What is the Vauxhall Ampera?
Let’s get one thing straight. The Ampera derives its power from petrol and electric motors but this isn’t a hybrid. This five-door Astra-sized model is a range-extended electric vehicle. That means its motors are powered by batteries that are charged via the mains (in six hours via a conventional household socket). When the juice runs out at about the 50-mile mark, a small-capacity petrol engine acts as a generator to recharge the batteries.
The technology works so well that European Car of the Year jurors handed the Ampera their title, shared with its sister car the Chevrolet Volt. However, for the majority of consumers it’s an expensive indulgence. The car costs £34,995 (before taking into account the government’s £5,000 electric car grant), although that does get you a much better interior than in the Honda and Toyota hybrid rivals. At least the costly aerodynamic styling looks like it conceals slightly more space-age technology than a boring old internal combustion engine.
The benefit of an electric motor over a wheezing old combustion engine is that it delivers maximum grunt from the off, meaning junctions, traffic lights and slip roads are dispatched with silent ease. The transmission is also fully automatic, so you just slot the lever into “drive” and leave it there. The most unusual thing about this car is that hard acceleration, although swift, is accompanied by complete silence. Even when the petrol engine is running, you barely notice it.
The Ampera has a potential driving range of 360 miles, which is better than any other electric car on the market but falls well behind diesel-powered rivals (a 2012 VW Passat recently recorded 1,626 miles on one tank in the US). Range aside, Vauxhall claims that the combined fuel economy figure is an astonishing 235mpg, and that the Ampera emits just 27g/km of CO2.
Tuned for comfort rather than speed, the suspension cushions occupants against the worst of Britain’s potholes and the handling is reassuring, with plenty of grip. The Ampera feels brisk even if it is sporting the equivalent of only a 148bhp engine, and the low-down torque and smooth acceleration make it particularly great to drive at commuter speeds.
Although the Ampera uses essentially the same base as the Astra, it is more spacious. The front seats have plenty of legroom and headroom and there’s lots of space in the rear — although there are only two seats. Where the hatchback Ampera suffers is in the boot. It provides only 300 litres of space, which is about as much as you get in a typical supermini.
The quality of materials throughout the cabin is high and the wraparound dashboard looks distinctive, attractive and appropriate to the car. Only the touch-sensitive switches on the fascia let the side down: they may look cool but they’re slow to react. The basic Ampera — the Earth — gets a DAB radio, cruise control and 17in alloy wheels and, if you’re buying the car to save money, why choose a higher spec than that? The mid-grade Positiv version gets heated leather seats, a rearview camera and parking sensors, while the top-spec Electron comes with sat nav.
What to look out for
The Ampera is too new for there to be much feedback on its reliability as yet, but its sister model, the Chevrolet Volt, has been running around for longer in the US. It appears to be doing well, though there was an investigation into the crash safety of its battery pack (judged to be safe). The model has been well-rated in the influential Consumer Reports and JD Power customer satisfaction surveys — top in its class in the 2012 JD study of ownership satisfaction after 90 days.
It’s a complex car, however, with a lot of software to co-ordinate the motor, engine and battery, and Ampera owners in Britain have reported some initial teething troubles and niggles. These include charge level warning lights coming on and software issues leading to incomplete or failed charging, as well as sticking charging port flaps, and sat nav/audio system crashes and DAB channel section issues. Other problems include leaking paint from the bumpers, plus water leaks into the passenger-side footwell and into tail-light lenses.
However, most owners are praising the treatment they receive from Vauxhall dealerships (there are 24 dedicated Ampera centres in the UK). The MyAmpera helpline is said to be useful, often sorting out issues which are down to the driver’s unfamiliarity with the car’s idiosyncrasies rather than any inherent technical faults. There’s a separate eight-year/100,000-mile battery warranty in addition to the standard three-year/60,000-mile warranty, which is reassuring. That said, Vauxhall’s Lifetime Warranty of up to 100,000 miles is not transferable to second owners, and is dependent on annual checks at Vauxhall service centres.
The one to buy
Vauxhall Ampera Earth £34,995 (before grant; correct at first publication)
- 16kW/h lithium ion battery
- 148bhp electric, 85bhp petrol generator
- 273 lb ft
- 0-62mph in 9sec
- Top speed:
- Road tax band:
- L 4498mm, W 1787mm, H 1439mm