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Internal combustion - there's life in the old dog yet

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: October 24, 2012

By Gareth Butterfield

Vauxhall Ampera is the best hybrid I've tried

Vauxhall Ampera is the best hybrid I've tried

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THE other day I drove the new Vauxhall Ampera. It wasn't a long test drive, and a previous tester had flattened its battery so I couldn't use it as a full-on electric vehicle, but it was all the time I needed to understand exactly why this clever machine has been voted European Car of the Year.

It got me thinking about electric cars in general, actually. What is the future of battery-powered vehicles? Why are hybrid cars still so expensive? Why is there still no hydrogen fuel cell technology on the horizon?

Full electric cars do impress me. The Nissan Leaf et al are all fine bits of technology but they all have one major flaw - their batteries.

I couldn't live with an electric car in the long term. Not only can I not afford the investment, I can't guarantee that my journeys are ever going to remain short enough to rely on a vehicle that'll cover less than 100 miles. Most of the time it will work, but not all. 

Battery technology holds everything back. Look at smartphones. Most of us have to charge our devices every day and even then there's no guarantee the damn things will last until bedtime.

So the only way we can sensibly drive round with our consciences clear is to donwsize our reliance on internal combustion rather than completely do away with it. 

We're ready to have an electric car, so long as there's a dirty old engine in there too.

Thing is, hybrids have always used their engine to drive the wheels, assisted by a motor which can take over completely for a short burst, and clever tricks have been introduced over the years such as regenerative braking.

But the plug-in Ampera is cleverer still. Instead of the engine driving the wheels it sits there providing enough power to keep the motor spinning and propelling the car forward.

It's nothing more than a generator. The sort you see chugging away at the side of a bouncy castle in a funfair. If a little more refined.

So while the surprisingly punchy motor is more than capable of wafting the quirky family-hatchback along, the engine can sit there unused for as long as the batteries can stand it (up to about 50 miles) without using any fuel. Genius.

For some people full electric cars will work very well. City dwellers are lapping them up. But for me I need to the range only fossil fuel can give me.

And while it's taking so long to find me a credible alternative to internal combustion engine, manufacturers are finding more and more ways of eaking every last bit of life they can petrol and diesel engines. 

On that note, I also drove Ford's new one-litre EcoBoost the other day. Quite remarkable and much cheaper.

So full electric's not there yet. Hybrid options are varied and effective but expensive and internal combustion is doing its best to fend off its competition - but its days are obviously numbered.

What on earth is going to happen to the motoring industry and, more importantly, when? I've no idea, and to some extent I'm not bothered.

For the same amount I'd spend on a new Ampera I could buy a used, petrol V8, top spec Range Rover, spend the change on keeping it full of juice for at least three years and still have money left for servicing and MOTs. 

So while I'm waiting for the future of motoring to decide what course it's going to take I'll be using up what little is left of our precious natural resources and ruin it for everyone else.

Or I could just stick to my rattly old 50mpg diesel Volvo - which is probably what will happen in reality.

As much as I love seeing hybrids like the Vauxhall Ampera burst on to the market, it leaves me tinged with sadness.

The end is nigh. The only questions left in the long and dirty story of the demise of internal combustion is when and how?

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