THE future of the automobile is often the source of much heated debate. Science fiction movies will have us believe that we will all be whizzing around town in little flying cars that we have little or no control over as computers continue to take over our lives.
Will there be a band of outlaws who still lust after the sound of a good V8 and who keep their prize possessions hidden from the emission authorities in lock up garages or in compounds in the desert? Could we see a day when such vehicles as the Lamborghini Aventador you can read about on page three will be frowned upon and impounded?
As intrigued as I am about the Bladerunner world people may occupy in the future, I have always felt that I would probably be one of those outlaws in the desert.
The Toyota Prius started the revolution from a marketing point of view and since then more and more vehicles have emerged that hint at the future. In lieu of long term solutions such as hydrogen, various electric cars have started to emerge with SA even trying to get in on the act with the ill fated Joule. I have driven quite a few in the past couple of years, from the dynamic and sporty Tesla, to the urban friendly Nissan Leaf and Smart electric and even an electrically powered Mercedes-Benz Vito van, but they all have their drawbacks in terms of the distance they can travel.
There is one solution that seems to make more sense and that is an electric vehicle that features a range extender and I recently arranged to spend a few days with the 2012 European Car of the Year, the Vauxhall (Opel) Ampera.
There are those that argue that it is still a hybrid, because it features a turbocharged 1.4l engine that operates as a generator to provide power to the electric motor. However unlike vehicles such as the Prius and Honda Insight, the wheels are only ever powered by the electric motor, which in essence makes it an electrically powered car.
What this combination does mean though is that while most electric cars will struggle to do 100km/h on a charge, the Ampera, which is the same as the Chevrolet Volt in the US, can do around 600km. Granted, if you want to run around town the battery-only mode will see you manage just 70km but as I ran around London I found that this was ample to last a couple of days without any problem.
The next day I had to travel around 140km to the west of England and I switched the car into generator mode and cruised effortlessly along the motorway.
I switched back to the battery-only mode as I neared my destination.
I had been advised by Ian Allen, project manager Ampera at Vauxhall UK, that running an extension lead from the house to the car was probably not a good idea without the wiring in the house being checked first. However a quick check on the net showed there were electric car parking spaces with charging facilities in a downtown shopping centre. They were empty of course and just the simple advantage of being able to quickly find a parking space was a bonus. Pulling the cables out of the boot was simple and as I plugged everything in the charging device glowed. The Ampera was rejuvenated in just a few hours as we went off to do some tourist stuff.
At this point I should say that overall I was very impressed with the Ampera. It looks good and is rather unique in its design compared to run of the mill hatchbacks, and the interior was spacious and very comfortable.
The dashboard glows with numerous displays for battery life and so forth and when you push the start button a short movie clip plays in the central console announcing that you are in an Ampera. The same screen can display how efficiently you are driving as well as where the power is coming from and I quickly found myself trying to reduce the consumption figure which, by the end of my time with the car, measured just 4.75l /100km, handy when the price of fuel is over R20/litre.
The Ampera is by far the best electric car I have driven. It is stylish, comfortable and above all practical. T he question is, will it come to SA? General Motors SA says that the infrastructure here is not up to scratch.
Then there is the price issue. In the UK the government provides a rebate of £5000 which reduces the price to £33995 but in SA no such rebates are currently in place although it is being looked at.
While I might still have a Mustang hidden in a storage yard in the future, if I was going to drive an electric car it would definitely be the Ampera. It completely changed my view on electric cars. A few weeks ago I would have checked myself into therapy for saying this, but if I could have the Ampera today, I would. It is a real-world car.