Because they tend to herald cars which will generally be in high demand, announcements by General Motors’ Vauxhall/Opel division of new cars for the UK market usually get lots of attention.
Not only this, but it must also be remembered that, with its vast factory at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, any news that a new model is likely to be produced there is sure to be a major fillip to the 1,650-plus workers there.
In fact, Vauxhall itself says in its own publicity that the Wirral site “is a vital component of the Vauxhall/Opel business”.
So the news that there will be a new electric car produced at the factory - but that it will not be the car-maker’s current Ampera-e model - seems to send a mixed signal over the company’s plans for its electric vehicle range.
What seems to have been decided is that the Ampera-e will be produced primarily for the American market - where the company seems to see great potential in heavily pushing the car as a rival to the Toyota Prius.
Speaking to Autocar magazine at the Paris Motor Show in 2016, Opel’s head of marketing, Tina Muller, said: “When the Chevrolet Bolt [which the Ampera-e is based on] was developed years ago, I think the whole electro-mobility market at the time was very tiny and niche.”
In other words, it didn’t consider that it would be viable to produce a right-hand drive Ampera - which, in light of some of the reviews the car received in the three years (2012-14) when it was on sale in the UK, some might think a strange decision.
Once his test drive reviewer had got used to the car being almost silent at almost any speed, Honest John was quite impressed with the Ampera at the time, remarking that the car was “composed at speed, even over fairly rough surfaces, and it remains quiet with just the intrusion of road noise breaking the silence.” Nevertheless, he added: “With no engine noise, it’s quite a surreal experience.”
Top Gear, too, thought the car had quite a bit to recommend it, notably that “with 273lb/ft on tap, the Ampera is really quite potent, especially from the off, and there’s no need to wind the revs up to reach peak pulling power. It’s good for 0–62mph in nine seconds flat, and there’s even a decent amount of shove when you’re travelling at motorway speeds.”
Nevertheless, every review we’ve seen cited the price - up to £35,440 - as a major stumbling block to Vauxhall’s efforts to find a sustainable market for the Ampera. Considering that the latest Prius is available from £23,295, you can see why Vauxhall probably thought it was on a hiding to nothing if it tried to pit the Ampera directly up against it.
However, it’s clear that Vauxhall thinks there’s a definite market for a car with the plus points of the Ampera in the UK, from Tina Muller’s own comments. “We realise that electro-mobility will become bigger and bigger and that’s why we need to do a second step, one that will include right-hand drive,” she told Autocar.
But when she then added: “I can’t tell you exactly when it will hit the market, but for sure it’s part of our plans,” it could be that the company is well aware that the big price gap between Vauxhall’s electric car, now discontinued in the UK, and its biggest rival is a major issue to be addressed ‘from the bottom up’ when it’s developing the electric car which it will eventually put on sale here.
Yes, there is to be a right-hand drive electric car produced by Vauxhall - but it will be one which will be developed from the ground up specifically for the European and British markets.
For this reason, Muller has refused to be drawn on when we’re likely to finally see an equivalent to the Ampera on sale again on these shores.
“Now we realise that electro-mobility will become bigger and bigger and that’s why we need to do a second step, one that will include right-hand drive,” she said, “I can’t tell you exactly when it will hit the market, but for sure it’s part of our plans.”
So it’s back to the drawing board, as Vauxhall tries to come to terms with the knowledge that, while British buyers are well disposed towards the benefits of plug-in driving, there is a limit to the price they’re prepared to pay for the technology.
When you consider, though, that the Ampera, when tested, achieved a whacking fuel economy figure of 235mpg, it’s clear that some users - particularly high-mileage company car operators and drivers - would welcome a car with this technology with open arms, if the price was right.
Top Gear, though, was adamant that the car was no mere Prius clone: “Don’t tar it with the same brush as the Toyota Prius and other existing hybrids that offer negligible benefits, as the Ampera moves the game along much further,” it said.
Given such a positive reception, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Vauxhall would be in some hurry to capitalise on the basic technology at its disposal and featuring in the Ampera - even if it was clothed in a completely different shell.
But with GM having seemingly concluded that “the numbers [for the Ampera-e] just didn’t stack up”, at least as far as the UK and Europe are concerned, the company has gone back to the drawing board.
There are two ways of looking at this stance by the company: you could say that GM has decided that the likely small sales potential for an EV at the premium end of the market where the Ampera was sat given its price didn’t warrant it being offered as a stand-alone model, and so applaud it for its honesty; or wonder why, if it is serious about competing in the EV market, it hasn’t already ploughed more resources into developing one with which it can mount a serious challenge in this growing sector.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ figures showed that sales of EVs were up by 31.8 per cent in the first half of 2016 over the same period a year earlier.
That in itself is an impressive figure, but has to be put in the context that, even at this level that meant that, of a total of 1.42million new cars registered between January and June 2016, only 19,252 - that’s roughly 1.36 per cent - were eligible for the plug-in electric car grant.
These figures would seem to justify GM’s view that producing a new vehicle from scratch was preferable to offering a right-hand drive derivative of a car which was, by many standards, seen as uncompetitive against its main rivals.
Nevertheless, this is clearly a gamble on GM’s part, and there’s always a risk that, in holding off on developing and releasing an EV aimed squarely at the UK market, it will leave the door open for rival manufacturers to steal a march on the automotive giant.
What the workers in Cheshire and north Wales will clearly be hoping is that, when it does arrive, buyers think the car was worth the wait, and will be keen to try it for themselves. There’s no escaping the fact that, whenever GM makes decisions on whether or not to produce a new model for a specific market, there are implications for jobs somewhere in the world, such is the sheer size of the company.Do you think GM is right not to sell the Ampera in the UK because it knows it isn’t competitive, or are you frustrated that you can’t buy one here? And are you prepared to wait for the company to develop an all-new plug-in car, if it can do it for a reasonable price? Let us know your thoughts, and leave your comments on our Facebook page.