Whatever you do, don’t call Vauxhall’s Ampera a hybrid. The Opel engineers – this being a combined effort between the two European companies and General Motors – are keen to stress that the Ampera is powered by an electric motor, despite a conventional petrol unit taking up space in the engine bay
An electric car with a petrol engine? The way the technology has been implemented is certainly clever. A T-shaped, 16kWh lithium ion battery pack straddles the car’s spine, which powers a 111kW electric motor that drives the Ampera’s front wheels. So far, so much like any electric car. The batteries, the result of a GM and LG Chem partnership, can be fully charged in around four hours from a domestic power socket. Of course, overnight is best to exploit lower energy prices and avoid triggering daytime surges in demand. Company bosses are claiming “pennies” for the cost of a full charge. Factor in the car’s projected 176mpg and 40g/km CO2 figures and the current crop of hybrids and super-clean diesels look positively filthy.
Unlike a regular electric car, the potential for being left stranded with a flat battery has been eliminated. GM identified ‘range anxiety’ from consumers as a major barrier to electric car ownership. So, if you do stray beyond the Ampera’s estimated 40-odd mile range, the petrol engine kicks in. But, and this is important, it won’t charge the car’s batteries but just power the onboard electric motor, thus giving you a range of around 300 miles before you need to refuel. Given that actual daily mileage is rarely more than the Ampera’s range, the petrol engine is unlikely to see much action unless long distance trips are on the cards.
Why doesn’t the engine charge the batteries? Simple: recharging via a domestic mains electricity source should be a lot cheaper than buying petrol at an already steep and regularly rising unit price. Enough of the theory – does the car work? For now it has to be a cautious ‘yes’. The Chevrolet Cruze development cars might lack the Ampera’s space-age glamour, but they’re close enough in terms of size and weight to the Ampera’s saloon underpinnings. In fully electric mode, the Cruze ‘mule’ feels brisk and eerily hushed when driven at anything up to motorway speeds – there’s a real world 150bhp and 272lb ft torque to play with. The braking system is also responsive, while the overall experience is likely to impress – there’s little more than a distant hum from the powertrain. Frankly it’s what you’d expect from the a multi-million pound project, but don’t forget that this is technology destined for a volume production compact family car scheduled for release in early 2012.
The Ampera’s potential is huge and the Cruze mule’s performance is impressive. Cost is the only missing link though, as Vauxhall is staying tight-lipped for now. Think high-spec Insignia, then a little more and you’re close. And there’s the potential to own the car but lease the battery pack, which might interest the fleet market. Crack that and Vauxhall could be onto a real winner.