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Ampera makes compelling case for electric family cars

Pulling away in Vauxhall’s new extended-range electric car was pretty terrifying. Nothing to do with the car’s design, but because I was in control of a €1m, hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind prototype.

And things were made worse by the fact my passenger was the managing director of Britain’s largest producer of electric car charging stations. As I gripped the steering wheel, it felt like the future of the UK’s electric vehicle industry was almost literally in my hands.

But once I relaxed and got used to the engine’s high-pitched whirr, I almost forgot I was in an electric car.

The Ampera is designed not as a commuter runabout but as a primary family car, and it’s not hard to see it filling that role, thus conquering consumer fears of being stranded on a motorway after running out of juice. It’s basically an Astra with a massive battery underneath and a petrol-fuelled generator that kicks in after 40 miles for those long weekend journeys.

Having never driven an electric car before, I was unsure what to expect. It took some time to get used to the controls: the brakes weren’t as responsive as I’d have liked and, even with the automatic gearbox, the drive through town could have been smoother.

Speeding along the country roads through the Chilterns was a different story. Instead of slowing things down, the car’s substantial weight added to the feeling that this was a powerful vehicle that really could rival traditional models, and acceleration was never a problem – even on the motorway.

Of course, even with a top speed of 100mph, it won’t convince all the committed petrolheads out there. And the sound of a tiny jet engine that emerged from under the bonnet was surprisingly loud and echoed around the car unnervingly when you’re in the passenger seat.

But with the practical issues of size, range and much lower emissions covered, it felt like a huge step forward.

Production is due to begin in 18 months and Vauxhall is planning a below-cost sale price of £30,000, so don’t be surprised to see the Ampera lining suburban driveways of the UK within a few years’ time.

The Ampera can be driven 40 miles on battery power alone, after which a petrol-driven generator provides a further range of 310 miles. An estimated 80 per cent of people in the EU have a commute of less than 30 miles.

It provides 111kW of power, 370Nm of torque, has a top speed of 100mph and can go from 0 to 60mph in around nine seconds.

Unlike a hybrid, the battery isn’t topped up when driving, but it can be charged in three hours using a typical 230v socket. The lithium ion battery holds 16kWh of energy, of which 8kWh are usable, and has a 10-year or 150,000 mile warranty.

Under the European test cycle, Vauxhall estimates the car can do 175mpg and produces less than 40g per km of CO2 through the petrol engine.

Vauxhall has yet to decide where to manufacture the car, but because the UK is seen as the biggest potential market for electric vehicles, and the design is so similar to the Astra, it could be built on a flexible production line at the company’s factory at Ellesmere Port in Merseyside.

It is expected to cost £30,000 to buy, which could be brought down to £25,000 on the road if the current government subsidy of £5,000 is kept in place.

The prototype Ampera recently completed a 175 mile-long single trip (without recharging or refuelling) from Luton to Ellesmere Port. Vauxhall claims that this is the longest single trip completed by an electric car on British roads. However, Racing Green Endurance, an all-electric supercar developed at Imperial College, recently completed two full circuits of the M25 (around 230 miles) on a single charge.

Readers' comments (16)

  • Just don't blip the throttle! Having built a prototype hybrid car in the late 80's, my Project Manager wanted a drive...he blipped the throttle as he always did while waiting at a junction and we leapt out in front of a 40-tonner. Let's not get too excited by EV and HEV...we've had small numbers around us for 20, 30, 40 years...but it is good to see some progress

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  • "The prototype Ampera recently completed the longest single journey by an electric car on British roads – 175 miles."

    From :

    "Alexander Schey, RGE project manager, and Toby Schultz, RGE energy and vehicle systems engineer, took turns driving the vehicle, which made it around the M25 twice, a total distance of 230 miles. Plus it still had enough charge to travel an extra 20 miles to West London and back."

    What's your definition of a 'single journey'?

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  • 28May10: completed 2x laps of the M25 plus out & back to the workshop. 250 miles on a single charge.

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  • The design of an electric passenger vehicle must address the comfort of the passengers even if this means donning an electric blanket in the winter months. Now recalculate the winter range in the vehicle with electric blanket heating!

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  • Electricity generation isn't carbon free. Most of the current viable electric vehicles come in at about 110g/km. The 40g/km mentioned above is a fudge of the petrol and electricity figures so it really shouldn't be used as a comparison. Compare the usual 110g/km to the VW bluemotion diesel car which can now deliver 95g/km and you wonder why bother the EV's at all?

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  • OK, once you've flattened the battery and you are effectively driving a Petrol-Electric car, what is the performance like then and what is the fuel consumption for the remaining 310 miles? Surely it must be worse than driving a similarly powered normal manual gearbox car when generator and motor losses are added to the equation.

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  • Having read the article, it didn't really do it for me. Iv'e worked on EV's for the last 15 years and expect better. "the car’s substantial weight " ? Not good. "the brakes weren’t as responsive as I’d have liked and, even with the automatic gearbox, the drive through town could have been smoother" Not good. "Unlike a hybrid, the battery isn’t topped up when driving" Not good. Seems like Vauxhall really did just wack in some batteries and a tiny engine. Now build the vehicle from lightweight composites, get the price down to "a family car" figure and it might be interesting. Is this just to keep Vauxhall in the "We are green" window. What is so wonderful about a 0-60 in 9 seconds? Old marketing by people that have no idea what is driving the EV / hybrid revolution.
    From such a huge company I would like to see better. Toyota still have my vote.

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  • Dear Mr Harris:

    Glad to see that the electric revolution is underway, but at £30,000, the price of this car is still too high.

    If you went out and bought a cheap second hand car for £5,000, you would have £25,000 left over to spend on petrol.

    Now, even if one gallon of petrol cost you £10, with the £25,000 you didn't spend buying this new electric car, you could could buy 2500 gallons of fuel! And if your cheap car managed even 40 miles to the gallon, this money would allow you to travel 100,000 miles.

    So if you only travelled 10,000 miles per year, the £30,000 you spend on the second hand car car plus petrol would last for a good ten years.

    Hence I for one will be surprised if I see the Ampera lining suburban driveways of the UK within a few years’ time!

    Perhaps if we really put the future of the UK’s electric vehicle industry in your hands, you might come up with a better design!

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  • The unanswered question - what about the pollution produced in making the electricty to charge the battery?

    What about the "Whole system efficiency" from the power station, electric distribution and finally the car's transmission?

    Efficiency MUST include all stages from taking fuel from the ground to the power at the wheels - it's never mentioned.

    The ONLY reason it appears cheap to run is the absence of around 70% fuel duty on petol which gives it a bit of an unfair advantage

    Will someone PLEASE calculate the total Power source to Wheel power conversion efficient - I recon it will turn out to be pretty scary at around 25%

    Nice sales pitch - but people must really do the sums

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  • Its all good for the future but batteries worry me. Power to weight ratio is still poor. Battery manufacturers do not inspire confidence with claims like "anticipated life 10 years" Unequivically garanteed life less than half that. What is the current cost to supply,fit, test and despose of old batteries for the EV featured ? Will an EV survive sitting at the airport for three weeks in 0 temperatures without a recharge ?

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