To me, the Volt and Ampera felt like the future. Unfortunately, not nearly enough buyers agreed with me.
GM Europe hasn’t totally given up on electric power, however. When GME boss Karl-Thomas Neumann recently confirmed the demise of the Ampera, he said: “We see e-mobility as an important part of the mobility of tomorrow and we will continue to drive down costs and affordability.
"After the eventual run-out of the current-generation Ampera, we’ll introduce a successor product in the electric vehicle segment.”
Decoded, that probably means GM will launch a much cheaper, battery-only electric car, possibly related to a new generation of the Chevrolet Spark electric supermini.
Unlike the Ampera, however, which was a serious attempt at an electric car that could be relied on as an only car, the next GME electric car is likely to be much closer to the Renault Zoe. In other words, a second, urban car to use for shorter journeys.
As much as you can argue that the Ampera was clever and desirable (it was the 2012 European Car of the Year, after all), there is no arguing with the sales figures.
In 2012, its first full year on sale, 5300 examples found homes across Europe. Last year, however, that dropped below 3200 units, while this year’s sales are on schedule to fall well short of the 1000 mark.
The early adopters have adopted, the business buyers have bought in and demand has slowed to a sub-100-unit-per-month crawl.
It’s difficult to know why the Ampera died so quickly in Europe, although the price was clearly a big component. In the UK, the car currently costs from £27,600.
With the government’s £5000 plug-in car grant (effectively, it means the Treasury is not charging VAT), the price drops to £22,600 in base form.
That’s the same as a new Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI SE with a dual-clutch automatic gearbox.
However, Vauxhall could argue that driving an Ampera in town in electric mode was a truly green way to travel, because the car was emitting nothing in the way of tailpipe pollutants.
Sadly, though, the green movement and EU governments decided to frame the hopelessly over-simplified environmental argument almost entirely in terms of CO2.
This was in stark contrast to the US market, where there has been public understanding of all types of tailpipe pollution for decades. (Which is why the compressed natural gas-powered Honda Civic is usually voted ‘green’ car of the year in the US.)
With the CO2 argument in mind, the typical European Ampera driver probably realised that when the car’s battery charge ran out, they were then propelled by a relatively low-tech petrol engine. This may return 45mpg on the motorway, but that was adrift of what a good modern turbodiesel could manage.
And then there is the space-age styling. Because of the sizeable battery pack running down the centre of the car, the Ampera is a strict four-seater. The tail is high and bluff and the rear corners are squared off, as is required for low-drag aerodynamic performance.
The small side windows (undersized to reduce ‘solar gain’ and keep the cabin cooler in bright sunshine) are disguised by a rather heavy-handed black surround, while the dashboard appears to be an attempt at defining the future.
But many dislike the one-piece moulded centre console and touch-sensitive switchgear, which give no haptic feedback and often result in frustrated jabbing.
The Ampera’s inability to find a fan base is also reflected in the residual values. While not terrible, it’s possible to buy a low-mileage, two-year-old example of the Volt or Ampera for as little as £16,000.
The Volt has done much better in the US, but it has still significantly underperformed. In the wake of the Volt’s unveiling while GM was partly government-owned (GM filed for bankruptcy in June 2009 in the wake of the credit crunch), company sources excitedly predicted that 60,000 Volts would be sold per year.
But after less than four years on sale, total sales are said to be just 65,000. While that original target was revised down to 40,000 units, the Volt looks like it might only creep over the 20,000-unit mark this year.
Attempts to boost sales of the Volt family were made with the launch of the Cadillac ELR, a sporting coupé based on the Volt platform and running gear.
But even the Cadillac badge and an upmarket interior could barely help justify the $76,000 (£46,000) price, so ELR sales have been terrible, averaging around 100 per month for the first half of 2014.
So with the Ampera failing to catch on in Europe and the Cadillac ELR unlikely to survive much beyond next year, the whole proposition behind the Volt project looks shaky.
Yes, the Volt has table-topping customer satisfaction scores and typical buyers are at the upper end of the tree, typically earning $170,000 (£102,000) per year. But plug-in hybrids and pure EVs are a long way from becoming mainstream models in the US and elsewhere.
In fact, US sales figures suggest that Toyota’s plug-in Prius is only just outselling the Volt this year, despite the Toyota having a much shorter electric-only range than the Volt (a maximum of 11 miles to the Chevy’s 35 miles). So the Volt is actually a highly competitive performer within this tiny market niche.
Truth is, these cars are perceived as too expensive and GM has finally accepted that the Volt will never be a mainstream vehicle. In fact, GM sources suggest that the Volt’s potential US market lies almost entirely in California and the north-east of the country.
The new model due to be unveiled in January will almost certainly be cheaper, with a smaller battery and shorter all-electric range. It will probably get GM’s new, much lighter and smoother three-cylinder engine to drive the generator. The smaller battery pack should also allow three seats in the rear.
The Volt will be a better car and better value and will sell modestly well in its niche and in its target markets with the US. But while I’m very sorry that Europe won’t be seeing the new model, I will also admit that I’m very much in the minority with this view.
Despite the hype and hope that accompanied the launch of a vehicle that was developed while GM was bankrupt and that was heavily backed by government tax breaks and money, the Volt and Ampera did not mark the beginning of a motoring revolution. Like the Audi A2, they were too far ahead of their time.
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