Vauxhall-Opel Ampera: firstdrive

June 7th, 2011: Canary Wharf, London.    Text and images © ecodrive 2011.  No reproduction without express permission.

The much anticipated Vauxhall-Opel Ampera, virtually identical to the Chevrolet Volt which is already on sale in North America, will be the first mass-market example in Europe of an 'Extended Range Electric Vehicle’ and claims to offer many of the advantages of a ‘Pure’ EV but without the (perceived) inherent limitations, by the addition of a 1.4-litre petrol-engined generator to produce additional electrical power when necessary.

Vauxhall-Opel Ampera © ecodrive
Vauxhall are keen to avoid using the moniker ‘hybrid’ with Ampera, preferring to stick with ‘Extended Range EV.’ The decade-long reign of the Toyota Prius as the world’s leading ‘non-plug-in hybrid’ has lead to ‘hybrid’ being synonymous with that arrangement which includes elements of electric drive, for modest improvement in emissions and economy, but which cannot be plugged in. Avoiding 'hybrid' is also an attempt to indicate that the vast majority (though not always 100%, see later) of the drive to the wheels is from the electric motor.

The Ampera will inevitably be compared to other vehicles already on the market - perhaps most obviously the Prius and the purely electric Nissan LEAF. But those comparisons are not simple. The biggest difference compared to Prius generations to date is that you can plug it in. More than that, you should plug it in. In that regard it demands the same requirement of a potential user as a Pure EV such as Nissan LEAF: the ability to regularly charge it from the grid. And since most of its driving will be ‘from the grid,’ to a greater or lesser degree depending upon your usage pattern, it will have similiar benefits.

Appearance

The car looks remarkably conventional and not as readily identifiable as other ‘eco’ cars, be it any of the new generation of EVs or even previous generations of hybrids. It has a contemporary, somewhat aggressive front end, but certainly belongs to the GM/Saab gene pool. The side profile is very generic, in fact the car will blend into traffic mostly unnoticed, especially in a conservative colour. The rear end though is, frankly, uninspired and appears mismatched to the front: heavily Chevrolet/US influenced with the wrap-around lamp clusters, incorporating side markers, that point squarely to the North American design influences.
Vauxhall-Opel Ampera dashboard © ecodrive

Opening up the interior reveals the impact of the biggest architectural feature of the car: the T-shaped battery running down the centre tunnel and behind the back seat (like GM’s ill-fated EV1 electric coupé in the 1990s) which makes it unquestionably a 4-seater, instantly losing appeal for a family of five. This pre-production model does not have the rear seat infill and luggage space cover which will be specified for the UK/European production models.

It has the same push-button, keyless ‘ignition’ that a lot of new cars in its class possess, but most interestingly just like the Nissan LEAF - and it too has an electric parking brake. A very stylised, but otherwise automatic-like ‘gear’ selector hides in a void in the centre console when in ‘Park.’ There are two LCD displays: one in front of you in place of a conventional instrument binnacle and a central screen (principally the sat-nav) which relay a showy but overwhelming amount of information on power consumption and driving efficiency.

The dash isn't particularly pretty, smacking of uninspired, straight-edge blandness - but it must be said, at least not afflicted by horribly poor quality materials and switchgear that curses too many American-origin vehicles.

It IS an Electric Vehicle... mostly

Rear seat showing centre tunnel battery © ecodrive
The quick version of understanding the Ampera’s drive system is that the 111kiloWatt (nearly 150bhp) high torque (370Nm) electric motor drives the front wheels, normally only drawing power from the batteries for the first 40-50 miles (65-80km) after a full charge from the mains. If you exceed the electric-only range then the generator kicks in seemlessly to provide power for the motor to extend your driving, to all intents and purposes indefinitely if you keep filling the fuel tank with petrol, but with a claimed 310 miles from a full charge and a full tank.

The other situation which will trigger the use of the generator (even within the first 50 miles) is driving above 70 mph and still accelerating towards its 100 mph top speed. This is understandable as the battery will have limitations in delivering high power continuously. But the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) can actually contribute to drive the wheels directly too, via a similar ‘planetary’ gearbox as employed in the ‘mild’ hybrid Prius: the power from the electric motor and (very occasionally) the ICE can move the vehicle - or the ICE can drive the generator to produce juice. Or simply the electric motor drives the wheels. This means that Ampera is not the simple 'series, range extended' EV (defined as only an electrical connection between the range extender and the batteries/motor) that it first appears to be but nonetheless, compared to the Prius, the balance is far greater weighted in favour of the electric-only drive.

If you have, or are prepared to adopt, a moderate driving style which rarely, if ever, takes you above 70mph and if your daily driving is normally less than around 50 miles, then you will only very occasionally use the generator, use very little fuel, produce very little (direct) emissions and likely feel the economic benefit of the lower running costs of this car.

Charging

The charging system uses the now standard (as far as North America and Japan are concerned) charging connector, identical to that on the LEAF and Mitsubishi i-MiEV, but plugging into the side of the front wing, just ahead of the front door. The charger gives a circa 4 hour recharge time from a wall-mounted home charge unit, easily suited to an overnight recharge. And of course if you, or another driver in the household, gets in at 4am and you need to leave at 7am for work before the charge is completed, or you simply forget to plug it in, there is no major issue since the ICE generator will kick in if you run short of charge.

Generator and inverter electronics under the bonnet © ecodrive

Ampera’s battery, carrying an 8-year warranty, is the same capacity (16 kiloWatt-hours) as that in the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (and Peugeot-Citroen clones) and two-thirds of that in the Nissan LEAF.

Unlike the Pure EVs, there is no rapid charge capability, so even if you live in one of the Plugged in Places regions in the UK (or similar schemes elsewhere) you will not be able to take advantage of the ‘DC’ (Direct Current) off-board rapid chargers which many regions are adopting to give a quick boost. This is another important consideration versus the LEAF, depending on how occasionally you will exceed the range of the respective vehicles and where the recharging infrastructure is likely to be in relation to your most popular routes.

Competitors?

Should you choose Ampera over a Nissan LEAF or Toyota Prius? Well, Toyota are due to launch a plug-in version of the Prius in 2012, around the same time as Ampera becomes available, which at first looks similar in function to Ampera. But the plug-in Prius has an electric-only range of just 12.5 miles - a quarter of that of the Ampera - indicating how much more reliant the Prius is on the combustion engine and another reason for not muddying the waters by labelling the Ampera as a hybrid.

Versus a LEAF, it is a more subtle argument: they have similar requirements at home (or 'base' in the case of fleet and pool cars etc.) but fit different patterns of daily usage, occasional longer trips and the availability of other transport options. With a circa £2,000 price premium over the Nissan LEAF, a similarly sized ‘C segment’ car, a flippant observation is that for ‘not much more’ you get a similar car without the inherent limitations of being a Pure EV. But that’s not the whole story. The LEAF, for instance, with it’s 70-90 mile (110-150km) real world range, might be a better option for certain drivers: in the context of a private user needing two cars in their household, most likely it will be in addition to a conventional ICE vehicle. If you need a car for a sub-70 mile daily commute or other, modest day-to-day usage and it complements the ICE car, you can save yourself £2k and not lose any benefit.

But the Ampera might better fit the household that really only needs one car, where the main/sole driver has a circa 40-mile commute Monday-Friday, rarely (if ever) uses it for work, but might make longer trips at weekends and doesn’t have access to another car from a work fleet, from family, or in a car club etc. and for whom public transport is either impractical or unappealing. A realistic 40-mile range Monday-Friday would still equate to 10,000 miles per annum, just for the commute, so a high proportion of miles could still be electric-only.

Split rear split will have infill. Note shallow boot. © ecodrive
Moreover, even though many potential purchasers could likely use a Nissan LEAF (or similar Pure EV) with little inconvenience, the Ampera might appeal as an easier stepping stone to EV ownership, especially whilst recharging infrastructure is under development or where the car will principally be used outside of Plugged in Places areas. Whilst a Pure EV most certainly fits someone with a very predictable lifestyle - generally always at the same location overnight and with consistent journey patterns - the Extended Range EV can offer greater flexibility.

Some purchasers of Ampera will rarely (or never) use the generator, therefore rarely (never) put fuel in it - and they may realise when they come to change the car that a 'Pure EV' might be right for them after all.

Fleet managers, particularly when choosing cars destined for relatively local but unpredictable usage, such as pool cars, might be more confident with an Extended Range EV since it is more forgiving in the hands of multiple, ‘novice’ drivers.

The first 40 miles (65km) of each day’s driving will normally be electric-only... the greater the variability in your driving patterns, the more use of the IC engine you will make. Remember that you still need private, off-street parking with access to mains for the installation of a home charge unit.
Rear of Ampera lacks flair © ecodrive

On the positive side, Ampera should attract a lot of people who aren't 'ready' for a Pure EV and it will quietly convert them as they drive. It will forgive 'rookie' mistakes of not plugging it in and fit the solo car household and those with unpredictable lives. Just like the other cars which qualify for the £5,000 Plug-in Car Grant, it also enjoys exemption from Congestion Charge in London, zero-rated road tax and first year Capital Allowances or a 50% Benefit-in-Kind for company car drivers (a Pure EV is a 0% BiK)

On the negative side, it can only accommodate 4 people and has a fairly shallow boot: the Nissan LEAF is cheaper, can seat 5 and its boot is deeper, if irregularly shaped.

The Vauxhall Ampera is soon to go out of production for the UK and Europe which is a great shame. Contact us if you're interested in one of the few remaining!

» Express your interest in Ampera now