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22.12.2009 Vauxhall Ampera preview

Vauxhall Ampera preview

Vauxhall bosses aren't exaggerating, or even showing off, when they say they believe their extended range electric car, the five-door, four-seater Ampera, could remove the car from the environmental debate for many motorists.

While the series-hybrid Ampera won’t be available until 2012 (pictured left), Russell Bray test-drives a Chevrolet Cruze 'mule' (pictured below) on which all the main drive components of the Ampera are being developed.

First the science: Although closer to an electric car than a standard ‘parallel’ hybrid (like the Prius), the Ampera also has a 1.4 litre petrol engine which powers the electric motor via a generator to give a total range of 300 miles. "To achieve long range purely with batteries is too expensive and you would need a trailer behind the car carrying the batteries," says Gherado Corsini, the enthusiastic director of Electrical Vehicle Implementation for General Motors, parent of Vauxhall and Opel.

The secret to the Ampera’s possible success is the delicate balance between 16kWh battery capacity, 111kW (150bhp) electric motor and the petrol engine. As explained by Corsini: "sure, adding a petrol engine does add cost but it also adds range." But, he continues, "even if the price of batteries, such as the lithium ion ones in the Ampera, come down in price by 50% they will still not compete on cost with using electric and petrol power separately."

Despite the gains in usability offered by the ‘range extender’ petrol engine, Corsini is at pains to point out the advantages of using electricity to fuel the car: "It doesn't make sense to use expensive petrol, or diesel, to recharge the battery." He says, "It costs five to six times more than charging from the mains when you get home." The battery recharges in the same way as the one in a mobile phone (over 2-3 hours) with a full charge costing 80p. At current electricity prices, that means motorists could commute to work for a year for under £200

Vauxhall Ampera preview The battery pack, about four times bigger than that in a standard hybrid, is made by Korean company LG and designed to last at least ten years. It is likely to be on some kind of leasing deal. According to Corsini the battery operates most effectively at between 30% and 80% of capacity. To charge fully is a waste of time, "almost to infinity; it takes too long," he says. GM engineers are working on a system where you could decide when to use the electric power, a sort of "hold charge" button. That way you could use petrol to drive the electric motor if you lived in the country and switch to electric power when you arrived in town.

So much for the theory, the big question is what are they like to drive? The answer is remarkably briskly with instant power as electric motors have torque immediately. From rest to 60mph feels about nine seconds or so. There are no gears to change because there is no gearbox, a useful weight saving, so if you want to go quicker you just make the electric motor turn faster. Easing off the accelerator there is gentle deceleration and it takes quite a push on the brakes to slow the car down for junctions. It has been set up to creep forward like a car with an automatic gearbox.

Unfortunately it was a short drive so I can't say what happens when you start to run low on electric power and ultimately run out. On the mile straight at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire it was easy to reach 100mph and on a handling circuit the car powered out of bends satisfactorily though there wasn’t much feel through the steering. The batteries are arranged under the rear seat and along the centre console in a T-shape so weight distribution doesn't feel too bad when cornering. So far though, there isn’t the tactile thrill you get with a normal car, nor the sounds, but if you thought electric motors were only for children's toys like Scalextric, the Ampera might change your mind.

And what about the Ampera’s green credentials? Well, using the Toyota Prius as a green benchmark, under the current European test cycle it emits less than 40g/km of CO2 compared to 89g/km for a Toyota Prius hybrid. Also, on battery power alone the Ampera betters 200+mpg as compared to the Prius’ official combined 72mpg. If these projected figures are right, the Ampera will therefore be one of the greenest cars on UK roads, when it is launched in 2012.

Vauxhall Ampera preview However, buying the car in the first place though will be the problem because of the cost of the new technology. On current estimates it could be around £30,000 (compared to the Prius’ £20,000). To help kick off sales, Vauxhall wants the Government to offer £5,000 tax incentives and consider making the car exempt from road tax and any congestion charges.

"In 10 to 15 years you will be surprised how many electric cars you will see on the road," says Corsini confidently. All Amperas will initially be built in the United States, but GM is hoping to gain UK funding to build the cars in the UK at its Ellesmere Port factory.

Review by Russell Bray for Next Green Car.com

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