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Opel Ampera - it's electric but not as we know it!

Opel Ampera - it's electric but not as we know it!

We all know that electric vehicles (EVs) are going to play a huge part in the future of motoring, but as of now they only suit drivers who do low mileage. This is due to the present state of battery technology; if we had better battery performance we'd all be in EVs.

As a rule, they have great acceleration and cost far less to run than a car with an internal combustion engine. Europe is pushing the whole 'reduce carbon emissions' thing down everybody's throats, and Ireland has no choice but to comply. This means we must make use of renewable energy sources like wind and wave and in turn drive EVs that can harness this power at off-peak times. Slowly but surely we will be given a greater range of EVs to choose from, but for now the choice is very limited. Opel has recently taken the lead in global mobility with its new Ampera – it’s an EV but with an extended range.

So how does it differ from a Nissan Leaf or ZE Renaults like the Fluence ZE? In simple terms Ampera has an EV powertrain, but it also has a small, 1.4-litre petrol engine that kicks in when all the battery power is used up - giving it extended range. So here is a new acronym we must embrace: EREV - it stands for extended range electric vehicle. Ampera, however, should not be confused with 'hybrid' cars that use an electric motor and battery power to supplement its engine-driven chassis, e.g. Prius, Lexus CT200h etc. Ampera's wheels are electrically driven at all times. Ampera is the first car in a brand new energy efficient sector.

You can drive in EV only mode for between 40-60 kilometres and after electric battery power is used up the petrol engine will turn a generator to power the car for up to 500 kilometres in total. This means you can enjoy really low running costs and hold the moral high ground with fabulously green motoring credentials.

I took the Ampera for a test drive in The Netherlands to see if it could live up to the hype. The four-seat car uses a familiar CVT automatic gearbox to deliver its 150bhp and 370nm of torque through the front wheels. It feels weighty and solid with a premium feel; it should, as Ampera will have a mid-forties price tag when it gets here by the end of 2011 for 2012 deliveries.

The interior features hi-tech looking screens and even the Bose sound system is 50% more energy efficient than conventional units. You can choose from different driving modes that deliver and consume power to match the driver's needs. Despite being asked to take part in an economy run during the test drive, I drove the car as I would in the real world and still managed to sip 3.5 litres per 100 kilometres of fuel on average.

Styling is aggressive and impressive at the same time. The very aerodynamic shape has been made look purposeful more than functional. The front end styling shows where all future energy efficient Opels are going, while the side and rear views clearly show a car that as Opel told me 'won't need to be parked around the corner'.

The 198kg, 360 volt 'T'-shaped lithium-ion battery pack is made up of 288 individual cells sandwiched together by Opel and takes up to four hours to charge - as of now only using single phase domestic electricity. This means it cannot be fast charged, but with its petrol engine this is less of an issue than with EV only powered cars, i.e. when the juice runs out, you're stuffed!

When you need to brake with Ampera, the electric motors (there are two) retard your speed and regenerate electricity in the process. Ampera's conventional brakes only kick in under hard braking. There is an 'L' setting on the gear lever that when selected gives added braking when you lift off the accelerator.

Ampera is an exciting car that is the world's first mass-produced EREV. It looks great and early adopters will love it. Whether it will tempt buyers from BMW's 5 Series, E-Class Mercedes or A6 Audis is another matter. Top marks, Opel, for innovation.

Michael Sheridan