Page last updated at 09:54 GMT, Thursday, 3 December 2009

GM shows off technology future


Test driving the new Vauxhall Ampera

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News

A scruffy Chevy with the name Ampera written on the bonnet comes across as a particularly unambitious vision of the future.

But, this first impression turns out to be misleading.

The Chevy is a trial car, one step ahead of a prototype for General Motors' (GM) answer to Toyota's hugely successful Prius petrol-electric hybrid.

Driving the car on a test track reveals how incredibly smooth it is, with acceptable and completely silent acceleration, 0-60mph in 9 seconds.

And, most importantly from GM's point of view, it feels like an ordinary car - even though it is kitted out with the latest technology.

"We didn't want to make it radically different from what people are used to," says Gherardo Corsini, GM Europe's director of Electric Vehicle Implementation.

"If it is not appreciated by the customer, it won't be sustainable."

Similar rival

The production model of the Ampera, on display on the sidelines of the test drive, is considerably more elegant than the test car.

At first sight, the Ampera is similar to Toyota's plug-in Prius, which went on trial just over a year ago.

Opel Ampera
40 miles battery range
300 miles petrol range extender
3 hour charging time from ordinary 240 volt electric socket
10 year battery life

Both function as electric cars that are charged through the socket and both have a back-up petrol engine that takes over once the battery runs out of juice.

But there is one fundamental difference, insists Mr Corsini.

"Plug-in hybrids have the combustion engine as their main power supply," he says, pointing to how the plug-in Prius is mainly powered by a petrol engine that is supported by a battery. This battery can be charged either via the plug or, while the car is moving, by surplus power from the engine.

By contrast, the Ampera has an electric motor that is powered by a battery. This battery can be charged either via the plug or, while the car is moving, by an onboard 1.4 litre petrol engine that drives an electric generator.

'Range anxiety'

Mr Corsini insists "drivers are interested in one thing; mobility". If he is right, the distinction between the Prius and the Ampera may well come across as academic for most drivers.

Jorn Madslien driving the Ampera test car
The Ampera test car is smooth to drive with acceptable acceleration

GM studiously avoids describing the Amera as a petro-electric hybrid. Instead, they describe it as an electric car with a range extender.

"Range anxiety" is a major reason why people avoid buying electric cars, according to GM Europe spokesman Denis Chick.

The Ampera gets around this problem by offering electric motoring for those who commute less than 40 miles per day, while at the same time offering drivers peace of mind in the form of a petrol engine that will extend the car's range to 300 miles.

"Some 80% of Europeans drive less than 30 miles per day," Mr Chick points out.

The battery can be charged in three hours from a socket, and once its capacity falls to 30% the petrol engine kicks in to maintain that charge for the rest of the journey.

When looking at the numbers, it seems the Ampera's performance far exceeds Toyota's plug-in Prius, which runs out of battery power after just six miles.

But this sort of comparison misses the point, Toyota insists, pointing out that it could easily have extended the range by adding as large a battery as the one in the Ampera.

GM too distances itself from direct comparisons. "There are many different concepts on the market," says Mr Corsini.

"All of these are right solutions as we're about to move into a century of electro-mobility," he says, pointing to a future where drivers will increasingly buy their fuel from electricity companies rather than from oil companies.

Ellesmere Port

The Ampera, with its T-bone shaped battery installed from below and hidden between and under the seat, is set to hit the road in Europe under the Vauxhall and Opel brands.

Ellesmere Port
The Vauxhall Ampera might be produced at Ellesmere Port in the UK

The car was first unveiled as a concept in 2007 and will be sold as the Chevrolet Volt in the US.

The car shares a platform with the Astra model, which is produced in three factories across Europe, including Ellesmere Port in the UK.

It has not yet been decided where it will be produced, but the UK plant is a strong contender, according to Mr Chick.

"It doesn't need very much investment to make that happen as the car is built on the same underpinnings as the Astra," he says.

"GM is well aware of the good productivity record at Ellesmere Port, and the UK is a great place from which to export the car because of the weak pound."

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