We’ve driven the Vauxhall Ampera on the European launch and on the UK launch, but we wanted to see what it’s like to live with this Extended-Range Electric Vehicle (E-REV).
Revolutionary Extended-Range Electric Vehicle
235.4mpg according to official figures
Extremely refined driving experience
Expensive for a four-seat hatchback
Centre console and switchgear needs a rethink
Need to have a specific driving pattern to ensure maximum efficiency is gained
For many years General Motors was producing cars that it thought the American motorist wanted. These vehicles were generally not particularly fuel-efficient , whereas the Japanese, and increasingly the Europeans, were manufacturing cars that were making real progress in all areas, including with the lowering of emissions. GM ended up disappearing into a financial black hole, and if it was to rise from the ashes successfully it had to produce a vehicle that was a leap ahead in terms of environmental impact. That vehicle was the Chevrolet Volt, or the Vauxhall Ampera – an
Extended-Range Electric Vehicle (E-REV)
Extended-Range Electric Vehicle means that the Ampera is an electric vehicle at all times , with an on-board petrol engine that acts as a generator to provide power to the electric motor if the battery becomes depleted. You plug the car into the mains to recharge its battery, for up to six hours . That will give you an electric, zero-tailpipe emission range of around 25-50 miles. When that range has been reached and the battery is depleted you can either recharge the battery, or carry on driving and the car will switch to its petrol generator, which will provide power to the electric motor, which will in turn power the wheels. The Ampera has an official range of around 300 miles on its petrol generator.
The Ampera is not a hybrid – in fact it works in the opposite way to a hybrid. Whereas a hybrid has a petrol or diesel engine as its primary power source, with a battery providing an additional power source, an E-REV has a battery and electric motor as its main power source, with back up from a petrol generator.
The petrol generator in the Ampera doesn’t charge the battery because that isn’t as efficient as charging the battery from an electricity supply. The engine is straight off the GM shelves – it’s a 1.4-litre petrol engine from an Astra. You may think that a diesel engine would result in even lower CO2 emissions, but petrol has been chosen over diesel as it means a lighter – and cheaper – engine.
The Ampera has a modern exterior design, and the interior is also somewhat different from a conventional car. One of its unique features is its ‘one-piece’ centre console with ‘touch-sensitive icons’ to activate controls, rather than having traditional buttons and switches that you press. After a week of living with the Ampera, this centre console was the least-liked element of the entire car. Creating a dashboard that is innovative for an innovative car is one thing, but creating a dashboard that just does not work as well as conventional switches is another thing altogether.
There were a number of issues with the dashboard controls. Firstly, all the icons are grouped together in the same area, and the text for them all looks very similar. But the main issue is that there is absolutely no form of click, either tactile or audible, or any other form of acknowledgement, to confirm that you have pressed the correct area. Also, you need to exert more pressure than you would imagine. You even have to touch such controls to change the temperature – one touch per increment of temperature – which is a pain.
There’s more. The tune/menu and volume controls look very similar, and some climate controls are on the dash and some are on the touchscreen, such as the direction of the heating and ventilation. Another issue is that the drive mode button is positioned right next to the power on/off button, and they both look similar, so it’s easy to switch the car off by mistake when driving along. Luckily the car won’t allow this to happen, but it would be much better if the two buttons weren’t next to each other in the first place. There are also no graphics on the gear lever to show what gear you’re in. This does appear in the instrumnet display, but it’s not as intuitive as looking at the gear selector.
It took a long time to work out how to connect a phone to the car, before eventually realising that ‘Config’ was the area to press. Another problem is that you can’t enter a postcode on the satnav.
All of these experiences with the design of the centre console and its switchgear can get very wearing after a while.
Another issue to be aware of is that the Ampera is a strict four-seater, because there is a large T-shaped battery which sits in the middle of the car and under the rear seats. However you can fold the rear seats flat to create a large load area, making the Ampera reasonably practical. A final strange thing is the luggage cover over the boot. All cars that we have ever driven have some form of substantial ‘parcel shelf’ to cover items in the boot. However the Ampera has an extremely flimsy tent-like canvas cover that you stretch out over the boot, and we can’t think of any reason for such an insubstantial item.
One more thing – there’s also no rear window wiper; it could do with one.
It sounds like a lot of complaints about issues such as the central console switchgear, but the good news is that in the big picture such things are quickly overshadowed by the Ampera’s driving experience, which is incredibly refined. This is especially the case when driving on electric power , but there’s not much difference when driving on the petrol generator. The only variation that you’ll notice is the rise and fall of the engine’s revs – but because the engine doesn’t drive the wheels, the change in the revs will bear no direct relation to the demands that you’re putting on the accelerator.
The Ampera has four different drive modes: Electric, Sport, Mountain and Hold. Electric is the default mode that the car will start up in. Sport mode provides improved response, and the car feels genuinely rapid in this setting. Mountain mode is designed for long approaches up high mountains – something that is more appropriate in America than in the UK. Hold mode enables you to hold the car in petrol mode, to save the battery for use in a built up area that you may be approaching. And – here’s another issue with the controls – you have to press a button and hold it to scroll through these different modes – again, not an ideal solution.
Because it’s an electric car, 100% torque is available all the time, which results in strong and linear acceleration. For a heavy car, the Ampera has good handling, along with decent ride comfort. It also has surprisingly responsive steering. Be aware that the flexible spoiler underneath the car is very low and regularly crashes on speed bumps.
Ampera owners need to get in the habit of recharging the car every night – and of course you need off street parking and a sufficiently close plug socket in order to be able to do that. The official advice is that you should have a dedicated recharging point installed in your house if you buy an electric car. There is likely to be a cost associated with this, which could be up to £1000 – but there are various schemes that may assist in getting this cost reduced. The danger is that you could overload your electricity circuit if you also have other electrical items on the same circuit which demand lots of power. At the minimum, your electrics should be checked by a qualified electrician.
The Ampera has an official economy figure of 235.4mpg – which equates to emissions of just 27g/km CO2. This sounds too good to be true, and it probably is. This is based on the official NEDC fuel economy test, which is conducted over a short distance and at low load, and doesn’t really work for E-REVs. The Ampera will primarily be operating on electric power rather than using its petrol generator – hence the incredible miles per gallon figure. If all your driving is similar to the NEDC test cycle, then you may enjoy 200mpg+ fuel economy. In other words, if you drive the Ampera on electric power all the time then you will get the best efficiency out of the car – and it will cost you around £1 to recharge it every night, providing a driving range of up to 50 miles. This is around one-sixth of the cost of a petrol or diesel car.
But if you never need to drive more than 50 miles then you’re best getting a pure electric vehicle such as a Nissan LEAF – without the added complexity, weight and cost of an additional petrol engine. The Ampera is designed for people who commute into a city and back again at night on electric power, so no more than 35 or so miles, but for people who also occasionally need a longer range – such as visiting family around the UK at weekends. Because of the range-extender, the Ampera can do this without any range anxiety.
After a week and 711 miles in the Ampera, much of it on motorways, we averaged 57.7mpg – which is impressive for such a highly refined car with good performance. On average the car had an electric range of between 35 and 37 miles after recharging.
If you drive the Ampera on its petrol generator, you can expect somewhere between 40-50mpg.
There are now three Ampera models – the Earth, £34,995; the Positiv £37,250; and the Electron, £38,995. Earth trim comes with alloys, cruise control and a DAB radio. Mid-spec Positiv trim gets heated leather seats and parking sensors. Electron versions have satnav. All three are eligible for the £5,000 government ‘Plug-in Car Grant’ grant. Even after this, the Electron version still costs £33,995 – which is a lot of money for a four-seat hatchback. In comparison, Astra pricing starts at £12,995. Of course the whole point is that the Ampera should be very cheap to run if mainly powered by electricity, when it will also have no tailpipe emissions – which is ideal for driving in urban areas.
There’s much talk about how long the battery will last. Vauxhall provides an 8-year/100,000 mile warranty for the electric system.
Our week with the Ampera may give the impression that the Ampera has a few areas of weakness, primarily surrounding the centre console and its touch-sensitive icons, and this is true. It’s also very expensive to buy. However despite all this it is truly a landmark car, offering the ability to drive on electric power, without any range anxiety, and the overall driving experience is extremely refined. The good points certainly outweigh the small niggles and the Vauxhall Ampera is therefore awarded a Green Car Guide rating of 10 out of 10.