Electric Vehicle (EV) technology has been with us for a while now. It has flirted with the mass market on a few occasions over the decades, but it has never really made a big enough impact to stick around for long. It has found its niche among the golf carts, milk floats, and fork-lift trucks of this world, but was never harnessed to the extent that is being encouraged today. As such, EV technology is still very much in the “Early Adopters” stage of its life-cycle. Some companies are taking the traditional approach to introducing new technology, building high quality, high end sports and luxury vehicles where the premium price tag fits the vehicle. The numbers sold are low, but it’s the right place to start. Pure electric cars, while a fantastic proposition, are not yet ready to sell at the right price in the mass market. Some people, Early Adopters, will buy them, and local authorities will lap them up, but most will end up, like the Sinclair C5, languishing in a garage somewhere, while the owner ends up buying a “proper car” to get on with life. Game over.
But then Vauxhall turns up with the Ampera, and the game changes. Priced around the same as the marque’s top-of-the-range Omega was ten years ago, Vauxhall have brought another high quality, reasonably priced vehicle to the fringes of the mass market. It has already won over the judges of the European Car of the Year award for 2012, so I went along to Peter Vardy’s newly refurbished Vauxhall showroom in Edinburgh, to see if it could win me over, as well.
Firstly, and perhaps most significantly, the Ampera looks like a car. They’ve not tried to be clever and build something the family of the future might drive one day – they’ve built something the family of today would drive now. A hatchback with saloon styling, this five-door car looks solid and dependable. Parked in any car park, nobody would think this car was powered purely by an electric motor. The electric motor is fed by a huge bank of high-capacity battery cells, positioned through the centre of the car. This means the middle seat in the rear has been sacrificed, making the Ampera a four-seater, but the two rear passengers get a centre console not dissimilar to an option found in a Rolls-Royce or Bentley.
While the rear seats of a £120,000 Bentley would certainly be more comfortable by comparison, the Ampera’s front seats are among the most comfortable I have ever sat in. Absolutely no compromise in driver comfort has been made in the Ampera. Everything you expect to find in a £30-35,000 car is found in the Vauxhall. The centre console is a little bit unusual, with completely flush controls, but that does go some way to reducing the appearance of the sheer number of buttons available. Two high quality displays feed all kinds of fascinating data to the driver but it is possible to simplify the information on screen to show simply speed, and range.
Unfortunately the speedometer is a digital numeric display. Personally, I really don’t like these. I find that a needle sweeping across the periphery of your vision gives a far better sense of how quickly the speed limit is approaching. Jaguar and Mercedes, among others, have computer generated analogue speedometers, so I’d hope Vauxhall look at introducing something like those, in the future. A numeric display is just not very helpful. The range, on the other hand, is fantastic. This car can be primed to run around 360 miles before requiring more juice. If your commute is less than 25 miles each way (as most are), you might never need to visit a petrol station ever again.
The great thing about the Ampera, though, is that when you do want to venture a little further afield, it has an on-board petrol powered generator to keep the electric motor turning, long after the battery has depleted. When the fuel reserve gets low, the Sat-Nav automatically kicks into life giving the options for the nearest filling stations where you can top up in the normal manner.
This, then, is a car which can be driven normally. You don’t need to change your driving style to enjoy it, and it wont make you look stupid. It’s a great quality car, not quite the sports car the salespeople might have you believe, but it’s no milk float. Vauxhall have produced a highly capable car which will fit most people’s lifestyle, and massively reduce running costs. Although it’s not cheap, the Ampera fits the price tag, and if you want be among the first to have a piece of what we’ll all be driving in three or four years time, head for your nearest participating dealer and test it for yourself.