27 January 2009

Amped up

Vauxhall reveal it's hybrid Geneva show entry

Vauxhall Ampera

We’re still five weeks away, but Vauxhall/Opel is among the first to blurt its Geneva show plan. It’s going to pull the rug off its version of America’s Chevy Volt electric-petrol car. Further electricity-related punnage ahoy: it’ll be called the Vauxhall Ampera.

Our version gets sleeker European design, and even better aero than the already very slippery US edition. You might vaguely recognise the nose: it comes from the Flextreme concept car. The bones of the shape, and the glass and interior, come from the Volt.

What else is new? Not a lot: GM has wisely decided that given the moon-shot technology in the Volt, trying to split its effort by doing a different version for this side of the pond makes no sense. So the engine’s still an efficient turbo dirtect-injection petrol rather than a diesel.

Anyway, the idea is you hardly ever use the engine. You plug in the Ampera overnight, and you’re then good for a 40-mile commute on battery electric power. It’s quick, too; the motor makes 150bhp.

When the battery’s flat, the engine starts and generates the necessary electricity to proceed. No need to worry about stopping for a lengthy and inconvenient recharge.

GM reckons if you do all your commuting by electric power then it’s a super-cheap car to run. Just as well, because it ain’t going to be cheap to buy. The Ampera will be made in the US, because that’s where GM has its battery factory. So we’re going to have to buy it in converted dollars.

The likely US price of a Volt is $40,000, and we don’t know how that’ll turn out in sterling because our currency is getting such a hammering. Think high £30,000s at today’s rates. For a car the size of an Astra.

Pretty much every day there’s news of some miraculous new electric car. Most of them are made by people who either tell you it’s easy, or tell you it’s hard but they have the magic formula. Sadly neither of those things can be true. It’s bloody hard and there’s no magic formula.

Instead, coming between us and a practical electric car comes huge investment in battery chemistry and software engineering.

Surprisingly given its reputation as a technical and business dinosaur, one of the leading companies in doing that legwork is GM.

Expect to be able to buy an Ampera sometime in 2011. See, we said it was a difficult and slow business. Doesn’t mean we won’t get bored sick and a bit impatient in the meantime.

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