Ampera goes the distance

Wed, Jul 6, 2011, 01:00

FIRST DRIVE OPEL AMPERA:IT SEEMS the charge has gone out of the electric car buzz in the Irish market. Only 36 new electric cars were registered by the end of June. That might be partly down to a delay in introducing the Government grant for these vehicles, the limited choice of electric cars on offer, or the high prices.

Perhaps some of this will change with the arrival of two electric cars from Renault later this year and a host of others from BMW, Ford and Audi in 2013.

However, anecdotal evidence suggests the modern motoring neurosis of range anxiety has also played a large part in our reticence to plug in to the claimed future of motoring.

Promises of 160km on a single charge for the Nissan Leaf have failed to reassure people that it will serve their needs. The dripfeed of public charging points hasn’t helped either, creating concern about where to recharge when you’ve driven 160km from your home socket.

That’s where Opel thinks it has an answer. The Ampera, it claims, is the antidote to range anxiety. Due here next April, in many ways it’s an electric car with a built-in generator.

Time for a quick summary of how it works. Plug in and charge the battery to full in less than four hours. Drive for between 40km and 80km on the battery charge, the range depending on your speed and conditions. Once you’ve drained, a 1.4-litre petrol engine in the boot kicks in and powers the electric motor. When you floor the accelerator, only then will part of the power from the engine go to powering the wheels.

No doubt that last part raises a question: is this not simply a hybrid, then? According to Opel, you can’t really equate the limited and partial power on offer at full throttle with the hybrids where power for longer journeys comes largely from a combustion engine supported by a battery. Here, even in what some would call a hybrid mode, it’s a battery supported by an engine.

Perplexed? You need not be, for these issues don’t really need to concern too many. What is more important is the sort of economy it can deliver. And here is where our standard measurements show their weakness.

If you drive in urban conditions then it’s running on electric, and fuel-economy figures are nonsense. It’s only when the engine starts to support the battery that you really need to talk in terms of fuel.

So what’s it like to drive? Like a regular car, really. Acceleration is impressive for those not used to the immediacy of electric power delivery. That said, this is a heavy beast. It’s lugging around a large T-shaped battery, the two electric motors, the generator and, to top it all, the 1.4-litre engine. In total, the Ampera weighs in at 1,732kg, just 3kg lighter than a Mercedes E220 CDI.

Space in the back is on a par with most family cars, except it’s only really for two, as the battery housing takes up the centre seat.

The dash and controls are busy, and the centre console is dominated by fuel information. It’s packed with gadgets, all fitted as standard, while each customer will be assigned a dedicated technician to contact if there is any problem.

In your name, I took part in an eco-challenge on the roads of the Netherlands. One thing to note about the location: you avoid having to call up excess power from the battery to lug you up the side of a hill. Flat and with plenty of opportunities for “hypermiling” to maximise economy. For those unfamiliar with hypermiling, it’s driving like you’re barefooted and the accelerator is made from shards of broken glass. Coasting is de rigueur, as is turning off the air con and giving every driver around you road rage.

As temperatures hit 34 degrees and the abuse from irate Dutch lorrydrivers increased, I caved in. Carbon emissions gave way to common sense, the air-con went on and the right foot went down.

The official figures show that I achieved 73.2km solely on the electric charge and resorted to the petrol engine for the rest. No prizes then, but it’s daft to think that many would sacrifice their sanity and sanitary hygiene to eek out much more on a regular basis. Take it that the car can achieve upwards of 40km on a charge without you sacrificing a single driving trait or creature comfort.

That’s great news, but the Ampera loses some of its lustre when the 1.4-litre engine kicks in. Fuel consumption becomes a little more difficult to measure, but we experienced variations of between 8 l/100km (35mpg) and 3.8 l/100km (74mpg), depending on the road conditions. Good but hardly revolutionary.

As to the risk of obsolescence, they say that eight-year-old cars already suffer from it in terms of emissions, and pay a heavy price in terms of motor tax, for example. The battery will have a life of 10 years, with eight of those under warranty.

Will it be enough to overcome buyer fears? Perhaps if its price wasn’t so steep. At €42,00 excluding taxes, it remains to be seen whether buyers will opt for this over a fuel-efficient Audi, BMW or Mercedes. In overcoming range anxiety it may fall foul of the much larger national neurosis of financial anxiety.