car. It combines batteries with a petrol engine to give an unlimited range, with none of the anxious moments you might get with a pure electric car like the Nissan Leaf.
So it's just like a Prius hybrid then? Actually, not at all. The Ampera gets recharged at home, the office, even from charging points in the street. The four-hour charge gives a range of up to 50 miles.
Locomotion is then exclusively electric until the battery is exhausted and the petrol engine takes over. In the Prius electric and petrol power work together. Also, unlike the Prius, the Ampera's petrol engine (almost) never drives the wheels directly.
Instead, the engine powers a generator which then provides the electricity to the motor - which drives the wheels. With me so far?
The point of all this is that the Ampera might spend 80%-90% of its life running as a pure electric car, but if you need to go distances the engine is there to provide you with a 300-mile range before the next visit to a petrol station.
Thus the Vauxhall gets around the issue that clouds fully electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV - what happens when the battery goes flat? (The Nissan and Mitsubishi have to be recovered, that's what.)
The Ampera is a Europeanised version of the American Chevrolet Volt, mechanically the same but with a fresh body style that we consider dramatic and attractive.
It's expensive for a car that falls in size some way between an Astra and Insignia, starting at £28,995 when it goes on sale in April 2012, and that's after a £5,000 government grant.
Look at it another way, though, and there's always a premium buying into brand new technology. There are financial advantages too. Zero road tax and London congestion charge to start with.
Then there are the running costs. On battery power these are perhaps less than half those of a petrol car, though of course that advantage disappears once the battery has been used up. Finally there is a 50% discount on benefit-in-kind company car taxation.
Vauxhall backs up its electric car with an eight-year guarantee on the battery, with the rest covered by the same 'lifetime warranty' it offers on all its cars.
"Punchy" best describes the Ampera in battery mode. It accelerates with real enthusiasm from rest and is as good as anything in urban situations.
On open roads and motorways the Ampera's performance is just fine too, maintaining normal cruising speeds with the traffic and still gaining speed when you need it at the touch of the accelerator.
There are a number of modes available. 'Normal' is the default option. 'Sport' alters the sensitivity of the accelerator pedal. 'Hold' switches to petrol power so you have some electric charge left for later.
Intriguingly 'Mountain' needs selecting 15 minutes before you get to very steep roads, because time is needed to add some additional charge in order to give extra oomph.
And despite the overall picture of drive always being electric, at times of high speed demand, the petrol engine does drive the wheels through a convoluted gear process.
When the battery is flat there's a seamless switchover to the petrol engine. It's noisier than on electric power alone, but not intrusively, and on the level roads in the Netherlands, it did the job.
Ride and handling
The combined weight of the Ampera's battery pack, motor and generator is high, 300kg more than a base Insignia, though that helps it ride smoothly in the city and on open roads.
It's hard to imagine buyers of electric cars - Tesla excepted - wanting to exploit the handling envelope, but the Vauxhall does the business well enough, in a family car sort of way.
Inside the electric Vauxhall is as futuristic as the exterior. The key displays are two seven-inch screens, while all the 'buttons' on the centre console are actually touch-sensitive switches.
The main graphic display behind the wheel comprises speed, driving efficiency, battery state of charge, electric driving range, fuel level and extended driving range, and trip information.
The second display in the centre of the fascia can be switched between navigation, sound system, climate control and displays that relate to the power consumption. It all looks sufficiently futuristic.
On to more everyday aspects. The Ampera has batteries running up the centre of the car with the result that it is only a four seater. With the leather option the seats provide great all-round support and comfort.
Space in the rear is fair, on a par with an Astra hatch, though the coupe-esque roofline results in cushions that are set too low for adequate under-thigh support. OK for shorter trips, but probably inadequate for several hours.
More space is taken by control gear under the boot floor, so the luggage area is shallow with just a flimsy piece of netting to keep out prying eyes. The backrests fold forward to extend the space.
Economy and safety
Plug the Ampera into the domestic mains supply and it will cost roughly £1 for a full charge, enough for 40 miles in our experience, perhaps more if you are careful.
Compare that with a price of a gallon of diesel and the Ampera's fuel costs are slashed. But when the battery is depleted the 1.4-litre petrol engine cuts in automatically and from then the equation won't look nearly so attractive.
Remember, the petrol engine won't recharge the battery, like it does in a Prius. On the other hand, you can only drive a mile in a Prius on battery power alone. Even the forthcoming plug-in Prius has a range of just a dozen miles.
There are no independent crash test results as yet, but the Ampera is filled with airbags, and we suspect it will turn in a good result.
The MSN Cars verdict
It's too early to give a definitive verdict on the Ampera. We'd need to live with one for at least a week and 500 miles, and at this stage that just isn't possible.
However, we are impressed so far. The Ampera looks highly distinctive, it drives well, and you won't get stuck when the battery goes flat. The warranty makes it a safe bet for early adopters.
|Need to know|
|Electric motor||150hp + 16kWh lithium ion battery|
|Engine petrol||1.4-litre 75hp 4-cylinder|
|Power hp||150 electric, 86 petrol|
|Torque lb ft||273|
|Top speed mph||100|
|Ride & handling||****|
|MSN Cars verdict||****|
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