This year’s Geneva show will be particularly interesting because the long-promised electric car revolution has finally arrived. The Nissan Leaf has been on the market for 12 months, but Renault’s fleet of electric vehicles (the Fluence saloon, Kangoo van, Zoe supermini and Twizy trike) are now flowing into the showroom. GM’s Chevy Volt and Vauxhall Ampera sisters are also just about to touchdown in Europe.
And cementing the arrival of the Electric Era is the big surprise news that the Ampera has stolen the European Car of The Year title. Last year’s winner was the Nissan Leaf.
And, judging by today’s headlines, these vehicles have arrived just at the right time. Oil prices have been steadily rising since last autumn and the price of a gallon of diesel is at a record high.
Likewise, in the US, the price of a gallon of petrol is getting close to $4, what the Financial Times says is the ‘traditional panic threshold’ for US drivers. Another 20 per cent rise in the oil price, notes the FT, and we are back at the $150 per barrel level that general spells serious trouble for economic growth.
So why, then, has General Motors announced that it is to suspend American production of the range-extender Volt (near-identical twin of the Ampera) when oil fuel prices are rising relentlessly in the US? Plans to sell 10,000 Volts in 2011, came up short at around 7600. Plans to sell 45,000 in 2012 now look rather optimistic. The upshot is that the Volt line - and the jobs of 1300 workers - have been put on hold until April, while GM clears stocks of cars it has already built.
Of course, the Volt is expensive. And, yes, quite a few modern US petrol-powered cars can match the 40mpg that the Volt returns when it is running in generator-mode. Over in diesel-fed Europe, the Ampera and Volt could struggle even more when 60mpg is commonplace and offered by cars that are much cheaper.
The Volt/Ampera is a niche vehicle that needs explaining. If you spend most of your time commuting the average distance of 11 miles and just making urban errands and - crucially - have the facility to re-charge the Volt at home, the cost of ‘fuelling’ the Volt will be very low indeed. That’s because 35 miles worth of cheap domestic electricity will probably cost under a pound. And you have the added advantage of pollution-free motoring.
For many drivers, the Volt will rarely see a petrol station. But, unlike the Leaf, the Volt can also be filled with fossil fuels and driven across continents. For the majority of drivers, the Volt and Ampera will not make sense. And nobody is pretending that these range-extended electric cars are the blueprint for a mainstream future.
However, I’m glad they exist and take my virtual hat off to GM, which developed Volt and Ampera while the company it was bankrupt. The COTY title is well-deserved.