Vauxhall's Ampera is spearheading the rejuvenation of its tired electric car range

Getting an electric car right depends on making driving long distances viable. Jamie Merrill goes behind the scenes – and under the bonnet – of a new model.

We are all familiar with the logic; petrol prices are rising, we need to reduce our emissions and electric cars offer the road to environmental salvation. But while they might promise conscience-clear (or at least clearer) motoring, the latest generation of electric cars is off to a slow start.

From Nissan's Leaf to Renault's Fluence, leaps in battery development and attractive government subsidies have seen the motor industry invest vast sums in electric vehicles (EVs). So much so that there will be at least half a dozen new electric cars for buyers to choose from by the end of the year.

Car buyers don't seem convinced, though, and while sales of electric cars grew, barely 1,000 EVs (of 1.96m total cars) rolled off showroom forecourts last year. A figure that perhaps isn't surprising when you consider that the Nissan Leaf, even after a £5,000 government grant, costs a hefty £25,000 and as Autocar magazine reported on its launch in 2010 "cannot travel more than 100 miles before it needs to be stationary for hours".

Since 2006, only 2,149 EVs have been sold in the UK, and even more depressingly for green-car enthusiasts there are now more charging points for them than electric vehicles on the road.

Enter the ultra-modern-looking Ampera from Vauxhall, the electric car that is spearheading the company's rejuvenation of its tired range. Based at Vauxhall's design headquarters in Rüsselsheim, Germany, the firm's top designer Mark Adams, is not afraid of "bigging up" his design and electric ambitions. "Of course it's a tough market to be making cars but we have invested in design talent, new models and innovative technology to break down some of the negative stereotypes that people have had about electric cars and Vauxhall in the past."

Adams, who is originally from Essex and is an early graduate of the Royal College of Arts Vehicle Design course, admits that Vauxhall is better known for its mid-market pricing and dependable styling than its technological prowess and design innovation. The Ampera, which he calls an "iPad on wheels", is designed to change all that and Vauxhall hopes that its stylish shape, premium touches and advanced battery technology will help it shift 10,000 models across Europe this year.

Vauxhall is owned by General Motors, who first sold the Ampera under a different skin as the Chevrolet Volt in American in 2010, but a lot of the design work, including much of the chassis, steering and battery was carried out in Russelsheim by Adams's team.

Unlike its rivals, the Ampera, which hits showrooms in May, combines a lithium-ion battery (which can be recharged from a domestic socket in six hours), a small petrol engine and two separate electric motors. Essentially, it operates purely on the electric motor until it runs out of juice (40 miles or so) when the petrol engine kicks in to recharge the battery to cover up to 310 extra miles. It's a simple idea but unlike the Leaf or Fluence, Ampera drivers can wave goodbye to "range anxiety" – the fear that your car doesn't have sufficient juice to get you home.

"This technology," says Hilton Holloway, associate editor of Autocar magazine, who has been testing the rival Nissan Leaf since March, "is a real game changer for electric cars as it takes them away from short commutes coming back to a charging point to a world of longer journeys. What's more, the battery in a range-extender like the Ampera only has to be half the size of its conventional electric rivals like the Nissan Leaf, which disproportionately saves a huge amount of money and space, so I'd expect the price to come down in future."

Clever engineering aside, the design is also a departure for Vauxhall. Adams is clearly passionate about selling the design process and the many steps his team of 40 designer go through to bring a car to market.

"Car design is incredibly complex; far more so than any other form of product design. From when you finish a car design it takes two years for a model to come to production, so the most important task for a designer is to understand your customer. And not their taste of today. That's irrelevant as we don't know what we'll want in five years' time, but their needs in five years' time. And if you think back five years ago to when we first started thinking about the Ampera, attitudes to CO2 emissions and the environment were very different."

The design process for the Ampera started with the Insignia (Vauxhall's bread-and-butter car) back in 2003, which Adams used as a building block to transform the company's design reputation. "At that time we had a reputation for good quality and getting the basics rights but we were missing excitement, emotion and feeling," he says.

His solution was a concept he calls "sculptural artistry meets technical precision". It's heavy in design and business-speak but essentially stresses that Vauxhall wants to celebrate its German heritage for excellent engineering but also bring art into the design process. A process that for Adams and his team involves sophisticated computer models and terabytes of processing power but also full-size clay and scale models to give a sense of scope and feel.

Arguably, the result is a generation of cars, including the new Zafira Tourer, Ampera and Astra GTC, that, in design terms, have more in common with stylish concept cars than the run-of-the-mill Vectras and Astras we have come to expect from Vauxhall. On the road outside the factory, the Ampera looks well screwed-together without the faintest hint of rickety Tomorrow's World technology, while its power train delivers smooth and solid performance and acceleration.

It's even a match for the mighty autobahn, before the battery's juice fades away and the range-extender subtly kicks in. And as Adams warns me, it quickly changes my driving style as I become fixated on the big "eco-ball" on the dashboard, and keeping it in the green to conserve power not the wasteful red.

Not that there haven't been problems. The American version, the Chevrolet Volt, showed early promise but all 8,000 cars had to be recalled to toughen protection around the battery packs to reduce the risk of fire after a crash.

And with only four seats for £29,995 the Ampera isn't by any means the most affordable small family car on the market, even with "significantly" lower running cost – around one-fifth of an equivalent petrol saloon, according to tests by Auto Express magazine.

Meanwhile, even electric pioneers such as Holloway are asking if the age of the electric car is already over before it's begun, with the rise of ultra-efficient petrol engines. "The petrol engine has a bad reputation," he says, "but it's actually a very reliable and cheap piece of technology which, thanks to European regulation, is pretty damn clean. Ford's EcoBoost engines, for example, are 20 per cent more efficient than traditional combustion engines and are, as the company claims, a more immediate impact on cutting CO2 emissions."

The Ampera might be a cut above its electric rivals, but the road to carbon-free motoring is far from traffic-free as an automotive format war to rival VHS vs Betamax draws near, with confused customers – and their wallets – stuck in the middle.

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