Vauxhall Ampera

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For far to long there has been far too little good to say about Vauxhalls. Even its newest and most important cars, the Astra and Insignia, are middle of the field when they should be challenging VW and Ford for the class best. The Corsa is only a little better and the Agila promising but too low- volume to make much of a difference. The new Meriva MPV with its rear-hinged doors is far nearer the front, but one of few good things I can think to say about the Antara SUV is that at least it’s easy to forget.

But for once Vauxhall (or, more properly, its General Motors parent) has become bold and leads the field with this new Ampera which, when it goes on sale in the US as the Chevrolet Volt later this year, will be the first proper plug-in hybrid to become generally available for sale. Its courage deserves to rewarded in full.

What is so clever about the Ampera is that, unlike any other hybrid, it only ever runs on electricity, the role of its 1.4-litre petrol engine demoted to that of a standing generator, a substitute for the lithium-ion batteries once they have become depleted. So you can drive 40 miles on electricity alone (which accounts for over 70 per cent of all journeys) after which the generator gently introduces itself, running at a preset constant speed to provide energy to the 150bhp electric motor. The numbers (175mpg and sub-40g/km emissions) are astonishing, though they need treating with caution, for it is simply not sensible to measure the petrol consumption and CO2 emissions of a car that spends most of its time running on electricity. Only ever use it in town and you’ll never fill the tank (the Ampera is programmed to tell you when its petrol is so old it’s likely to go stale). Drive it to the South of France, though, and it would likely be cheaper by far to take a diesel-powered Golf.

The biggest surprise when you drive it is how unsurprising it is, more car-like even than hybrids such as the Prius that hardly ever run on electricity alone. Being able to provide maximum torque from rest means it feels like it is powered by a huge yet silent diesel engine, yet it will happily cruise down the M40 at licence-losing speeds. Allegedly.

It has two problems. First, its ride and handling aren’t good enough, and it is to be hoped a European-spec chassis is configured before it goes on sale here. The second is the price. GM says it will cost under £30,000 and is hanging its hopes on the £5000 incentive mooted by the last Government being taken up by this one. If not, I fear the Ampera may struggle to make an impact. Which would be a shame, for it is the most convincing car to be powered in whole or part by electricity that I’ve driven to date.

FACTFILE

ENGINE: 1.4-litre petrol/E85 Ethanol-fuelled electricity generator

TOP SPEED: 100mph

PRICE: £25,000 (£5000 government electric vehicle grant TBC)

POWER: 82bhp

FUEL/CO2: 175mpg, under 40g/km

www.vauxhallampera.co.uk