Opel Ampera review

19 July 2011

Opel Ampera seen from above

My goal this afternoon is to drive 45 miles without running out of battery power. I’m following a scenic route from the Louwman Museum in The Hague, aiming for a beach-front bar a little way up the Dutch coast in Noordwijk aan Zee. Well, when I say scenic route, I simply mean the long way round. There’s not much to look at in these chequerboard lowlands with their arrow roads and quiet canals. At least I have an early example 2012 Ampera to keep me amused.

The Opel Ampera – or Vauxhall Ampera in the UK – is an extended-range electric car, based on the more widely known Chevrolet Volt. Plugging into an ordinary 240V socket for four hours is sufficient to charge its 16kWh battery, providing enough power for 25 to 50 miles of pure electric motoring, depending on driving style, speed, gradients, and the use of ancillaries like lights, ventilation and wipers. Unlike most other electric cars, it also carries a 1.4-litre petrol engine in its nose, which is employed to generate electricity after the initial charge runs down. This combination of power sources gives the Ampera the potential for zero emissions over short distances as well the long-distance capability of a conventional fossil-fuel car. And that extended range is a safety net I’m quite glad to have today.

Red Ampera on the move

Having set off with a full battery – courtesy of the rank of Opel-branded charging points installed in the Louwman’s car park – I should have been able to make it on battery alone, with a bit of care. The roads are smooth, the traffic is light, the weather is mild and the distance is doable. The main stumbling block is me, the ham-footed driver. Despite my best efforts, my eco eking isn’t quite up to the job. I’ve also found the optional satnav a less than reliable guide, leading to a brief but wasteful excursion around a road-humped housing estate – a spot of sight-seeing that really wasn’t on the route map.

The battery gauge is a fancy computer graphic nestling among other virtual instruments on a cramped LCD screen. The gauge has been styled to look like a glass barrel full of green glowing goo, and the level steadily empties as the miles accrue. A few kilometres short of Noordwijk, the last of the green stuff vanishes and the range prediction hits zero. For a minute or so, nothing changes. We keep going on the electric motor and I start to wonder if the gauge has got it wrong. Then, without any fanfare, the engine quietly purrs into life, and the empty battery gauge smoothly swaps places with a virtual glass petrol pump full of blue goo. The road ahead continues to unfold without any change in feel or responsiveness. Only the eerie silence of electric motoring has been lost, replaced with a muted petrol-engine thrum.

We are still running on electric power, of course. The Ampera’s engine can lend a hand in turning the wheels, but only does so when demands are extreme. Most of the time the engine simply powers a generator, which feeds juice to the 110kW (150bhp) motor, which turns the wheels. As I lift off, the engine shuts down again as gentle regenerative braking takes over, feeding a little power back into the depleted battery. More aggressive regeneration is available by pulling the transmission lever back a slot, which would be ideal on a steep downhill gradient. Not that there are any. Plus, of course, you can use the brake pedal. Gentle pressure increases regeneration, firmer pressure brings in the disc brakes as well but wastes precious energy. The transition between braking modes is impressively imperceptible.

Setting off again from a standstill is done in electric silence, with the engine joining in a few moments later. In this range-extended mode the Ampera feels almost like a modern hybrid, except the engine note has lost even a CVT’s vague acquaintance with road speed.

Obviously the engine needs to start instantly without fuss when it’s needed, but unlike in an ordinary hybrid, the Ampera’s engine can’t rely on regular exercise. Indeed it might lie dormant for considerable stretches if the car is habitually driven less than 50 miles between plug-ins. To fix this, the engine will apparently wake itself up to blow away the cobwebs every now and then, if it has done too much running on batteries alone. The driver gets the option to prevent this, but only up to a point. Eventually the engine will decide it needs a workout and will start up regardless.

Opel Ampera dashboard

Refinement with the engine running is excellent, though – better than in the prototype I drove a few weeks ago. On battery alone it’s better still, enough to keep a librarian content. Even at 110km/h (about 70mph), while running on stored charge, you can hold a conversation in muted whispers. Or at least you can while rolling on Dutch asphalt, which is smoother than freshly ironed linen. The lack of noise is welcome but deceptive. It makes 70 feel like 55, so it is worth keeping a wary eye on the digital speedometer.

The major controls are well balanced, in the sense that they are uniformly light and lifeless. Steering assistance is electric, naturally, and the wheel could probably be twirled with a single finger. The wheel feels good to hold, though, and the effortless helm action seems well paired with the quiet calmness of the cabin.

The driver has a choice of four operating modes: normal, sport, hold and mountain. Switching between them is done via a dedicated button on the centre console and an on-screen menu. It’s not trivial to switch modes mid-stride, meaning you can’t easily flip into sport mode with its extra power and quicker responses before overtaking. Hold mode, meanwhile, fires up the engine so that you can preserve battery charge for later in your journey – if there’s an urban section at the tail end of a high-speed jaunt, for example. And finally mountain mode will use the engine to immediately start topping up the batteries, so you have as much power available as possible for an upcoming climb. The idea is that you switch into mountain mode before you reach the steep slopes, to give the system time to prepare itself.

Electric motors develop maximum torque at zero revs, making the Ampera urgent and eager at modest speeds. The feeling quickly wanes, though, and as I floor the throttle (in normal mode) to join a fast dual carriageway the car feels breathless and – dare I say it – a bit slow. I suppose a certain sluggishness is to be expected given all the heavy hardware crammed under the bonnet. Kerb weight is a hefty 1,732kg, 200kg of which is battery.

Among ordinary traffic the Ampera looks squat and purposeful, the low roofline helping to cut aerodynamic drag. Inside, low-set seats preserve reasonable headroom. In my test car the seats are heated, leather trimmed, comfortable and shapely, but overall the cabin fails to project the ambience of a £29,000 car. Hard plastics abound below the cabin’s waistline. The centre stack is shiny and not very attractive, incorporating a secondary screen that faces dead astern rather than angling towards the driver. Many of the minor controls are touch-sensitive in the manner of iPods, a first for a production car, apparently, which unfortunately doesn’t make them nice to use.

Red Opel Ampera bootlid

The tailgate is bisected in familiar hybrid fashion, but the big, angular side-mirrors – standing well proud of the doors – compensate by keeping plenty of traffic in view. During my tests, a gentle beep sounds whenever another car wanders into the nearside blind spot. Rear-view aside, visibility is good. Even the steeply raked windscreen with its thick pillars doesn’t seem to intrude at junctions. A reversing camera makes up for the poor rear view when parking.

The car is a strict four-seater, with cupholders and an armrest where a fifth passenger might otherwise sit at the rear. The missing seat is a consequence of the bulky, liquid-cooled battery pack, which runs along the car’s spine before branching into a T-shape under the rear seats. A centre passenger would have nowhere to put their feet. As it is, there’s not a huge amount of rear-seat legroom.

Cramped accommodation is one of surprisingly few trade-offs, in a car that is actually all about compromise. The Ampera attempts to marry the benefits of a battery electric car with the convenience of a petrol engine, and it does so with aplomb. The caveats come in space and pace, but most notably in price.

General Motors Europe hopes to shift just 8,000 Amperas in 2012, but the car is definitely not cheap. It won’t be squaring up against the Toyota Prius on price, for example, but against the Lexus CT200h in top-spec SE-L Premier trim.

Ultimately, the value judgement comes down to one simple question. What price do you put on 45-odd miles of serene electric motoring, coupled with the limitless range of conventional petrol power?

Red Opel Ampera from the rear

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