Last summer I drove an Opel Ampera along Dutch roads as smooth and flat as a frying pan. Today I’m driving another Ampera, this one wearing Vauxhall badges, over roads that are more rock cake than pancake. Welcome to extended-range electric motoring, UK style.
And the verdict crossing our crumbly asphalt? Not bad at all. The Ampera soaks up the worst without complaint, and only gets a bit fidgety when the surface is especially fractured, patched and puckered. I’ve certainly found premium cars for sale with less competent undercarriage, including one or two that cost a bit more than the Ampera.
Noise suppression is also excellent. Cruising at an ordinary motorway pace, the lack of din suggests a speed about 20mph below the big white number displayed on the instrument screen.
Naturally the car feels quite familiar from time spent in its Opel counterpart. Important controls like the electronic handbrake and start button have changed sides along with the wheel and pedals, but all the touch-sensitive minor controls in the centre stack have stayed put. The button to bring up the navigation menu is a stretch from the driver’s seat as a result, while the option to copy songs from CD to hard-disk is helpfully poised at my fingertip.
It’s good to learn that the pedals have switched sides without issue – the driving position is square and dead-ahead, with plenty of room for my passive left foot.
Comfort from the car’s leather chairs seems first class. Indeed, I started my drive with an aching lower back, courtesy of a hotel mattress with all the supportive firmness of a bag of candyfloss, but most unusually the Ampera has made the pain melt away.
There are of course just four seats, with the bulky lithium-ion battery occupying the broad centre tunnel. A strange concoction of nylon netting and vinyl suspends a storage bag between the rear seat backs, presumably optional, while the parcel shelf is a similar piece of stretched cloth, like a safety net from a toy circus.
There’s reasonable room in the back, but headroom is tight and I clonked my forehead on the way out. The Ampera’s arcing roofline is the culprit, swooping a little too smartly down towards the bootlid in aid of aerodynamics.
Back up front there are four driving modes to choose from. There’s the default Normal mode, plus a Sport setting that produces a more urgent throttle response. Mountain mode will reserve a portion of battery power, or alternatively pump a measure of power back into a flagging battery, to ensure full beans are on hand if you intend scaling an Alpine pass. And finally there is Hold mode, which immediately fires up the engine to reserve battery power for later. The latter is a feature unique to European cars and not offered in the American Chevy Volt, apparently.
There are some noticeable differences between running on battery power alone, having charged from the mains, and running on electricity generated on demand by the 1.4-litre petrol engine under the bonnet. Most obviously, your ears can tell the difference. Electric motoring is eerily quiet at all times, but summon acceleration in extended-range mode and the sound will climb in both volume and coarseness as the engine works hard to drum up electricity.
It sounds and feels a lot like the variable transmission you’d find in a Honda Insight, even though there is no underlying mechanical resemblance. You put your foot down, the engine note immediately rises, and after a moment’s pause you start to seamlessly accelerate.
I didn’t notice any delay when I drove the Opel in Holland, but running on more familiar roads has made it easier to concentrate on the car. I swap in and out of Hold mode to assess the change. The throttle feels oddly disconnected when I’m drawing on the engine rather than pure battery power. On batteries, a prod from my right toe is instantly obeyed. In extended mode, a bit of reluctance creeps in. The difference doesn’t ruin the car, but it does underline that the Ampera is really two different cars spliced together.
My test also underscores that swapping modes between Normal and Hold is a bit of a palaver. All four driving modes are controlled via one button and a menu on the instrument screen. It takes a second or two to select the right mode, and another couple of beats for the selection to take effect. Clearly nobody is going to be switching into Sport mode for an opportunistic overtaking moment.
After a brief stop for lunch, Peter Stoker joins me as passenger and navigator. He’s a senior engineer at Vauxhall’s Millbrook technical centre, who has been driving an early Ampera for quite a while.
He describes the fun he’s been having trying to verify that the various charging networks in the UK work correctly with the Ampera. Not all of these tests have gone entirely without hitch, but fortunately Stoker has undergone this pain so buyers won’t have to. His pocketful of different access cards also underscores the current proliferation of charging providers across the UK, all of whom operate as islands. You can’t yet charge at one network and have it billed to another, but that co-operation will no doubt come in time.
At Stoker’s suggestion, I try driving the Ampera with the transmission lever pulled back from the default “D” into the “L” position, which I’ve so far used only as the handbook suggests – for descending steep hills.
There’s no mechanical difference between the two transmission settings except for the level of regenerative braking that takes over as the throttle lifts, capturing energy from the car’s momentum and feeding it back into the battery. In D, there’s very little tendency to slow down – somewhat less than you’d feel in an ordinary car through engine braking. By contrast, in L, there’s a little bit more braking effect than I’m accustomed to.
Driving with the stick in L feels a little odd to begin with, but after a few miles I’ve adjusted. The regeneration level is not nearly as strong as some other electric cars I’ve tried – the Mini E lurches to mind – and I still need to visit the brake pedal regularly. Stoker says the stronger regeneration is more efficient, putting a little more back into the battery every time you slow down, so there’s more energy for acceleration next time around. And since Stoker’s car is fitted with a data logger, capable of capturing his journeys on USB stick for detailed analysis, I guess the facts must bear out this theory.
My battery runs out after about forty miles, and I drive another forty or so on country roads, including a 10-minute thrash along a dual carriageway. The instrument panel informs me I’ve achieved 45.8mpg from the petrol tank, which is perhaps a fraction worse than I’d expect from a similarly sized hybrid under the same conditions. Hitting a button on the console brings up further details on the centre screen, including a breakdown of miles done on mains electricity as well as petrol. An overall score of 125mpg is given, but to my mind that’s meaningless since you can’t measure electricity in gallons.
On second acquaintance the Ampera remains a very likeable car, but its £32,250 starting price is much less agreeable. Vauxhall’s sales director says he hopes to shift 5,000 Amperas in the first year of sale, which could be a tall order. Features will be removed to create a £29,995 edition later in the year – the precise level of sacrifice hasn’t yet been set – but that’s still a big ticket.
UK sales of electric cars have been slow to date, due to an off-putting cocktail of high price, limited range and lack of familiarity. The Ampera ought to fare better as it has only two of the three hurdles to overcome, having banished range anxiety by means of its fuel tank. Familiarity will come, and no doubt prices will fall with future generations of the car. But for now, the Ampera’s blend of eco economy and relaxed comfort will best suit electric pioneers with deep pockets.