Was GM’s EV ever a contender?
Various things have recently caused me to think of things electric, though I admit that none of them involves me saving this or other planets. I had a mail the other week announcing a blanket 20mph limit in much of the area where I live, a process that is happening in many boroughs of London. Much of my driving in London is carried out in an old Audi S6, that burns both rubber and fuel with abandon, but gets me there no faster than anyone else. I dislike tube journeys. I can’t ride a pedal bike long distances without hurting my back. If I ride my motorcycle in wet weather I drip over people’s floors. I like silence. I want a new motoring experience. All these and more reasons make me think it would be nice to drive an electric car, or at least a part electric car.
Parallel hybrids don’t excite me – there is something conceptually clumsy about them, although I admit that a ride in a Prius was a pleasantly uninvolving business. My preference, based on what seems an elegant future solution rather than the state of current technology, is for a car that has a reasonable range in pure electric form around towns with a mini-turbine powered generator for potentially infinite range extension. However at present we seem to be reliant on the old reciprocating internal combustion engine for on board power.
I’ve even seen people on websites berating those who want to cure their range anxiety with supplementary power units as wimps – man up, go 100% Electric. Nice idea but, unless I get a very long extension cable that isn’t going to happen. To retort to the 100% electric macho brigade, if your life is so perfectly ordered that, when you wake up each morning, your day stretches out before you perfectly planned, with each kilometre to be travelled neatly accounted for, well done. Mine doesn’t, and I know many others who don’t, so I can’t rely on keeping within a finite range.
Like many, the BMW i3 was the first EV that I really felt attracted to. The production version disappointed slightly aesthetically, but it still remains an attractive package on paper except for the suspicion that rear seat passengers might hate me and for the nature of the range extender. The rough little scooter engine is strictly a limp-home device. Even disregarding the fuel tank size, it can’t generate enough power to guarantee to keep you out of the slow lane on a motorway. Obviously BMW are aware of this and, although they can be congratulated on getting the rest of the car into place so quickly, the range extender is a rather tacky and cynical afterthought – a 10 year old range-extender i3 (or maybe even a 3 year old one) will surely be viewed as a snapshot of work-in-progress. So if you’re in Central London and you get a call to get down to Bristol in a hurry, just leave the i3 at the side of the road and get a train – which, of course, you can rightly point out fits in with the ethos for getting an EV in the first place but would not suit me, especially if I had a boot full of things to transport.
Strangely, the one EV that currently addresses these issues most convincingly is being withdrawn by Opel/Vauxhall, giving countless motoring editors the chance to write “Vauxhall Pulls The Plug …..”. The Ampera, a development of the Volt that continues in the USA, has a complex system, which confuses and offends those in search of a pure EV, but which affords you the potential of limitless range, allowing for fuel stops, without real-world compromise. I can’t help but feel that antagonism towards General Motors, which, bearing in mind its history is not entirely undeserved, has coloured acceptance of this car. And brand snobbery, of course.
In the UK the Ampera wasn’t cheap but, if you want to be an early adopter of anything, you end up paying a premium. Actually, from £28,700 new (though the price at launch was higher) it seemed a reasonable price to me for a well thought out solution, especially compared with the smaller, stylish but compromised i3 range extender (£29,000), the all electric Tesla (from £49,000) and the Prius Plug-In (£28,000). Had it the spinning propeller badge on the front, I think take-up would have been far greater.
Sitting in the car, it’s comfortable and smartly designed. The positioning of the battery in the area that would house a transmission tunnel makes it strictly a four seater with not as much room in the rear as you might imagine, but it has reasonable luggage space and folding seats. The view out is, of course, woeful, but I could say that of so many shallow-windowed, thick-pillared contemporaries. From the outside it’s distinctive and the front view works well, but the shiny black strip beneath the side windows doesn’t really hide a certain slab-sidedness and, certainly, it doesn’t make the windows any bigger.
Its powertrain suggests a 50 mile range on electric power but, as with all EVs, this probably assumes that you are driving conservatively, in daylight, with no air conditioning and without having the Bose sound system on maximum volume, and the figure achieved is likely to be nearer to 35 miles, which is still more than many daily commutes. Once this is used up, and assuming you can’t stop and recharge at a socket, the petrol motor, a more substantial device than that of the i3, comes into action and at this point things become more complex. There are two electric motors, one for lower speeds, one that cuts in at higher speeds. The petrol engine first starts driving this second motor, turning it into a generator, so at this point the car is a series hybrid. Finally, as speeds increase further, some of the engine’s power is sent direct to the wheels by means of a planetary gearbox so that it becomes, in part, a parallel hybrid or maybe more exactly a hybrid hybrid. This might seem complex, but it probably deals with the issues that restrict the everyday usability of an EV in all conditions better than anything else currently around.
Currently, you can pick up a 2 year old Ampera for around £18,500 with the remains of an 8 year battery warranty. Typically it might have covered 20,000 or more miles and you can look at that two ways. First, that you’d have expected an EV to have covered less miles in such a short life. Second that it’s a testament to its usability. I tend towards the latter. Looking at figures, in that 20,000 miles the car has possibly saved its owner less than £1,500 in fuel bills (plus road tax and, possibly, congestion charges) over a cheaper equivalent new car with a modern, miserly diesel, but the progress of the Ampera will have been far less rackety. If running costs are your bottom line, and you factor in depreciation, an EV still remains an outsider choice. But it’s one I think I’d be happy to live with even if, when I do the crude mathematics, I might have to drive 60,000 miles before any savings had paid for the difference between it and the guzzling Audi.
I have a brochure for the Ampera on my desk. Obviously written when GM were feeling optimistic for its chances in Europe (“Resistance Is Futile!”), it makes sad reading now. EVs aren’t going to vanish, and I guess that a GM EV will return to the UK but, by then, their offering, like most other GM products, won’t stand out and will be just a safe version of whatever everyone else is offering.