Opel Ampera

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For quite some time now I wanted to get behind the wheel of one of the new generation electric/hybrid cars. This weekend I had the chance to test the car that is assumed to be the king of them all, a car that has won the Car of the Year 2012 award, namely the Opel Ampera. Since its launch at the Geneva motor show in 2009, the Ampera has caused quite a stir among the automotive world, especially as it was the first car of the EREV type (Extended Range Electric Vehicle), developed also under the name Chevrolet Volt (US version). It was first put into production in 2011 and the first units were delivered to Germany in the early days of January 2012. Since its launch, the Ampera has been advertised so avidly, that it really makes you wonder if this car is as great as they actually claim it to be.

Powertrain

Let us begin with the powertrain. Under the hood, the Ampera features two engines. First, there is an electric motor, developing 113 kW (150 HP) and a generous 370 Nm of torque. This is connected through a CVT (continuous velocity transmission) gearbox to the front wheels. Secondly, a 1.4l petrol engine sits on the left side of the engine bay, developing 85 HP and is connected to a generator that creates electricity for either the battery or the electric motor. This is where the Ampera differentiates itself from the Toyota Prius. Instead of having the petrol engine drive the front wheels, the engineers at Opel decided to use it to create electricity and all the effort to be sustained only by the electric motor. This, in theory, should lead to the engine being only slightly revved and not encountering heavy stress (such as during acceleration). However, when the battery is depleted or driving in the “Hold” mode, the engine sometimes revs too much, up to the point where it is too loud and becomes disturbing, especially at usual Autobahn cruising speeds. Due to the restrictions of the electric motor, the Ampera is restricted to 161 km/h, but don’t be surprised if the speedometer shows the restriction at 169 km/h (the real speed will be 161, GPS tested). This is a bit sad, especially in Germany, where there are many sections of the Autobahn that are not restricted and where you would like to drive at least 180 km/h.

Suspension

The suspension on this car is rather soft, which makes it very comfortable at both low and high speeds. It cushions bumps very well and, surprisingly, doesn’t roll that much while cornering. However, this car longs for a proper front axle differential. While hard accelerating, there is enough torque steer that can become annoying and while cornering hard the Ampera under steers heavily. Due to the two engines being placed in front and even though the battery is located to the mid-back together with the 35l tank, it is still very heavy at the nose and you can feel that in the corners. I tested it in the same conditions as the other cars (Polo, Astra GTC, Corsa and Civic) and it doesn’t even compare to them. But, to be honest, this car wasn’t designed for sportive driving, so I could let this fault slide this time.

Exterior

What strikes you most about the Ampera when you look at it is the aggressive front with the boomerang style front lamps, design recently used on the new Zafira Tourer. The front bumper is rather low and there is always the danger of hitting it while parking at a curb. Underneath it, there is a 5cm rubber skirt that, I can only assume, restricts the amount of air that flows under the car, directing it to sides. The overall shape of the car is similar to the Prius’ due to the fact that it offers a very good aerodynamic index for this type of vehicle. Round the back, Opel opted for horizontal taillights that I don’t find extremely good looking, but they fit the overall tone of the car. The Ampera does not have extreme design angles, but enough touches to make it interesting and not too many that could ruin its aerodynamics. Down the side, nothing spectacular can be found, apart from the black plastic frame under the windows that gives it a distinctive touch. The Ampera comes as standard with 17” alloy rims that have a particular design which minimizes the air turbulence around the wheel, therefore making the car more “slippery”. Though this should impact the fuel economy, the black shiny plastic doesn’t look that great.

Interior

For the Ampera that I tested, Europcar was kind enough to equip it with every single gizmo that Opel has to offer, raising the price of this particular model to just over 44.000 euros. Therefore, I had included navigation, front and back parking sensors, rear-view camera, Bluetooth, CD/DVD player with included HDD, leather ventilated seats and two 7” screens, one of them being touchscreen as well. The steering wheel is identical to other Opel models, with adjustment on two axes, but the dials are unique for the Ampera. Instead of the traditional analog gauges, Opel fitted a futuristic display that shows the speed in the center. You can opt for two configurations of the display. I recommend using the one where you have on the left the range remaining based on the battery charge or petrol tank and on the right it features a clever accelerometer tool that shows you when you accelerate or brake too hard. It is similar to a children balancing game, but here you try to keep the ball in the center and as green as possible. When you drive efficiently, three leaves appear inside the ball. Apart from these features, you can also select under the speedometer between two trip values, navigation directions, tire pressure information, car messages and a tutorial on how to drive efficiently.

On the center console, on top, you can find the touchscreen that shows all the information for the navigation, climate control and entertainment system. Despite looking sharp and being multifunctional, it is rather slow and it can become annoying while entering a long address as your navigation destination. In addition, it is disturbing during night drive, even though its luminosity changes slightly in night mode, so I found myself turning it off during the night. Apart from having a floating center console, which I have only seen on Volvos so far, it also features touch buttons. It sounds and looks fancy, but it comes with its drawbacks. Sometimes you need to press your finger hard on the button area in order to get a response or, while operating the touchscreen you accidentally touch the climate buttons with your knuckles and you will find yourself turning on the windshield defog pretty often. Otherwise, the buttons are not laid out in the best intuitive manner, but after a short time you will get familiar with it. The settings menu looks a tad similar to the iDrive system from BMW, but it’s far from it.

Due to the fact that the battery sits right under the middle-back section of the car, it was necessary to fit it in the center tunnel all the way to the back, meaning that this doesn’t leave room for a middle seat in the back. Therefore the Ampera features four seats, similar to an E-class Mercedes, and you would expect it to carry you around in utmost comfort. Even with the front seats set in the driving position of an average height person, there isn’t great legroom for the back seats. In addition, if you are rather tall, you will definitely have headroom issues. I am 185cm tall and still barely fit properly in the back seat. Your head sits under the rear window and the back beam is right in front of your forehead, so I imagine that a tall person will hit that in case of a crash. Also, to save weight, they fit a rather ugly pocket that connects the two back seats and a piece of material hitched with 4 elastic bands in the corners to cover the boot area. You wouldn’t expect this from a 40k limousine.

Green stuff

While driving the Ampera, you can select between four modes by pressing the “Drive Mode” button on the center console. The “Normal” mode means that the car drives on the power from the battery until depleted and then switches to the petrol generator. The “Sport” mode uses both the battery and generator to provide electricity to the electric motor in order for the car to put out the most performance. If you plan to drive over the Alps, or such high roads, you should use the “Mountain” setting as this will give you the most amount of torque in order for the car to be able to climb safely. The last driving mode is “Hold” that saves the battery and uses only the generator to feed the electric motor. This is ideal for highway situations so you can save the battery for when you reach the city and minimize the pollution in those crowded regions. In addition, the Ampera features a clever regenerative braking system that is activated by placing the gear selector in the “L” position. This will give you more visible deceleration and using the energy to charge the battery. This works well, although not as efficient as you might imagine, but it is a feature that should be further developed and fitted to future cars.

So, the most important part, how does the Ampera actually perform in the fight for efficiency and environmental friendliness? Well, if you listen to the advertisements and all the marketing material you will hear words like: “1.2l/100km consumption” or “charge only electricity and never fill with petrol again”. But in real life, things are not quite so. On the Ampera microsite from Opel it is mentioned that, indeed, the Ampera will drink only 1.2-1.6l per 100 km, but only in the first 100 km with a fully charged battery. Otherwise, until you charge it again it will consume up to 4.8-5l/100km. This is closer to the real value, but still not there. The car that I tested already had done over 7000km in its life and for that period, the computer claimed a consumption of 7.2l/100km. I drove it for 1200km and I couldn’t get it lower than 6.5l/100km. To be fair, most of the driving was done on the Autobahn, at around 120-130km/h, which affects the outcome a bit. But still, from all this effort, you still cannot get a lower consumption than a 1.2l Polo? I agree that if you drive only in the city to work and back and charge it over the night, you will be hundreds of times more efficient than any small car, but as soon as you run out of electricity or leave the city setting, it all doesn’t make much of a difference anymore.

Conclusion

After an entire weekend with the Ampera, I ended up slightly disappointed. Perhaps I was too excited after reading so many positive reviews or seeing so many advertisements, but the Ampera didn’t rise to my expectations. Indeed, the Ampera is a great choice for someone who drives only in the city and can afford to spend so much money, thinking at the long term effect. But for an all-rounder, this car does not yet make sense. Opel proves with the Ampera that it is possible, that we have the technology necessary, but there is still a long way to go until this type of cars will be able to actually make a difference. What we have here is just a sneak peek into the future.

Opel Astra J GTC 1.4 Turbo ecoFLEX

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Wandering around the expo at the IAA in Frankfurt last autumn, among the exquisite and exotic supercars presented there, Opel unveiled a gem of their own, the new Astra GTC. I spent quite a lot of time then at their stand, admiring the good work the designers have done and hoping that I would get a chance to drive it in the near future. This wish became reality when, on a mid-June Saturday morning, I was offered the keys of the GTC for a test drive.

– Design
Let’s not rush into things and talk at first about the design of this car. The latest generation of Opel cars hopefully starts the trend of good looking Opels. Until now, they didn’t stand out much of the crowd, but now they have a pretty good fighting chance. Starting with the aggressive Ampera front design, that was later applied on the Zafira, all the way to the new Astra generation, which suffered a significant improvement from the previous models. This brings me to the car I tested. The Astra is a good looking car, but the GTC is an even better looking car. Its sleekness and aggressivity stand out immediately and you suddenly become interested in this car. Starting from the standard Astra, Opel lowered the roof slightly (notice, slightly), changed the front grill, front bumper, reshaped the sides, remodeled the tail lights and fitted a more sporty back bumper in order to obtain the GTC. The new front lights add on the mean look by having a discrete eyebrow in the form of the LED day-drive light. The bumper is a hybrid between the standard Astra and the OPC Astra, giving it a subtle sporty look. Moving on to the sides, Opel did a clever trick to keep the back seat headroom to comfortable levels. Instead of chopping drastically the roof to give it that sports car look, they only lowered it slightly and then shaped the side panels upwards to give you the idea of a low sports coupé. The long door adds to the aforementioned feel and provides enough space to access the back seats. Round the back, Opel redesigned the tail lights, giving them a more edgy, aggressive look, matching the overall feel of the GTC. To add to the coupé design, Opel decreased the height of the rear window to match the lifted rear side panels and windows. Despite this change, the visibility out of the back is not bad at all, it offering enough perspective for most driving situations. The bumper has a certain design that makes you think of a rear deflector, but only slightly, hinting the sportiness of the GTC. This entire design is completed by a range of good looking rims provided by Opel, starting with 19” as standard with the option of 20” at a small cost.

– Interior
The inside of the GTC presents itself with the standard Opel modesty with hints of sportiness that remind you that you are driving a sports coupé. As expected, the interior of this Astra is very practical, logically arranged and ergonomic. The steering wheel has not been given sporty credentials, but is the same you can find in the Insignia or Zafira. It is very comfortable and with the discrete aluminum insert it looks good as well. The controls on the wheel are practical and easy to use. The model in test was a full spec car, with every optional extra installed. As a result, the center console was very busy and filled with lots of gizmos you could play with. On top you can find a crisp 7” screen that provides the interface for the navigation, entertainment and climate controls. All the buttons on the console are arranged in a smart manner that this car does not require any getting used to, but you just find everything where it’s supposed to be. Operating the navigation system is easy and intuitive which is a big plus for this car. Specific to this GTC model are the nice touches added by the red neon light underneath the gear shifter and behind the inside door handle. As soon as you open the door, that light stands out and it feels like the car is just waiting to be driven. The GTC comes with nice sport seats, that hug you into place and offer great support and on the tested model, they were covered in leather as well. As for space in the back seats, the GTC, due to the clever design, offers its passengers moderate legroom and generous headroom. Despite the sloping roof and coupé look, this car does very well at this chapter.

– Engine, drivetrain and suspension
For the GTC Opel offers a reasonable range of engines. There are three variants of the 1.4 petrol engine (100, 120 and 140 HP respectively), a 1.6 petrol developing 180 HP. Running on Satan’s fuel, the GTC has two versions of the common 1.7 (110 and 130 HP) and a 2 liter version with 165 HP. Apart from the smallest engine which comes with a 5 speed gearbox, the other version come either with a 6 speed manual or 6 speed automatic. The tested model had the turbo 1.4 petrol developing a respectable 140 HP and putting the power down through a crisp 6 speed manual. This configuration brings the best out of this engine, especially in city traffic situations. It has enough power and torque, even at low revs, to get you out of tricky situations, be it at traffic lights or overtaking, no problem. The best thing about this engine version is that there is no turbo lag and the power is delivered smooth and almost over the entire rev range. Despite all these positive remarks, the GTC has a flaw. The flywheel is too heavy and you can really feel its influence at high revs. Otherwise, the gearbox is precise and, with short travel, it helps you during sporty shifting. Since it’s a modern car, it has driving modes: Sport, Tour and Eco. The Sport mode hardens the suspension, makes the steering more direct and precise and increases the throttle response. The Tour mode softens the suspension and decreases the sportiness of the engine, but becomes more comfortable for long drives. Activating the Eco mode will simply activate the Start/Stop function that shuts the engine down at traffic stops to save fuel.

– Impression
Overall, this GTC left a good impression on me. It’s a small, practical and nippy 3-door hatchback that is reasonably priced, economical and will turn a few heads on the street as well, due to its improved design.

Disclaimer: Video was shot in around one hour, so I apologize for the bad quality of the material!