The Conway Column: an unlikely electric car convert

Autocar’s handiest wheelman falls for Vauxhall Ampera

By Gavin Conway on May 30, 2012 2:39 PM

Goodwood race circuit is fast. And in parts, it is absolutely unforgiving – this is the circuit that ended Sir Stirling Moss’s racing career when his Lotus left the track at St. Mary’s, leaving him in a coma for a month.

And there’s a particularly fast double-apex corner at the end of the start/finish straight, to which I’m heading as a passenger at well over 110mph. It’s the mid-1990s and I’m sitting beside Steve Sutcliffe in a BMW E36 M3. Both of us staffers with Autocar, working on an ‘old vs new’ M3 feature.

That corner, Madgwick, has a nasty little secret. A hump invisible to spectators that, if you catch it, can unweight the back end of the car and send you into a spin that you’ll need a calendar to time. One other colleague pretty much ended his own career by getting that one wrong. He was alright in the event, the £six-figure car, not so much – editor extremely dis-chuffed.

Steve, as you knew he would, caught the hump. Back end of M3 goes very light and the car goes into a tail-out drift at a speed that should have had the driver bricking himself.

Not Steve. With the most subtle of steering inputs, he instantly turns potential catastrophe into five-star entertainment, drifting that M3 and then bringing it all back in time to deal with the next corner, Fordwater, never once dropping below three figures.

Steve Sutcliffe at the wheel of the monstrously quick Arial Atom (Photo with thanks to: Autocar/Karen Parry)

Steve’s a proper petrol head and one of the three best drivers I’ve ever sat with, professional or otherwise. He once drove a Honda Formula One car at Silverstone for a feature story; when some late-arriving Honda big-hats pitched up to watch the proceedings as the F1 car circulated at huge speed, they just assumed that it was one of their pilots driving – Jenson, or perhaps Rubens. They asked when the journalist was going to have a go. “He is,” said the minders.

And I can’t actually think of a single supercar of the last twenty years that he hasn’t driven right up to the corners of its envelope – McLaren F1s, Bugatti Veyrons, Jag XJ220s, Lambos, Ferraris, Pagani Zondas and the rest. His Autocar-supplied daily driver at the moment is a 542bhp supercharged V8 Jaguar XKR-S. If he gets more than 19mpg on a run, it’s a good day.

But he’s a proper motoring hack, so he’ll have informed opinions about the entire spectrum of motordom. Steve can get properly excited by a 1.0-litre hatchback if its really well executed, just as he’ll happily conduct a balanced argument about the pros and cons of electrified motoring.

It’s just that I rather assumed that Steve’s most impassioned hyperbole would be reserved for something with at least ten and preferably 12 cylinders. That while he’d see the logic of something like a 2012 Vauxhall Ampera (main picture) – an electric car with a ‘range extender’ petrol engine onboard (more here) – he’d be slightly po-faced about the whole proposition, much in the way of so many of his contemporaries.

So it was a bit of a surprise to read Steve’s comments about the Ampera in his recent Autocar column. This was not the language I was expecting – Steve was “blown away” by the Vauxhall’s real-world fuel consumption, going on to describe it as gliding along “with as much poise and polish as any car you’ve driven this side of £30K.”

Even more telling was how he rated the driving experience, which is Autocar heartland territory. He said: “And what’s best of all about this car – what’s heart-thumpingly great about it, in fact – is that it’s also genuinely decent to drive.” His final conclusion was that the Ampera is a “revolutionary game-changer”.

"It was a bit of a surprise to read Steve’s comments about the Ampera – he was 'blown away' by the Vauxhall’s real-world fuel consumption and his final conclusion was that it is a 'revolutionary game-changer'."

And this isn’t Steve ‘going rogue’, either. As a magazine, Autocar has generally been quite positive about the electrification of our wheels and they do a better than average job of covering the patch. They gave the Ampera four out of five stars in its official road test, and the 2011 Nissan LEAF long-termer the magazine ran was given a generally positive final review.

The negatives of that report, though, all surrounded the range issue. But here’s a bit of context – motoring journalists tend to drive huge distances, with the average hack covering at least 30,000 miles a year. Getting to far flung airports, group test photo shoots in the west of Scotland or just doing test miles means that a pure-electric car like the LEAF just isn’t going to do the job. Not even close.

The pure-electric Nissan LEAF was generally praised by Autocar's Hilton Holloway

Hilton Holloway was the Autocar journo running the LEAF and in the final review he said: “The past year has convinced me that motivation via electric motor is the next big leap for the car. I’m also pretty sure that using just the batteries to provide the energy is not the answer for the moment…using onboard generators of some kind…to provide the juice seems to be the logical answer if we are to enjoy the fabulous benefits of being propelled by electric motors.”

That’ll be the Ampera, then; the car that managed to “blow away” Autocar’s hardest-core petrol head. It’s an important moment, because these guys are crucial opinion formers and their enthusiast credentials are completely beyond reproach. If somebody like Steve Sutcliffe gets it, there’s hope for the rest.

Don’t believe me? OK, well come back when you can drift a BMW E36 M3 at 110mph and then we’ll talk.

About Gavin Conway

Gavin has been writing about cars and the industry for nearly 20 years. He started out on Autocar magazine before a stint as editor of Classic & Sportscar. Freelancing followed – he has been writing for The Sunday Times for over a decade, even during his three-year posting as editor of Channel 4’s motoring site 4Car. Gavin also took a year out to edit Automobile magazine in America before returning to the UK. He is currently's Editor-in-Chief.

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