First Drive: Opel Ampera (Prototype)
Even with staggeringly high fuel costs and increasing social and financial pressure to reduce emissions, there are still one billion cars on the road globally and that figure is growing. We’re showing no signs of a dented demand for four-wheeled transport.
So it’s no wonder manufacturers are working hard to find alternatives, but while GM sees fuel cell technology as its long-term goal the required infrastructure is still years away from making it viable for a large-scale roll-out.
Its battery electric vehicles are closer, but with a limited range and long charging times it’s difficult to persuade buyers to part ways with the spontaneity offered by a fossil fuels.
This is where the Ampera provides a solution. Charged like a pure electric vehicle it’ll give a range of up to 50 miles with no tailpipe emissions. When the battery charge drops under minimum, a range-extending 1.4 litre petrol engine kicks in to top it up to a third of its capacity, aided by the same brake regeneration technology found in a regular hybrid.
Unlike a hybrid the Ampera is only driven using the electric motors, and the petrol engine never directly provides any power to the wheels. Instead, it’s set to run at its most efficient speeds and acts purely as a generator.
Relying on fossil fuels may sound like a step backwards, and it does mean this isn’t a zero emissions car, but with lithium ion batteries limited by range it makes a lot of sense at the moment. GM says matching the Ampera’s 310 mile range on pure electric power would mean 830kg in batteries and packaging, plus a much longer charging time.
With most journeys falling well within its fully electric range, that’s substantial mass and investment for capacity that many drivers would hardly use. The frugal petrol engine offers a low weight, low cost solution and means the Ampera can be refuelled in a few minutes, just like a regular car.
But even GM admits the technology is only a stopgap. Like most electric cars, it’s still best suited to urban use where most journeys happen on battery power. Official EU fuel consumption figures haven’t been announced yet, but stretched to its 310 mile range it’ll use 30 litres of fuel, equivalent to 47mpg.
That’s not to say it’s a half-hearted attempt to fill the void. It looks great, which is a good start, with pin-sharp, futuristic bodylines that wouldn’t look out of place on a coupe. And it’s just as space age inside, replacing conventional instruments with a stylish LCD display showing exactly what’s happening under the skin.
It’s practical and drives well, too. Our test car tackled a route comprising rural and urban roads and a section of autobahn with all the ease of a powerful petrol car. The batteries give it a low centre of gravity, while the high torque output of the electric motor makes it surprisingly sporting on the road.
Ampera shows we’ve got a long way to go before fully electric vehicles are a global solution, but its good looks, usable range and low running costs should make it an attractive option for a larger cross-section of customers than existing EVs.