Vauxhall Ampera – an electric car that works on motorwaysMay 23, 2014
It’s week two with our Vauxhall Ampera and we’ve spent much time on motorways, and the Extended-Range Electric Vehicle has proven to be quiet, comfortable and stable.
Unlike most other electric vehicles, the Ampera has a long driving range – up to 50 miles as a pure electric vehicle, then around another 300 miles on its 1.4-litre petrol range-extender engine. This has proven to be the most useful range of any plug-in car.
So journeys such as one that we undertook – from Cheshire to Millbrook Proving Ground near Bedford, and back – are easily achievable in the Ampera, but what’s it like driving 300+ miles on a motorway in an E-REV?
The secret is to try and start all journeys with a fully charged battery. This gives you the option of driving on electric power or petrol power. We’ve done all urban driving in pure EV mode, but as soon as we’re on the motorway, we press the ‘Hold’ button and the car will hold its battery charge and use the petrol generator.
At constant motorway speeds, this works well. You’re not conscious of the petrol engine running most of the time and the Ampera is quiet, refined, comfortable and – something that can’t be said for all EVs – it feels planted and stable on the motorway.
Our M1 and M6 motorway experience, as usual, included delays due to people crashing (Why do so many people crash on straight motorways? Are they aware of the thousands of people they delay? Do we need a motorway driving element in the driving test?). Normally such delays would be a huge source of frustration and stress, however because of the relatively large capacity of the Ampera’s battery (for a plug-in car that’s not a pure EV), we were able to select EV driving mode for all of the motorway traffic jams. Crawling along in virtual silence and with lots of refinement, with no petrol being used, and with no need to use the clutch or change gear, somehow manages to create a sense of calm and wellbeing and is a definite benefit of the car’s powertrain concept.
So motorways aren’t a problem for the Ampera. But we’ve also been driving in the hills. Surely EVs aren’t at home in the countryside? Again, our experience challenges this view. The Ampera has four drive modes. ‘Normal’ means pure EV, if there is sufficient battery charge. ‘Hold’ means ‘hold battery charge for later’ – so the petrol generator is used instead. These are the two modes that you would use most often.
However there’s also a ‘Sport’ mode. To most people, the Ampera doesn’t look like a performance car, but selecting Sport mode when you still have battery charge does give the car rapid responses. In fact if you’re enthusiastic with your right foot, you can genuinely shock people – the combination of rapid acceleration, no noise, and a car that they’re not sure what it is, can result in lots of interest in the Ampera, especially from drivers at the wheel of sporty cars. But Sports mode can also come in useful if ascending mountains, when the car has an instant response, unleashing lots of torque.
One thing you need to watch out for on country roads, as well as urban roads, is the Ampera’s spoiler. There’s a flexible rubber spoiler which sits very low to the ground and you can often hear it crunching on speed bumps.
Just to add a bit of confusion, there’s also a final driving mode: Mountain mode. This is designed to help you maintain full power on long, steep mountain climbs, but we’re talking about the sort of mountains with 30 miles of climbing that you find in America, when you need the engine and the battery to sustain power, so this mode isn’t likely to be used much in the UK. If you do find yourself driving up such mountains in an Ampera, the idea is that you activate Mountain mode 15 minutes before the mountain to ensure the battery has sufficient charge. If you try this, you’ll find that the engine revs increase and the engine will charge the battery. This isn’t as efficient as charging the battery from the mains, so it’s best avoided.
So the Ampera can cope with motorways and the countryside, and if you drive the car as we’ve been driving it, it works really well. But a few notes. Firstly you won’t be getting the NEDC combined 235mpg on the motorway with the petrol generator. We were getting 40-50mpg – which is something you can live with. Of course if you spend your life driving up and down motorways you would obviously be better off with an efficient diesel.
And secondly, if you drive the car with any sporting intentions when using the generator, you’ll experience CVT-like revs from the engine.
While we’re on about how the Ampera drives, the brakes also take a bit of getting used to. If the car in front of you brakes, and you brake as you would do in most cars, you’ll probably find that you’ll need to give the brakes extra pressure towards the end. This is due to the regenerative braking system not having the same feel as conventional brakes.
With all our time on motorways, we’re now displaying an average of 76mpg. This may be down from 105mpg after week one, but 76mpg is still a good result.
All this also meant that we had to pull into a garage to purchase some old-fashioned petrol. This in turn meant that we spent a lot of time searching for a mechanism to release the petrol filler flap. From the driver’s seat, this button is certainly not in an easy-to-see place; it’s as though Vauxhall doesn’t want you to use petrol…
VAUXHALL AMPERA SPECIFICATIONS
Model/Engine size: Vauxhall Ampera Electron
Fuel: Petrol-Electric Hybrid
Fuel economy combined: 235.4 mpg* see text
Electricity consumption: 130 – 260 Wh/km (25 – 50 mile range)
Battery pack: 16 kWh (10.4 kWh usable) lithium-ion
Recharge time: 240v, 6 hours or 4 hours with 16 Amps home charger
Fuel economy, extra urban: 217.3 mpg
Fuel economy, urban: 313.9 mpg
CO2 emissions: 27 g/km
Green rating: VED band A
Weight: 1689 Kg
Company car tax liability: 5%
Price: £30,495 (including £5,000 Government grant)
Insurance group: 21 E
Power: 152 bhp
Max speed: 100 mph
0-62mph: 8.7 seconds
Euro 6: No