I feel confident in predicting that in the micro-niche debate around electric and alternative fueled cars, this machine is going to cause a right old ruckus.
The Vauxhall Ampera and it’s sisters, the Opel Ampera in Europe and the Chevrolet Volt in the USA are range extended electric vehicles. The Volt was launched in the USA this year and the Ampera hits our roads in the UK in early 2012.
It’s an electric car, it’s got batteries, you plug it in to charge it, but it’s also got a 1.4 litre petrol engine under the bonnet.
As you can see from my experience of driving the full production model, it’s a great drive, even in a howling summer rain storm. Sadly any attempt at filming the exterior was rather difficult, but even in that weather it was a great ride.
It is, as many have predicted, the perfect antidote for people who are interested in finding an alternative to a pure oil burner but are concerned about range anxiety.
Just a word or three on that thorny topic. The PR department of General Motors, the owners of Vauxhall, Opel and Chevrolet claim to have coined the term ‘range anxiety.’
It’s a brilliant move and it has worked incredibly well. Have a look for news reports about electric vehicles and see if any of them fail to use the term somewhere. I’ll save you the time, you won’t find one.
Now, imagine a world where the bicycle had never been invented. Suddenly someone comes up with the idea of a machine with two narrow wheels that you sit above and pedal, but the person showing you the bike for the first time says ‘a lot of people are worried about wobble anxiety.’ You would, without question, experience deep wobble anxiety.
I’ve now driven electric vehicles for thousands of miles, when I first got in one I had catastrophic range anxiety, I was told I would, and I did. After 15,000 miles driving in various electric cars I don’t get it any more. Now I have another anxiety that’s increasing all the time, ‘fossil anxiety.’
That’s the feeling you get when you know you’re going to be driving a car that needs to burn something to be able to move. This is, I believe, where the Ampera could come unstuck.
A lot of people who wouldn’t dream of making the leap to a pure electric car are going to be far more comfortable driving the Ampera. For that alone I think General Motors have done the right thing. You can use this car as a purely electric car, even with the limited electric range it has. It’s going to prove the hypothesis that most journeys are indeed under 30 miles and all electric cars are capable of doing that.
After a few months driving the car, as many people have found driving the Volt in the US, they will become aware that they are lugging around a big dormant petrol engine and a tank full of fuel.
Does that really matter if you know it’s not going to ‘run out’ or give you ‘range anxiety?’ Probably not, but when you drive the Ampera with flat batteries it does chew through rather more petrol than you might expect for a modern car. I only drove about 20 miles using the petrol engine and I saw a noticeable drop in the fuel level gauge. The predictions are, and I have no way of verifying this at the moment, that it gets around 30 to 35 miles to the gallon.
This of course has to be put in full context. In a year, say 10,000 miles, 8,000 of those were electric only, then you are looking at petrol consumption of nearer 170 mpg, with a Co2 output of around 40 grams per kilometer. Brilliant, I like that.
Another criticism this car has had from the pure electric lobby is that the petrol engine can also directly drive the wheels which means it is effectively a hybrid just like the soon arriving plug in Prius, which is something the Vauxhall folk really don’t want to agree to.
I think it’s important to point out that although this is true, it is under very extreme circumstance and you really have to make an effort to do it. There is a driving mode you can engage called ‘Mountain’ which gives the car all the power it can muster to enable it to make a steep climb up a big hill, no, not a hill, a mountain.
It’s very clear even from my limited experience that you would only use this mode 1% of the time, okay, if you live in the Rocky Mountains or half way up the Alps maybe more, but it’s simple to see that 99% of driving would not need this mode.
Being an annoying evangelist volt head the Ampera does present something of a challenge. I came into this volatile world through hybrids such as the Prius, the Ampera is clearly the next step for people who can’t quite make the leap. It’s a good step, if 50% of our car fleet was Ampera-like, our yearly consumption of fossil fuel would drop very dramatically. I do truly hope it’s a success and lots of people buy them. However, as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, when I do have enough money to buy a new car, it will without question be 100% electric.