14:18 Tuesday 19 February 2013

The future is here, says Vauxhall

Written byBy Gareth Butterfield

IN MANY ways, this is one of the most important cars to have been launched on to the market in a very long time.

Vauxhall Ampera. From £29,995 including Government Plug-in Car Grant
Vauxhall Ampera. From £29,995 including Government Plug-in Car Grant

It’s the first mass-market vehicle that has moved away from the conventional hybrid technology used by many manufacturers and has instead seen an entirely new system built that could become the future of motoring.

So here’s the science bit: A normal hybrid car, Toyota’s Prius is perhaps one of the bestknown examples, has a battery-powered electric motor driving its wheels for as long as possible, or until a bit more grunt is needed.

W hen the battery expires, or when you put your foot down, an internal combustion engine, which is also linked to the wheels, cuts in and takes the strain.

In the Ampera there’s still an engine upfront but its power never touches the driven wheels. Instead, it acts like a generator, and provides power for the motor. It’s actually a truly electric car, but with a back-up plan to boost its range.

The high-tech stack of batteries in the centre of the car has the priority when it comes to powering the motor, but there’s a 1.4 litre petrol engine to fall back on if they run out.

As with any electric car it can be plugged in at your home, using a six metre cable that plugs into a household socket, or at an electric charging point.

You’re able to drive, on its batteries, for more than 30 miles on a full charge and, should that not be enough, or if you put your foot down, the engine will cut in. But does it work in practice? Fundamentally, yes, it does. On a full charge its range indicator, which shows up on one of two HD graphical displays, indicated I had 38 miles to play with after I’d charged it fully on a slow charge - which took around 10 hours from flat.

My daily commute is a shade over 30 miles so it’s entirely possible for me to drive to and from work on a full charge without using any petrol. That’s as long as I drive sensibly, of course.

In practice, it’s very easy to wipe out all the charge on a relatively short run, but the Ampera is still very economical to use with its engine quietly buzzing away and theoretical three-figure MPG figures, even over a fairly lengthy run, are within easy reach.

Of course, all this technology would be useless if it hadn’t been put on to a car that was worthy of its £30,000 plus price tag. And, happily, the Ampera feels well made, drives well and is generously equipped.

The Ampera's interior is incredibly futuristic, but that's no bad thing. It's a nice place to be
The Ampera's interior is incredibly futuristic, but that's no bad thing. It's a nice place to be

It’s easy to compare it to Vauxhall’s popular Insignia, but it’s so much more special than that.

From the moment you step inside you’re engulfed in technology and an almost overmodern cabin, with a touch sensitive dashboard and futuristic detailing.

And while the driving experience in any electric car is very different, the Ampera handles very well and pulls away cleanly from any speed.

It’s automatic gearbox works well and a special ‘low’ mode ramps up the regenerative charging, at the cost of fairly rapid deceleration.

It’s practical too. The battery pack sits midcabin, leaving only two seats in the rear but there’s plenty of space and the boot, while quite shallow, is large enough for most modern families.

Visibility is more than acceptable, given the futuristic exterior has been designed to be as aerodynamic as possible - even the wheels are covered with plastic discs to ensure they cut through the air.

The technology in the Ampera is so advanced that, at times, it can feel a little overwhelming and with its array of buttons and the two digital displays, it can take a while to get used to.

It’s the first car that’s landed on my drive equipped with a DVD — which is well worth watching - and there’s even a smartphone app to help you with the features.

The car’s on board display also has a user guide and this extends to a slightly patronising set of hints and tips to driving economically.

Driving an Ampera, once mastered, is surprisingly rewarding because you are encouraged by a series of graphics, readouts and even pie charts to treat the throttle and brakes and even the climate control with kid gloves.

The Ampera wants to be driven well and, while some may shudder at the thought of being dictated to by your car, there’s actually a fun element to turning stately driving into a competitive sport and ‘bettering your score’.

The cost of motoring is rising all the time and, in an age when we’re all keeping one eye on our environmental responsibilities it’s time we accepted that electric cars are the future.

Now that Vauxhall has done away with the usual range anxiety of the electric car, it’s possible to see into a brighter future and, spending a week in an Ampera has led me to believe that our motoring future might not be as bleak as we first thought.

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