Vauxhall Ampera: First UK drive review
If 2011 was the year of the Nissan Leaf, Vauxhall must be hoping that 2012 will be the year of the Ampera. The new Vauxhall petrol electric hybrid has got off to a great start sharing the coveted Car of The Year award with sister car the Chevrolet Volt.
On sale now, we headed to Amperaville for an early drive of a UK-specification car, to see how it handles UK roads.
This isn't parent company GM's first attempt at a real-world solution to electric car ownership, as in 1996 there was the ill-fated EV1 programme. Despite positive feedback from owners, GM announced at the time that it believed it could not sell enough of the cars to make the EV1 profitable – so what's changed now?
Well, where the Ampera differs from the Leaf and other electric vehicles, is that its sophisticated drivetrain offers all the benefits of going electric, with none of the anxiety associated about the range.
On top of its Voltec 140bhp electric drive unit, the Vauxhall is also fitted with a range-extending, 74bhp 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. This gives more performance and increases the range to a more useful 310 miles.
There's no doubt that the Ampera looks like no other Vauxhall before it. In our view, it is best described as stylish, modern and more American than European.
The Ampera is probably most interesting to look at from the front, with the obvious highlight being the distinctive boomerang-style headlamps and the modern version of the traditional Vauxhall grille.
Other neat Ampera features from the side include sculpted wing mirrors, distinctive thick black and chrome trim that deceives you into thinking that the Ampera has a much lower window line and the five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels.
We think, that the least successful part of the design has to be the rear. The slim lights might look smart but we don't like the way they're mounted high up by the tailgate.
Current Vauxhall owners will feel at home in the Ampera's interior, as the wraparound dashboard design, multi-function steering wheel and chunky switchgear are similar to those fitted to both the Astra and Insignia. However, key Ampera changes over these mainstream models include the two large TFT displays, the button-heavy centre console and the large gear selector.
Things we're less keen on in the Ampera's interior include the twin rear seats. Probably the result of the electric drivetrain, Vauxhall claim they are a sporty feature but we think it spoils the practicality. Also, whilst there might be plenty of space in the front and a fine driving position, anyone over 6ft tall is going to be uncomfortable in the back. Legroom and especially headroom is tight because of the curvy roofline.
Also, although much better finished than the early cars we drove at the international launch last year, we're not sure Ampera interior quality is a match for sub £30,000 rivals.
Still, the Ampera is well-equipped with the Positiv trim fitted with a DAB radio, 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system and alloy wheels. Whilst the range-topping £33,995 Electron, adds state-of-the-art bespoke Bose Energy Efficient Series sound system, DVD video player, 30GB hard-disc storage and voice control for the navigation, telephone and music systems.
Most importantly, what's the Ampera like to drive you may ask? Well it might have an electric powertrain, but it is very easy to drive. Just press the start button, select drive on the auto box, take the electric handbrake off and away you go in eerie silence.
The Ampera feels satisfyingly quick from standstill too, as all of the 370Nm of torque from the electric motor is accessible from the start. It might weigh a rather portly 1732kg, but this Vauxhall can still get to 60mph in 8.7 seconds and the limited 100mph top speed is believable.
There's a choice of three modes: Normal, Sport and Mountain. We spent most of the time in Normal mode, as according to Vauxhall it provides maximum efficiency in most driving situations. We also tried the Sport mode, where the only noticeable change was that the accelerator pedal is much more responsive and although no quicker, acceleration felt much sharper.
We almost achieved the maximum 50 miles of electric power, on the mixed test route. Then, the Ampera moved almost seamlessly into range extender mode. What basically happens here is that the 1.4-litre petrol engine powers the electric motor. Performance didn't seem to be affected, but there were more vibrations and engine noise as the petrol engine was being worked.
Perhaps the biggest change over the cars we drove at the international launch last year, was the UK-specific ride and handling settings. The Ampera might be fitted with 17-inch wheels, but bumps and potholes are well absorbed. Yes, there is some body roll in corners and you can feel the extra weight, but the grip is good and the steering responsive.
Overall though, if you like the idea of owning an electric car, but are put off by the restrictive range, then the Ampera could be just the car you're after. You'll need deep pockets to buy one sadly, with prices starting at £29,995, but if you can stay on purely electric power there's no doubt savings on fuel will be made.
The electric Vauxhall will be attractive to company car buyers too, with a tax rate much lower than for a conventional petrol model. Plus, despite the complicated electric drive system, the Ampera is still covered by the same 100,000 mile unlimited warranty as the rest of the range, with the battery pack covered by a separate eight-year warranty.