Theme : Hybrids – GM Pushes The Definition

Was GM’s EV ever a contender? And is it a Parallel Hybrid? This is a revised version of a post published last October following the Opel Ampera’s withdrawal from sale. 

Ampera Owners

We laugh at giants at our peril. General Motors has made many mistakes in its existence, but it has scored lots of hits, and it’s still around. So, when they started taking EVs seriously, for the second time around after the controversial EV1 of the mid 90s, we needed to take GM seriously.

However giants take the small people for granted at their peril. GM’s very size means that it has little affection or goodwill going for it, so it will often be harshly judged. When the Chevrolet Volt, whose technology underlies the Ampera, first appeared critics were quick to accuse it of not being a pure EV, claiming that it was no more that a smoke-and-mirrors version of a Prius.

Parallel hybrids don’t excite me – there is something conceptually clumsy about them, although I admit that a ride as a passenger in a Prius is a pleasantly uninvolving business. My preference, based on what seems an elegant future solution, rather than the state of current technology, would be 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 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, 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.

Amperas FrontStrangely, the one EV that currently addresses these issues most convincingly was withdrawn last year, giving motoring hacks 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, 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.

The Kylie Minogue Effect : If you want your car to look spacious, secure the services of a small singer.
The Kylie Minogue Effect : If you want your car to look spacious, secure the services of a small singer, in this case Katie Melua.

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.

Ampera Layout

Its powertrain promises a maximum 50 mile range on electric power but, as with all EVs, this probably assumes that you are driving conservatively, under ideal conditions, in daylight, with no air conditioning and without having the Bose sound system on maximum volume, and the figure achieved is likely to be 35 miles or less, but 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.  However, this latter mode is the one the infuriated critics, who pointed out that the petrol engine was driving the wheels directly, and that GM was ‘cheating’. The hard working team at GM might be excused for being well pissed-off by such nit-picking.

Ampera DashLast year, you could 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 aged petrol guzzling Audi I drove around London until recently.

I have a brochure for the Ampera. Obviously written when GM were feeling optimistic for its chances in Europe (“Resistance Is Futile!”), it makes rather sad reading now. EVs certainly aren’t going to vanish, and a GM EV will surely return to the UK but, looking at the success of Tesla, it’s a mistake to believe that it is simply doing what GM can’t. A giant like GM just sees Tesla as doing the groundwork that it doesn’t feel inclined to do itself. When battery technology has reached a suitable level, and when enough charging stations are in place, be sure that GM won’t hold back.

Their future offerings, like most other GM products, probably won’t stand out and will be just a safe version of whatever everyone else is offering. But, even though it was confined by then current restraints, and its technology won’t be that relevant in a decade’s time, I think that history will be kinder to the Volt/Ampera, viewing it as an intelligent solution for its time.

Ampera Tunnel

34 thoughts on “Theme : Hybrids – GM Pushes The Definition”

  1. I do not think history will be very kind to any hybrid, even successful ones like the Prius. They are a solution to a short term problem, namely the energy density of batteries. Once that problem is innovated out, as it surely will over the coming years, hybrids will be seen as a technological cul-de-sac.

    1. Chris. By ‘kind’, I mean acknowledging it as a useful solution for the time. The whole concept of the hybrid is inelegant and, undoubtedly, its time is limited, but it offers a workable shorter-term solution for people who want to embrace EVs on some level without having to spend their time monitoring residual range read-outs (whilst gloating over the money they’ve saved without setting it off against the additional cost of buying the things).

  2. I still wonder why replaceable battery packs are not regarded as being feasible. They would be bloody big, but they seem like an obvious solution.

    1. Decades ago, when I was a student, I remember sketching a box-like EV which had a slide-out battery section at the bottom. It allowed for a lot of (lead-acid) batteries which, in hindsight, would still only have got it about 10 miles before it needed to visit a hypothetical battery-swap station.

      But in the near future, I agree it would be feasible, and logical …. if only manufacturers could agree on a modular standard. Unfortunately, from videotape formats to phone connectors, we know that is a perennial impossibility.

    2. You mean, with service stations that swap batteries in less time it takes to fill a tank and refill them?

    3. Batteries would have to be standardised and easily accessible. That’s a huge investment for a technology that is a stop-gap at best. Superfast charging points are probably more realistic, yet still inconvenient if they take more than say, 10-15 mins.

    4. Laurent. I assume you mean stop-gap before fuel cells become common. Which might happen soon-ish, but then something else might come along. Obviously once an industry has committed investment into any technology to the point of productionising it, the impetus to replace it becomes less, and progress slows. The internal combustion engine is a prime example. And as for standardisation, the industry is useless at it. Probably 90% of the cars in the world could run off just 4 different engines and few people would notice the difference, but how many 1600cc or thereabouts 4 cylinder IC engines are in production at present?

  3. I had passing thoughts about both Ampera and i3 before going for the Mazda3. Our Head of Digital Marketing at work just took charge of an i3 as a company car recently and it certainly attracts more admiring glances and comments than mine (which I think some in the office are only now coming to realise is not a courtesy or hire car to cover for what must be a dose of incapacitation for my C6). However, the issues that Sean highlights here made me feel that, much as I admire much about the i3 (interior, “different” looks, tech image), I can’t be faffed with the whole range/ recharging thing and the RE motor really is poor. The Ampera holds a different and, in someways, greater appeal as a curiosity. I also think that there will be an amusing retro-electro factor to the instruments and switch-gear, which already looks rather Atari in an Apple age. In the end, I concluded that, for the mundane requirements that I have of a car, a more conventional diesel (it is not what I would call “rackety” – road noise it the issue) saloon would be less of a worry. After all, the C6 remains to fulfill the brief of curio.

    1. Yes SV. For the two weeks that I seriously considered buying a used Ampera, there were various things that I tried to ignore. One was the woeful view out through those mean little windows. Another was the dashboard. To look at, the centre console is quite appealing, but only in a knowing sort of way – the Atari comparison is apt. I suspect it would have irritated me with use.

      However, the Tesla touch-screen dashboard is more of-its-time, but I suspect could be equally irritating – you don’t (or maybe I mean my generation don’t) drive in the same way you use a iPad, and the lack of a physical button to do certain things is an unwanted distraction.

    2. As an aside, I like the idea of your Digital Marketing head getting an i3. It suggests a policy where all company cars should suggest the job and/or policy of their drivers.

    3. Sean, yes it is slightly stereotypical that he went for an i3. Interestingly, the company running the scheme for us gave a fantastic deal, which suggests that BMW is having to provide a lot of “marketing support”.

    1. That’s pretty impressive from Tesla – it’s expensive, a new brand and has a real lack of distribution capability for both sales and service. If they can produce a cheaper model, I think they could take off somewhat.

    2. It is certainly impressive – and surprising. Were we carrying out this conversation on TWBCM website, I guess we’d be told that Tesla’s figures are all hot air and that the buyers are just Mr Musk’s relatives using US taxpayer’s money. I noticed more Teslas in a week in Austria last year than I have seen before or since anywhere else – ditto for Zoes and i3s. Why Austria?

      Incidentally, Zoe total European sales = 25,235 which isn’t really that great in comparison. But they’re selling much stronger this year than last which suggests that with more competitors around, the market is getting stronger.

    3. I quite fancy a Renault Egg- — I mean, Zoe. I worked out that I could very nearly afford the monthly on the amount I currently spend on petrol. Only the range put me off. But isn’t that always the case with electrics?

  4. Reading the comments I often wonder how many contributors have “real time” daily use of these vehicles or are just arm chair critics.
    As a life time auto nut growing up in fifties America I became of age so to speak at the turn of the current century by suddenly becoming aware of eco matters.
    Never one to pay huge amounts for my cars I purchased a low mile three year old Gen one Honda Insight which I ran for three years, next came a duplicate purchase of a second gen Prius, five years later a new Leaf and two years later a three year old low miles Ampera.
    My point is I haven’t spent excessively only wisely in buying into this technology which is opposite to what many non adopters believe. I have 15 years experience of use, contributed to promoting the tech, saved loads on fuel cost, cut emissions and thoroughly enjoyed the cars with not one problem.
    The Honda produced incredible fuel economy but was basically an early experiment. The Prius introduced me to very limited electric drive with acceptable economy and practical space. Being especially impressed with the electric drive of the Prius when the Leaf was introduced it became a natural progression to finally dump everything I had lived with for sixty odd years and go full electric.
    In two years use of the Leaf 99% of my needs were met but longer journeys were accomplished in a second conventional car, not an acceptable compromise so the Ampera!
    This allows me to enjoy the benefits of electric drive weekly without needing a second car and eliminates any range anxieties if needs change. Until there is a 250 mile range full electric that I can justify price wise the Ampera/Volt is the solution.

    1. Many thanks for your comment. I guess quite a few of us here are inevitably ‘armchair critics’ on many matters, since it’s hard to own or drive the multitude of types of cars available, though that doesn’t mean that our reservations aren’t valid since EVs are very much work-in-progress. But the Ampera did strike me as a solution that demanded less compromise than practically any other on offer at the moment and, although its technology might seem clumsy in 10 years time, it is well thought out and, I feel, unfairly dismissed by many. I suppose 110 years ago people were saying the same about the gasoline engine but, at some point, you need to bite the bullet to progress. It’s good to hear from someone who has.

    2. That´s a great bit of insight. Thanks for that. I was very skeptical about the Ampera, I must admit. It seemed to me to be a petrol car with an electrical fig-leaf, so to speak. It sees it does actually work. I suppose the next step is for hybrids to be made in other formats than five door hatchbacks. Eventually we may see estate cars and even small sportscars though I feel sportscars might be very well suited to full electrical power as few people expect to go a very long way in them.

    3. Keep in mind if you are looking for something like the Volt/Ampera you want a PHEV or “plug in hybrid electric vehicle” distinct from just hybrid.
      Mitsubishi Outlander SUV is a 32 mile PHEV available now and BMW has the i8 PHEV high performance sports car so its happening slowly but surely.
      Just to clarify my position I prefer an all electric car for many reasons and will eventually return to one but for now the PHEV ticks most of the boxes.

  5. You’re right. It is happening already. I presume that in the way television didn’t kill radio and the web hasn’t killed television, these various new ways of storing power will end up co-existing with the ICE which might remain the best option for some applications. I could imagine Rolls giving up ICE but perhaps they suit trucks like the F150.

    1. You may even find trucks “supposedly” being utility vehicles will adopt hybrid tech to become more efficient with a side benefit of offering a mobile power source.
      Power your home when mains are down, operate power tools, recreational equipment etc.
      Remember whatever level of efficiency an ICE reaches in development it can always be improved by becoming a hybrid. Low emissions and economy are paramount today and more so tomorrow, so I predict the foreseeable future will be a mixture of hybrid, plug in hybrids and full electric with straight ICEs phasing out.
      The last ones will be the dirtiest most inefficient on the road and if not shunned by buyers will be legislated into history.

  6. I am not wedded to the ICE but I feel that it will not go extinct. Some utility vehicles in hostile environments might be best run on ICE. Perhaps very small cars might remain as ICE-only. Your point does ram home the fact that the ICE will have to justify itself!

  7. For those interested here is an update on my recently purchased Ampera/Volt performance.
    As mentioned previously most of my daily driving with the Leaf was well within its range limits and I am finding this with the electric side of the Ampera as well.
    A recent trip beyond the electric range totalling 127.7 miles produced an 82.7 mpg average without even trying to drive for economy. Over the last 672 miles it has returned 150.6 mpg average which includes the previous mentioned trip plus another 110 mile run and the rest being local electric trips.
    The cars life time average with 16,000 miles on it is 70 mpg which tells me the previous owners usage was not biased toward short runs using only electric.
    Overall I am chuffed with the efficiency, the car, unlimited range and the ability to run electric for virtually all my weekly trips.
    After years spent with two types of hybrid and a full EV this PHEV is proving to be in a class of its own, not as economical as the Leaf but it would have required a charge to return home which was not possible.
    I feel this car would easily dispel all the doubts prospective buyers might have towards going electric, certainly at this point in time.

    1. I’m not surprised. I’m following the stories of a fellow Citroën fan turned Tesla owner. He often comments on press articles about EVs, and very often he encounters a mix of ignorance and wilful disinformation there. A classic seems to be deliberate “stupid” use to “prove” the unusability of these cars. Like starting a holiday trip with a near empty tank and then complaining about a 10 km walk with the jerrycan.

    2. dgate. I’m pleased to see that your practical experience vindicates my opinion of the Volt/Ampera. GM’s history, and the accusations thrown at them over EV1, means that there was a lot of scepticism about the car from the start. Particularly senseless was the reaction to the ‘discovery’ that part of the engine’s power was being channeled direct to the wheels, rather than always being processed through the electric motors. This was greeted by some rather like the car was the Lance Armstrong of EVs.

      Sure, in years to come its engineering will look archaic, just as a VW Beetle does today, but at present it still seems like the most usable solution. I admit that, although seriously considering a purchase, its cabin architecture defeated me. I find the lack of glass area oppressive, though that is an accusation I can also level at many of its contemporaries. Of course that would affect the consumption figures, but I’d certainly have been more enthusiastic if it had been available as a slightly more glassy estate. Actually, more than the consumption figures, it is the relative serenity of progress of EVs that attracted me.

    3. Sean I have always been an advocate of large glass area but I’m finding the interior rather cosy, private and devoid of glare and much to my surprise I like it.
      I wonder if the small glass area was chosen for saving weight and reducing solar gain or styling.
      I do wish the car had powered retractable mirrors, rain and speed sensitive wipers and a rear wiper but am guessing the American influence is showing through on this.

  8. I for one am looking forward to the 2016 Chevrolet Volt. It seems to address the criticisms of the current (ho ho) model, chiefly the styling, and further refine the drive train. Hopefully it will appear in the UK as a Vauxhall.

    As for press perceptions, Car and Driver are enthusiastic about the Volt, with some sensible caveats.

    1. chrisward1978 why wait for the 2016 unless you just want a new car or can’t stand the styling of the present one.
      There is not a big enough change in efficiency for the price premium over a low mile current model plus you could be enjoying the advantage and efficiency of electric drive now instead of waiting.
      Since the update ten days ago my last 106 miles have all been electric and my previous 672 miles including some petrol use is now 778.5 with a new average of 173.8 mpg . This number will keep increasing if I can avoid going beyond the electric range of 46 miles on this particular car.
      The longer you wait the more reasons you will find to chase what’s just over the horizon.

  9. A year on from my previous post I noticed only today the name badge on the Ampera lift gate could possibly be a play on words!….. Amp era.
    Of the three name badges only the rear one is stylised with an upper case A that has a tail underlining the mp and ending in a positive symbol. The last A letter, also a cap, mirrors this with the tail under the er and ending in a negative symbol.
    Could Amp era be the meaning behind Ampera ?

    1. Needless to say, as at most English speaking motoring websites, we at DTW are awaiting the promised return of GM’s EV ambitions to UK shores with our ‘The Ampera’s New Clothes’ headline already primed.

  10. The Ampera’s New Cloths headline more or less forecloses the verdict, I’d say.

    Thanks for looking in, Sean: we hope you’re finding room for Simon’s cases of oloroso.

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