The Vauxhall Ampera – also known as the Opel Ampera and best known as the Chevrolet Volt – is, according to one General Motors insider, ‘the most important car the company has ever built’. So our first chance to drive it is a significant event, even if it is just a test mule with the Ampera’s powertrain fitted to a Chevrolet Cruze.
Why is the Vauxhall/Opel Ampera so significant?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ll be aware that GM has been having a few financial difficulties. Building innovative, smaller and cleaner cars like the Volt is central to its recovery plan and the continued support of the Obama administration, now its biggest shareholder.
In Europe, the same technology is central to persuading someone else to take on GM’s loss-making European brands Opel and Vauxhall, though this week GM signalled that it may not need or want to sell after all; it would certainly rather keep the technology underpinning this car to itself.
Oh yes, the car…
The technology is as significant as the politics it’s caught up in. Again, unless you’ve been under that rock you should know how it works by now. But if not, the Ampera-Volt promises to be the world’s first extended-range electric vehicle (E-REV) when it goes on sale in the US late next year, in Europe in left-hand drive in late 2011 and in the UK as a right-hand drive Vauxhall in early 2012.
It’s always driven by its 150bhp electric motor, and can run electrically for up to 40 miles once its 16kWh lithium-ion battery has had a full three-hour charge. After that, a 1.4-litre petrol engine cuts in purely to charge the battery, operating at constant revs and allowing the Ampera to drive on for up to 300 miles before its 15-litre tank needs filled. GM reckons that 80% of European drivers do less than 50 miles each day, meaning that most days they’ll drive purely on tailpipe-emissions-free electric power at around a fifth the cost of petrol.
So how does it drive?
Very well for such an early mule. The powertrain is the important bit, and it’s close to finished. There’s no complex start-up procedure: just press the start button, select ‘D’, and go. Even by the standards of other electric cars the Ampera is very refined; the gentle whine and whirr you get from the electric motor and power control module in some others is already largely absent here.
It doesn’t yet feel as quick as the claimed 9.0sec 0-60mph time, but it does the by-now familiar (to motoring journalists, anyway) electric car trick of pulling strongly, silently and seamlessly from standstill. It felt completely within its abilities at the UK motorway limit, with more acceleration readily available; the top speed is limited to 100mph.
>> click next to read the verdict on the Opel Ampera
So the Ampera is no Tesla Roadster…
No, but it will easily keep pace with a conventionally powered hatch. As our test car was a mule its handling is irrelevant, but you can feel the impact of the 180kg of battery; both holding back the acceleration but also, mounted low and centrally in the car, keeping the Ampera level under cornering and heavy braking. The latter is regenerative but doesn’t slow the car noticeably as soon as you lift off the ‘gas’, as it does in some other EVs, and there’s unusually good pedal feel.
Downsides of the Vauxhall Ampera?
GM’s engineers wouldn’t let us drive the car until the battery ran low, so we don’t yet know what it’s like to drive with a petrol engine droning away at exactly the same pitch regardless of what your right foot is doing; the same GM engineers admit that it might take a little getting used to.
And then there’s the Ampera’s lofty price; despite early, hopeful and very unofficial speculation that it could be in the low twenties, GM would now prefer you to expect it to start in the mid-thirties unless you lease the battery separately, an option it is still considering and which might get the sticker price down to that original target.
For such an early test car, the Vauxhall Ampera is impressively engineered. The production car is still two years away; we don’t doubt that it will be great to drive. But who will be building it, and how many of us can afford to buy it are issues that have yet to be resolved.