Vauxhall’s clever Ampera rides the range

It's hailed as the way forward for electric cars – Andy Russell drives the new 'range-extender'.

We've got hybrids, we've got electric cars and now we've the range-extenders – being billed as the first real-world solution to owning an electric car.

The Ampera is the latest green machine from Vauxhall – also sold by GM stablemate Chevrolet as the Volt – and current European car of the year.

Unlike a hybrid where the electric motor assists the engine or charges a battery park so the car can run a couple of miles at low speed on electric motor alone or an all-electric car which, once charged will drive until the batteries go flat, the Ampera offers the best of both worlds – 25 to 50 miles battery power on a full charge, which costs about �1, and up to 310 miles with the 1.4-litre petrol engine which powers a second electric motor which, acting as a generator, drives the car. At higher speeds both electric motors drive the car but obviously the battery pack runs down quicker.

While the Ampera defaults to electric vehicle mode when started – ideal for commuting into the city or short trips – you can choose to use the engine so if, for example you were going to London, you could use the engine to get there then switch to battery power to drive into the capital and avoid the congestion charge.

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But it also makes sense in a rural county. Vauxhall says a full charge, which takes less than six hours through a socket in the nearside front wing, giving up to 50 miles electric power driven gently would be enough for 85pc of commuters' daily journeys… and if you run out the motor/generator will take over, taking the worry out of electric motoring. Because the engine powers the generator rather than driving the car it's disconcerting at first when the engine revs sometimes rise but not the car's speed without you pressing the throttle.

In electric vehicle mode it's so quiet that tyre noise is more apparent but, even running on the petrol engine, it's well muted. It goes pretty well too – plant your foot to the floor and its surges forward smoothly and silently with no interruptions to the brisk acceleration thanks to the standard continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

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In the driver's seat, conventional instruments are replaced by two 7in interactive touchscreens with a wealth of information including speed, trip computer, energy usage and efficiency, petrol and battery range, charging functions, driving mode – it even tells you how much energy the climate system is using – plus all the usual infotainment and heating and ventilation data. Mind-boggling at first, it's intuitive and soon becomes second nature to use. But I did get fed up with the strange noise the Ampera makes as its hi-tech battery systems come to life or are shut down – I expected Captain Kirk and his Star Trek crew to teleport into the back seat at any moment!

In the real world I got 35 miles out of a full charge including some main road work and I would expect more in stop/start urban driving, with braking putting a little charge back into the battery. Mixed urban and country driving regularly saw MPG in three figures but it very much depends on driving style and conditions. Petrol power alone saw 40 to 45mpg but add in some battery-only motoring and the Ampera still returned 70 to 80mpg overall – as good as the most frugal diesel cars.

If the Ampera is seen as the future of motoring it certainly looks the part – a vision of the future with sci-fi styling to match its hi-tech image – turning heads and getting people talking.

It drives like a conventional car with a generally smooth ride, although it is a little sensitive to bumps and lumps, and handles confidently with the low centre of gravity, in part due to the heavy battery pack, creating a stable, flat stance.

Inside it accommodates only four people – the battery pack is under the middle of the rear seats – in the shapely seats but on long journeys I would have appreciated more support and cushioning. Legroom in the back is adequate for tall adults but the sloping roofline limits headroom and you sit with your head under the glass back screen but fortunately it has some shading.

Chunky front pillars and a split rear screen hinder the driver's visibility so I was glad of the rearview reversing camera. In the front you are greeted with body-colour door panels and soft-touch plastics but trim in the back is not so appealing with hard door cappings. It takes the shine of a car in this price bracket but what you are paying for is the technology.

Access to the boot is good with the tailgate rising well out of the way but while the loadbay is wide and goes back a decent way it is shallow due to the battery pack beneath so is limited to 300 litres – not much more than a good supermini – and that might be why it has a cheap-looking flimsy, fabric load cover which hooks into place rather than a solid one which rises with the tailgate. Fold the two seat backs down and space rises to 1,005 litres.

The Ampera is an acquired taste and not cheap so you have to want to do your bit for the environment and make sure your driving needs makes financial sense. Its exclusivity could be part of the appeal but as a concept it has potential to make motoring greener and cleaner.

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