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Car review: Vauxhall Ampera

Vauxhall’s Ampera is the country’s first long-distance electric car. It could also be the first true car of the future

Current thinking: the Vauxhall Ampera with its distinctive boomerang headlamps. Photograph: Observer
Price £34,995
MPG 235
Top speed 100mph

One of the visually stunning adverts that has accompanied the launch of the new Vauxhall Ampera features an interview with William Trubridge, the first man to dive unassisted to a depth of more than 100m on a single breath of air. As the handsome New Zealander bobs about on the sea’s surface, he says: “There’s a great parallel between a free dive where you need to extend one breath of air to get as deep as possible and an ecological car that has to get as far as possible on a single charge.”

It’s a perfect metaphor for “range anxiety” – the fear of running out of battery power – that has so far been the Achilles’ heel of electric cars. Though possibly a bit extreme. Could William’s last, lung-busting rush back to the surface ever really match the nail-biting agony of grinding to a powerless standstill at the red on the Norbiton interchange? Or the bad-boy thrill of pushing that flickering charge needle down below a quarter full?

The other slight problem is that William’s observation cannot be applied to the Ampera. The whole point of the pioneering Vauxhall, you see, is that it is an electric car which can never run out of power. Beneath its relatively ordinary exterior is a left-field technological solution that totally eliminates range anxiety.

It is a plug-in electric car, or more precisely an “extended-range electric vehicle” or E-Rev. It takes about three hours to charge its battery and for that you get 40 miles of clean and virtually free motoring – the equivalent of 235 miles to the gallon – on its 151bhp electric motor. After 40 miles or so, depending on your driving style, a green battery light blinks red on the dash – the usual cue for an episode of unfettered range anxiety – but miraculously the Ampera carries on seemlessly, for another 320 miles if you wish.

This is because an efficient 1.4-litre petrol engine fires up and drives a small generator which in turn charges the battery which then keeps the electric engine going which in turn (big breath) keeps the wheels turning. It sounds complicated, but to the driver the only clue is that changing graphic and the slightest of engine sounds from deep within the car.

If you rarely drive more than 40 miles and you can recharge the car regularly from the mains, that life-saving petrol engine will never start.

This may all sound very clever, but what’s the Ampera actually like, you know, as a car? From the outside, it looks modern but hardly the stuff of sci-fi fantasies. Vauxhall’s re-designed Griffin perches between a pair of boomerang headlamps, with just a touch of the now defunct Saab 9-3 about it. Inside, however, the designers have risen to the challenge. Two large information screens greet you with a barrage of HD graphics. Press the “start” button to engage the electric engine and the cabin fills with a rich, space-age sound – an amazing aural sculpture of hi-tech whooshing a million miles from the usual ayayayayay of an engine turning over. The finger-touch controls click and snap with gratifying conviction. Annoyingly, the roomy four-door saloon is only a four seater, which will rule it out for many families.

To drive, the Ampera has a brisk urgency about it. It accelerates smoothly and handles precisely, though the regenerative braking takes a while to get used to. I went a lot further than 40 miles in it, out into the wilds of Essex and back. And it was a great relief to know that my only anxiety was whether I’d come home with an orange face and super-white teeth.

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