Zipcar Amperas: the electric cars everyone can afford

Could make sense for Londoners, undoubtedly makes sense for Zipcar

By Will Dron on July 30, 2012 10:43 AM

Owning your own car is hugely convenient. It sits outside your front door, ready to use any time you need it. Need to nip and out grab a loaf of bread? No problem. Forgot to pick up the dry-cleaning? Off you go.

Of course, that convenience comes at a price: the cost of the vehicle itself is the biggest sting, but then there’s the insurance, road tax (for the bigger polluters), servicing and maintenance. For Londoners, there’s the added expense of parking permits for on-street parking, parking meters elsewhere and the Congestion Charge, although most of those costs disappear if you buy electric.

In fact, owning a car can be fairly inconvenient at times for city-dwellers – finding a parking space can be difficult, and most journeys are conducted at a dreary average speed of less than 10 miles per hour, thanks to heavy traffic and constant red lights. For a lot of journeys, the Tube can make much more sense. Which, of course, means the car stays at home, sitting idle for much of its life. columnist Robert Llewellyn likes to point out that, on average, cars spend 92 per cent of their life parked up, doing nothing.

"On average, cars spend 92 per cent of their life parked up, doing nothing."

That’s why, on paper at least, car-sharing networks make so much sense. If you join Zipcar, the leading world player in the car-sharing game and the largest operator in London (having bought out Streetcar), you have access to a network of around 1,700 vehicles dotted around the city. Instead of owning a car, you pay an annual membership fee of £59.50 per year and then rent cars near you by the hour (or day). That means a whole lot of the headache and expense of owning a car are taken out of the equation.

Car-sharing also benefits the city at large. According to a Carplus report, for every Zipcar added to a local fleet, 20 other vehicles are taken off the road, reducing congestion and pollution.

“At Zipcar, we’re committed to positive change in city environments,” David Cruickshank, Head of Fleet at Zipcar UK tells us. “It is proven that car-sharing has a positive effect on both environmental and mobility issues in cities.”

The company’s latest additions to the fleet take this commitment a step further. It has hooked up with Vauxhall to put 10 Ampera extended-range electric vehicles (E-REV) on the capital’s streets as part of a six-month trial, which Cruikshank tells us aims to “support the evolution of low-emission vehicles and their viability in London.”

The Vauxhall Ampera has a lithium-ion battery pack on board that’s good enough for between 25 and 50 miles of pure electric driving, depending on conditions such as outside temperature and how heavy your right foot is. But after that electric-only running, a petrol engine fires up to act as a generator and to keep the battery at a constant level, meaning you can drive 360 miles between stops.

The 10 Zipcar Amperas cost £6 per hour to hire, the same price as a VW Golf and cheaper than a BMW 3-Series, and can be driven for up to 40 miles before a 25p per mile fee is added to the booking. Zipcar provides a credit card for each car in its fleet, so any trip to the petrol station costs members no more on top of the agreed booking fee.

The cars are dotted around the city in dedicated parking bays with their own charging posts. Customers who reserve one can unlock the car either by touching their membership card to the sensor under the windscreen or via a mobile app (unlocking a car with your phone is a great trick). Once unlocked, the car can be unplugged, the cable stored neatly in the boot, and driven silently away.

Zipcar let us try out one of its Amperas for 24 hours, which would normally set you back a reasonable £71. At, we’re very familiar with the car now, but to someone who’s never driven such a sophisticated bit of kit, it could prove as daunting as it is exciting, so it was reassuring to note that customers who book an Ampera get some extra hand-holding: an email explaining how to charge the car, how to switch it on, how to drive it and what all the switches do. Helpfully, it also reminds customers that this car has four seats, not five (there are only two in the back).

So far the Amperas, which joined the Zipcar fleet in May, have been proving popular with customers. “Our members are open to trying out new makes and models of cars,” says Cruikshank. “Feedback to date has been positive and any problems have generally revolved around how to charge the cars. Member education is key, and we are capturing as much feedback as possible to help us make improvements and determine our future strategy.”

Our 24-hour test drive went seamlessly. For a laugh we took the Ampera to Toyota’s headquarters to meet the new plug-in version of the Prius hybrid, but that’s another story (you can read our review of that car here). Our convoluted route to and from Toyota involved an overnight stopover and recharge, and took in city, A-road, B-road and motorway driving. The 40-mile barrier was well exceeded, adding a further 91 miles to the total mileage and £22.75 to the booking. Zipcar says that the average booking mileage for its members is 29 miles, however, so most people don’t incur additional charges.

"For a laugh we took the Ampera to Toyota’s headquarters to meet the new plug-in version of the Prius hybrid."

And, based on that mileage figure, the real beauty of the Vauxhall Ampera is that almost all of members’ driving could be done on electric power, providing the cars have enough time between bookings to top up with electricity. With a larger proportion of E-REVs on the Zipcar fleet, the potential is there to dramatically reduce the company’s total carbon emissions.

Of course, a cynical mind at this point will have noticed that not only is this good for the environment, but also for Zipcar’s running costs. If cars are running on electric power it costs the company much less per mile – the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders says the average cost of driving on pure-electric power is around 3p per mile (depending on electricity tariffs), which compares to about 16p per mile for an equivalent petrol car. The savings potential for a company with a fleet of 1,700 rental vehicles is huge.

A more favourable analysis, of course, acknowledges the environmental efforts Zipcar is making here. It’s undeniably a positive step for the future of car-sharing. And the addition of the Amperas to the Zipcar stable means more people have the opportunity to drive a plug-in car: the more people who can do that, the better.