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Vauxhall Ampera

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"The Ampera is smooth, silent, unexpectedly restful and surprisingly rapid, too"

"The Ampera is smooth, silent, unexpectedly restful and surprisingly rapid, too"

What's it like?

Given all this sophistication you'd hope for a different kind of driving experience from this car, and you get it. The Ampera is smooth, silent, unexpectedly restful and surprisingly rapid, too. You press a glowing blue button to start it, triggering a space-age, computer-on sound signature before experiencing the initially disconcerting silence typical of an electric vehicle, accompanied by the illumination of a couple of busy looking colour screens. It's a bit intimidating until you're familiar, but to go, all you need do is pull the conventional-looking gearlever into drive and you're off with no more than a muffled whirr. It's as easy as driving a conventional automatic, making it much easier to absorb the content of those screens.

The display immediately in front provides a digital speed read-out, a bar-graph battery charge gauge, an estimate of its remaining range, an indication of the range in extended range mode and to the right, a floating green ball that reveals how economically you're driving. This sphere shifts up and down depending on whether you're accelerating, braking or coasting and changes colour too, but keeping it in the middle of its gauge is optimal.

Coasting and braking recharge the battery but minimal use of the brake is the best way to maximise the Ampera's economy. The central screen is a touch-screen infotainment system, featuring an excellent sat nav, climate control (configurable to minimise battery drain), vehicle efficiency information and battery charging programmes. All of which may sound complex, but these systems and strategies offer the scope to entertain as you battle to eke another mile of range from the battery pack.

Once the battery is depleted the petrol engine kicks in, and with enough subtlety that most of the time, you probably won't notice it. Its efforts are most evident when you're accelerating hard when it can sound a bit insistent, but for the most part it's unobtrusive, leaving the Ampera's excellent refinement largely intact. It also scores for an unusually pliant ride, yet it corners with some aplomb too, the low-slung battery pack doubtless helping to limit body roll - were it not for its over-light steering this car would almost feel sporting with its sharp acceleration. A shame that the brakes are almost as sudden, making smooth low speed stops hard to achieve, but such negatives are drowned out by the pleasure of driving something that feels - and is - truly different.

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