Last week, Pocket-lint got its hands on the very first Vauxhall Ampera to hit UK shores. This is not the finished car, but it's pretty close to it. Aside from having its steering wheel on the wrong side, it gives a very complete feel for how the UK model will look and feel. Vauxhall was, however, keen to point out that the final car will be more refined, quieter, and adorned with nicer materials in the cabin. All of which amazed us, because we thought it was utterly brilliant inside.
The first thing you notice on the outside is that Vauxhall has managed to temper the usual "eco vehicle" look. This car is still designed to have the important features that help keep it fuel-efficient, like clever aerodynamics and wheels that don't chop up the air and increase resistance. But it still looks like a normal, if slightly futuristic, car.
And this continues inside. It's a bit like mission control, with a centrally-mounted touchscreen that provides access to information about the car, and other niceties like CD player and navigation. On the dashboard, behind the wheel, is the usual information about speed, but there's no rev counter, just a green ball that moves up and down to tell you the quality of your driving.
Accelerate quickly, the ball will fall toward the bottom of the scale and you're not maximising the environmental potential of the car. It also tells you how well you're breaking, because the regenerative system works best when you brake slowly, over a long distance. Get this right, and it can put a lot of power back into the battery.
Also slightly surprising was how roomy the car was. You can actually fit four adults into it, and in comfort too. While this is a little shy of the usual five person capacity, the Ampera uses the central area to house its rechargeable batteries, which means you get better luggage space than in some hybrids or electric vehicles.
Another nice feature is the long-life battery. Vauxhall restricts the way the battery is charged and discharged quite strictly. It is never allowed to drop below 30 per cent, and can only be topped-up to 80 per cent of the maximum. What this means is the battery will easily keep its rated capacity of 40 miles for at least 8 years. It also means that it can be charged in just 4 hours. So while the range is shorter than many all-electric vehicles you have guaranteed battery longevity, as well as Vauxhall's 100,000 mile warranty, including the battery, which impressed us.
While a range of just 40 miles might seem problematic, it's crucial to remember that this car is electric with a 1.4-litre petrol engine thrown in too. That removes worries about range, because you can always top it up with fuel, but also provides huge efficiency benefits over a hybrid like the Prius. The bottom line, according to Vauxhall, is that the Ampera can achieve fuel economy of around 175mpg on the combine cycle and emits just 40g/km of CO2. For comparison, the Prius manages 89g/km and 72.4mpg. Of course, the Ampera isn't in production yet, so some caution is advised with these early figures.
We took the car for a very short test drive and it's fair to say it's the nicest electrically-driven car we've experienced, with perhaps the exception of the Tesla, which impresses with its raw power, if not its practicality. Because the car always runs from electric motors - there are two, one for low speed only, and another that kicks-in at higher speeds - it has the responsiveness of an electric car, but with none of the range concerns.
The petrol engine is quiet too - at least, it's concealed within enough soundproofing to make it appear quiet. It's not like a normal engine either, its revs don't slowly increase, instead the revs jump up, in stages that generate enough electricity to drive the electric motor. At 70mph the engine is running at about 5000rpm, which is high, but still maintains good efficiency. The Ampera is limited to 100mph too, after all, this is supposed to be an environmentally responsible vehicle.
You'll be able to buy one from around April 2012. Its list price will be around £34,000, but there's a £5000 plug-in discount from the government to encourage uptake in such vehicles. You also get into the lowest tax bracket of 5 per cent and the first year is free. Add all that to the lack of congestion charge and incredible fuel efficiency and you should claw back some of its slightly high initial cost.