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Vauxhall Ampera electric pre-prototype driven

Vauxhall Ampera electric pre-prototype driven

For their low carbon vehicle solutions, some manufacturers are betting on hybrids, some on plug-in hybrids, others on electric, others still on hydrogen; Vauxhall instead thinks the future comes in the form of an electric car with unlimited range.

In the UK, this will be in the form of the Vauxhall Ampera, and we’ve driven the pre-prototype car with the Ampera’s drivetrain, but clothed in a Chevrolet Cruze body.

It’s an idea that certainly makes sense. The car is driven by an electric motor at all times. When the motor is powered by the battery, this will give a range of around 40 miles. If you can recharge the battery, which can be fully charged in three hours by plugging into a standard household 220V socket, (or 8 hours at 110V), and at one-fifth of the cost of petrol, you can continue driving on electric power. If you want to drive more than 40 miles, and aren’t able to recharge the car, you simply put in petrol and you can drive as far as you want – it’s got a range of more than 300 miles on one tank of petrol before you need to refuel.

This is what the actual Ampera will look like

The petrol is used to fuel the on-board generator – a 1.4-litre petrol engine as found in the Astra – and the generator powers the electric motor. So even when running on petrol, you’re not being powered by a petrol engine. The petrol generator runs at a constant engine speed, and replaces the role of the battery. The generator doesn’t recharge the battery when the battery is low because it’s more efficient to do this using electricity.

The petrol engine starts by itself when the battery runs low. And Vauxhall is absolutely committed to ensuring that the battery will never run lower than 30% charge, or higher than 80% charge, as depleting the battery charge to zero has a seriously adverse affect on battery life. It will only ever use 50% of the installed capacity, by oversizing the battery by a factor of two, in order to achieve a battery life of ten years, or 240,000 km.

So you get the best of both worlds – a zero-emission electric car for distances of less than 40 miles, plus an infinite range if you want to go further – as long as you’re prepared to fill up with fossil fuel. However the car is also being engineered to run on E85 bioethanol, which, if produced sustainably, can theoretically be carbon neutral.

The Ampera will be an Astra-sized hatchback, with four seats (the battery, positioned in a T-shape under the car, makes it difficult to seat five). So Vauxhall has a very good case to claim that this is one of the best solutions to the challenge of producing cars that can be zero-emission, whilst not having the anxiety that comes with a very limited range.

Why has Vauxhall used a petrol engine and not a diesel, when a diesel should be able to offer even lower CO2 emissions? The company claims that as the petrol engine constantly operates at its most efficient operating speed, the difference between the efficiency of a petrol and diesel in this situation is negligible. But a diesel is more expensive, especially when made to comply with forthcoming Euro emissions legislation. It’s also heavier. And as the Ampera’s battery is very heavy, at 180kg, the last thing you want to do is add yet more weight.

So why do we believe the Ampera may be one of the best green car solutions? An electric car has a very limited range. And a hybrid is still primarily powered by a fossil-fuel engine. Forthcoming plug-in hybrids will be able to travel further on electric power alone, but they will still ultimately have to rely on power from a petrol or diesel engine as their primary source of power.

Whereas the Ampera is essentially an electric car, but with an extended range – hence why it’s called an E-REV – an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle. Under the current European Test Cycle the emissions are forecast to average out at less than 40g/km CO2. Even if driven using petrol power, the emissions are expected to be considerably less than an equivalent conventional petrol car, due to the efficiencies of the electric motor. A petrol engine has an average efficiency rate of 18%, whereas the E-REV has an efficiency rate of 30%.

We drove a pre-production prototype with the Ampera’s technology under the skin. And we’re pleased to report that it drives very well. Acceleration is adequate, rather than class-leading amongst electric cars. The brakes feel as though they need a bit more work, but the rest of the car – chassis, steering, suspension – all feels relatively close to production car standards, even though Vauxhall is still working on all these items.

So why has the Ampera only got a range of 40 miles on electric power? Surely the battery technology exists to provide a larger range? Yes, but batteries are all about compromises. You can have more range, but that means more price – double the capacity roughly equates to double the price. Currently the cost of battery capacity is around $600 per kWh. This equates to $9600 for the cost of the 16 kWh battery in the Ampera.

Vauxhall claims that it has done its research and a 40 mile range is enough for the majority of people. If it gave the Ampera a larger range then the price would become uncompetitive for a car in this class.

So surely there are downsides? Well, as with any forthcoming new, low emission green technology, it will be expensive. Vauxhall says that no prices have yet been decided. However you can certainly expect it to be more expensive than the Astra.

When will it be here? The Ampera is Vauxhall’s version of the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt will be available in the US in 2011. The Opel version of the Ampera will be available towards the end of 2011 in left-hand drive form in Europe. In the UK we’ll have to wait until the beginning of 2012 to get the Ampera in right-hand drive form.

That’s around two years away. Having driven the underpinnings of the car, which feels as though it’s getting close to being production-ready, it would be nice to think that Vauxhall could rush the Ampera out in about a year’s time. However the process of bringing such an innovative new car to market takes time, and it will be 2010 before decisions are made about production of the car for the UK.

Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant, which won the contract to build the new Astra due to its efficiency record, will be hoping it can also secure the building of the Ampera. You’ll then be able to buy an excellent green car concept – made in Britain. Which will be a great example of the much talked-about aim of the UK leading the way with the production of low emission and ultra-low emission vehicles.