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The Vauxhall Ampera promises the ability to cover 175 miles on a gallon of petrol. Does it deliver?

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At its launch in spring 2012, the Vauxhall Ampera was the first plug-in hybrid passenger car to be offered for sale in the UK.

It is powered by General Motors’ ‘Voltec’ series-hybrid propulsion technology (like its Chevrolet Volt sister model) and it marked a new and, arguably, more practical approach to the electric car. Indeed, the Ampera was made the 2012 European Car of the Year.

The Vauxhall Ampera range extender was the 2012 European Car of the Year

Unlike conventional hybrids, which can be best described as combustion-engined cars backed up by electric assistance, the Vauxhall Ampera is primarily powered by electric motors but has a four-cylinder combustion engine and generator to keep the car running when the batteries are exhausted.

Vauxhall claims better than 300mpg for the Ampera in urban use, but that’s a quirk of the official NEDC fuel economy test, which counts the battery’s range as CO2-free.

It also claims a maximum cruising range, thanks to the petrol engine/generator and petrol tank, of more than 300 miles.

Just one powertrain is offered, but buyers can pick from one of two trim levels: Positiv or range-topping Electron.

So is this the world’s first truly usable electric car?

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DESIGN & STYLING

Vauxhall Ampera rear lights

Vauxhall would much rather you called the Ampera an extended-range electric vehicle than a hybrid, and for good reason. It is a hybrid, but strictly speaking it is a series hybrid, at least most of the time.

The Ampera’s primary power source is a 148bhp AC synchronous electric friction motor, which draws electricity from a liquid-heated and cooled 16kWh lithium ion battery via a DC to AC current inverter.

Even if you drain the tank and batteries, you'll still have three to four miles of emergency electric-only range

The battery takes six hours to charge from a 13A domestic socket and is managed by an electronic power control module that taps into just 65 per cent of its total capacity in order to maximise operational life. However, that 65 per cent capacity is enough to give the Ampera an all-electric range of between 25 and 50 miles depending on temperature and usage, says Vauxhall.

Which, according to GM’s research, could satisfy the daily commuting needs of between 80 and 85 percent of the western motoring population without any consumption of petrol at all.

The Ampera even has an answer should you drain the petrol tank dry. That 22 per ent of remaining battery charge gives three to four miles of emergency electric-only range

There are two other power units under the Ampera’s bonnet besides the main electric motor. One is a 71bhp electric motor/generator, and the other an 85bhp 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. All three are connected to the Ampera’s front wheels via a planetary gearbox and a system of electronic clutches.

When the Ampera’s battery is depleted to 22 percent charge, the car enters range-extender mode and its 1.4-litre petrol engine starts, usually only to provide electrical power for the main traction motor and to maintain minimum charge in the battery.

In this mode, the Ampera can drive for up to 310 miles, sucking petrol from a 35-litre tank sited behind the battery pack. Range anxiety will be an unknown concept to Ampera owners.

Another advantage of the Voltec powertrain, and what makes it different from conventional range extenders such as the BMW i3 Range Extender, is that when at motorway speeds the planetary gearbox can blend power from both electric motors, allowing the main motor to ‘downspeed’ and increase efficiency.

In certain circumstances, the petrol engine can also connect directly to the wheels via the motor/generator, but only in conditions of high demand and at high speeds – which, in practice, generally means motorway speeds above 65mph. And then it is only to assist the main electric motor.

At all times and in all states, Vauxhall insists, the Ampera is primarily electric driven.
 

INTERIOR

Vauxhall Ampera dashboard

GM’s intention here was clearly to create an electric car that you can use every day, and which can serve as your one and only means of family transport.

The cabin of the Vauxhall Ampera, like the powertrain, is a convincing realisation of that mission. It’s big enough for four adults and, broadly speaking, offers the practicality of most Ford Focus-size hatchbacks.

I’d prefer conventional buttons over this smooth expanse of contact zones for your fingertips

More than the powertrain, however, it’s actually the Ampera’s cabin that smacks a little of compromise. With a T-shaped battery filling the transmission tunnel, passenger space is impinged upon to the point that there is no middle back seat, making this is a strict four-seater.

The centre stack control panel is a bit of a minefield. We’d take conventional buttons over this smooth expanse of feel-less contact zones for your fingertips. We can’t help worrying about how they’ll age, either.

The two rear seats and the boot offer space on terms with an average C-segment hatch, although with the rear seat backs laid laid flat, the Ampera has an impressively large and totally flat load bay.

However, given that the car is priced more like a fairly lavish large saloon from the class above, the limited space is something that could put off those not sold solely on the state-of-the-art powertrain.

Materials quality and fit and finish are good in places but marginal in others. Sure, the latter is only by the standards of £30k saloons, but that’s where this car finds itself.

The driver interacts with the car via two seven-inch LCD displays, one in place of conventional instruments, the other on the centre stack. There’s no tacho because you don’t need one. A charge indicator tells you how much battery range remains; once depleted, it’s replaced by a fuel gauge as the car enters range-extender mode.

There’s also a Drive Mode button to toggle between Normal, Sport, Hold and Mountain modes. Mountain uses the petrol engine to maintain a higher minimum charge level in the battery, in order to keep enough performance in reserve to deal with demanding roads.

Hold mode lets you drive on petrol power whatever the battery condition – which might make sense on a journey to a city with a zero-emission zone.

Two trim levels are offered – Electron and range-topping Positiv – but all variants of the Ampera are well equipped. Positiv Amperas come with a DAB radio, USB connectivity, climate control, automatic lights, heated leather seats and cruise control.

The Electron models add to the Positiv's comprehensive kit list with sat-nav, a DVD player, a 30Gb media system and a Bose sound system.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Vauxhall Ampera side profile

For the vast majority of the time, the Vauxhall Ampera drives as an electric car whose energy source just happens to be on board.

There is, though, a sense of easy normality in the way the Ampera goes about its business. The gearlever shifts from drive to reverse to neutral as in any traditionally powered car with an automatic gearbox, and it creeps from a standstill in drive or reverse as you ease off the brakes.

The Ampera will reach 60mph in – which is no disgrace for an efficient hybrid

Yet even with a fully topped battery, ask for total acceleration and only the electric motor will propel you, and convincingly so: 0-60mph takes a credible 10.1sec and the throttle response is, if you’ll excuse us, electric.

That makes the Ampera – as it does Nissan’s Nissan Leaf – actually an easy and relaxing car to drive, with no gears and little noise to concern you (unless the generator has kicked in).

When we tested the Tesla Roadster, we were pleased to find that, while the sound of a well tuned internal combustion engine was missed, there was much for the purist to enjoy about an electric motor’s instantaneous response.

The same is true of the more modestly powered Ampera. Not that what, in other cars, you’d call in-gear acceleration isn’t fine in the Ampera, mind; 30-70mph takes merely 9.9sec and 50-70mph just 6.2sec.

That level of performance won’t trouble the fresh wake of most £30,000-plus saloons or hatchbacks, but it’s adequate, and seldom on the road did we find it wanting.

RIDE & HANDLING

Vauxhall Ampera cornering

We’ve seen this before, in everything from the Tesla Roadster to Peugeot’s Peugeot 3008 Hybrid4: cars with large battery packs seldom ride well. Nissan’s Nissan Leaf is an exception; the Vauxhall Ampera is not.

We’ll not beat around the bush: the Ampera is not an engaging car to drive, nor is it an especially deftly damped one. It is not uncomfortable, and it is not unpleasant, but its ride never becomes better than acceptable, while its steering lacks fluidity and consistency.

Keen drivers will appreciate the Ampera's relatively unintrusive ESP system

While neither chassis nor steering are lively communicators, the ESP system is pleasingly unintrusive. Bottom line: you buy an Ampera because you like what it does in terms of effortless progress, not because you like the way it drives.

Although it had only 36 miles of battery power showing at the start of our performance tests, the Vauxhall managed two sets of standing start tests, noise tests, wet and dry braking tests and wet handling tests before finally depleting its batteries during our dry handling tests and defaulting to ‘reduced performance mode’.

At that point it was as if it were operating on about half of maximum power at higher speeds and loads. But before then the Ampera showed plenty of performance, and certainly more than most petrol-electric hybrids.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Vauxhall Ampera

Considering its game-changing tech, the hefty price tag of the Vauxhall Ampera doesn’t feel entirely unwarranted. That GM has successfully landed its ambitious concept on the forecourt is laudable enough; that it has done so without costing the car beyond all reasonable means is little short of remarkable.

The Ampera’s status as a fully-fledged electric vehicle also ensures that its buyers will benefit from a healthy £5000 government subsidy (which trims the sticker price of the entry-level car to around £29k). And, with an official CO2 rating of 27g/km, there’s no road tax to pay, of course.

Scarcity and an eight-year battery warranty ensure stronger residuals than many BMWs

Nevertheless, the Ampera is not being sold in a vacuum, and it would be remiss of us not to point out that for many people there are machines far below the Vauxhall’s price which, with concerted and varied use, would prove equally affordable to run.

However, use the Ampera within a narrower set of parameters and trips to the petrol station will become an infrequent novelty. Vauxhall claims the cost of recharging the battery is, on average, about £1. That’s an enticing figure.

Buyers also have the reassurance of a separate warranty that covers the battery for eight years/100,000 miles. The manufacturer’s 100,000-mile Lifetime Warranty covers the rest of the car.

So how is it for, in the widest sense, fuel economy? That utterly depends on how frequently you make long journeys and how much access you have to electric chargers. So let’s consider it in three parts.

First, the car’s electric-only range, which, on a mixed route of normal driving, we found to be 33.4 miles.

Second, the economy when there is no recharging available.

The engine drives the motor/generator and powers the car, but the battery also chips in after any stretch of decelerative regeneration, so you can expect 45mpg overall. Not sparkling by modern diesel standards, but not bad for a heavy car with a relatively unsophisticated petrol engine. And it banishes range anxiety.

Third, then, an overall figure. And this is where ours – unlike in any other car we’ve tested – might not necessarily represent a typical figure. We returned 54.2mpg over six days, but we drove it far and often, and our testers did not all have the same access to recharging points.

It is a given that, if you buy this car, you will have somewhere to charge it. It’s also conceivable that you might own one for a year and never fill the petrol tank.

That you can do that, yet not be stranded if you find yourself out of recharging range, gives the Ampera a hugely compelling advantage over battery-only vehicles.

VERDICT

4 star Vauxhall Ampera

Today, if you want to travel 300 miles in one sitting while using very little crude oil, you could buy a £29,000 Vauxhall Ampera – or you could choose a BMW 320d, a preferable car in almost every objective and dynamic respect.

But the Ampera represents something that will stand it and its forthcoming peers, of which there will be many, in very good stead. An electric car liberated from the curse of range anxiety. Well done GM.

There's an awful lot to like about the Ampera, including the absence of range anxiety

What's also impressive is the attitude it takes to reducing waste. Decelerative energy is recuperated for power. Power from the plug is generally cleaner than that produced on board and, even if you must create it on board, the Ampera is relatively efficient.

Choosing an Ampera over mainstream alternatives is still a leap of faith, but the gap is closing. Until a revolution in battery technology arrives, its abilities give the electric vehicle a use beyond urban, second-car duties.

As an electric car that can work as an only car, the Ampera probably has no peers. True, the highly impressive BMW i3 is, in many ways, a superior piece of engineering, but it lacks the Ampera’s carrying capacity and impressive pump-to-pump range when using the petrol tank as the primary fuel source.

Vauxhall Ampera 2012-2015 First drives