Alternative fuel Vauxhall Ampera riding the range

Vauxhall's Ampera won car of the year and Iain Dooley, PA senior motoring writer, says the clever electric-powered, range-extending car could win you over too.

In a sea of hybrid and pure electric vehicles, Vauxhall's Ampera challenges our established perceptions. As electric charging points have yet to appear on every street corner, this alternative fuel vehicle isn't going to leave you stranded with a flat battery.

Don't get too excited, though. The Ampera isn't the magic bullet solution we've all be waiting for. It costs more than a diesel Ford Focus, and despite its swoopy hatchback profile it's only a four-seater. Still, while it won't suit everyone it does deserve a place in the world at a time of high fuel prices.

The technical achievements deserve praise. Described by many as a 'range-extender' car, the Ampera packs a 150 horsepower electric motor and battery system – plus a conventional petrol engine. You charge the battery, which in turn powers the electric motor to deliver a pure electric experience.

The petrol engine, a 1.4-litre 85 horsepower unit, comes into play when the battery is exhausted. This immediately gives the Ampera the upper hand over a regular electric car. It doesn't drive the wheels but acts as a generator so the battery and electric motor combination to continue to do their jobs.

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With both systems in play, your total range is a little over 300 miles and, even with the petrol motor, the CO2 rating is a low 27g/km, while official fuel economy is well into three digits. The latter might be academic due to the car's unusual propulsion system, but it proves that the Ampera has the potential to emit very little of anything. The reality is closer to 70mpg in the real world.

Charging the car is straightforward – the standard cable supplied with the car connects to a household supply and a full charge is of the overnight variety. Opt for a more powerful, professionally-fitted system and you can cut that time to as little as four hours depending on your choice of installation. And if you can't wait for a full charge – the range-extending petrol generator is always available.

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Monitoring the charging process is easy thanks to the car's various modes and display options, while the smartphone era has ushered in applications allowing remote monitoring for added peace of mind.

In normal use, and taking into account a heavy right foot, it's possible to achieve anything up to around 50 miles on battery power alone. It depends on conditions but driving sensibly is easy thanks to a range of graphical aids as part of the driver's display. And with lots of torque and regenerative braking, the need to use the brake pedal in slow-moving traffic is much less so improving range as the system routinely tops up the battery. It's no slouch either, with the ability to reach 62mph in a brisk 8.7 seconds.

In all other respects the Ampera behaves like a conventional car. Okay, so the styling is a little Buck Rogers, the touch-sensitive centre console buttons take a little getting used to and when the petrol engine is running the revs rise and fall independently of your throttle input – remember, it's not connected to the wheels. But it does come with four comfortable seats, a decent size boot and all the usual toys... air-con, quality DAB audio unit and Bluetooth MP3 player inputs.

The Ampera is easy to live with. It's manoeuverable in town, visibility is good and it's surprisingly brisk thanks to the 'instant on' characteristics of the electric motor. The Ampera will appeal to private buyers seeking to 'do their bit' but where the Ampera does make a lot of sense is for the business community. With favourable tax breaks and the ability to write down the car's cost in the first year, it's easy to see it replacing less efficient fuel-driven ones especially if a lot of driving can be done on electric power with access to charging posts. It also qualifies for zero road tax and is congestion charge-free in London.

It's been a long time coming but the Ampera shows it is possible to produce a viable, practical and easy to own and drive electric car. For many, the Ampera's range-extending petrol generator gives it the edge over pure electric alternatives if your routine varies day-to-day. It's not for everyone but it's a welcome start, and if it can help boost the fortunes of the alternative fuel car market it will all have been worth it.

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