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How green is my Vauxhall?
May 3, 2011 | By:

How on earth did a Vauxhall just win Green Car of the Year at the New York International Auto Show? Julie Welch finds out

Vauxhall-Ampera-271901-620 Press photoThey may no longer be as mirth-provoking as Del Boy’s Reliant Robin or the ill-fated Sinclair C5 but until recently, in the minds of the general public, the image of the electric car still came accompanied by strains of Benny Hill singing, ‘Ernie… he drove the fastest milk cart in the West’.

That has now changed forever. The New York International Auto Show has made these cars seriously respectable by giving one – the all-electric Nissan Leaf – the accolade of World Car of the Year 2011. Another leader in plug-in motoring, the petrol-electric Vauxhall Ampera (or Chevrolet Volt as it’s known in the US) won the award for World Green Car of the Year.

The Leaf, a family hatchback hailed as the world’s first full electric car and described by the jury as “The gateway to a brave new electric world”, became the first electric car to win overall honours after being chosen from an entry list of 39 new vehicles from around the world. An international panel of 66 leading motoring journalists from 24 countries whittled the field down to a shortlist of ten and then three finalists.

Seen as doing more than any rival to normalise electric cars, the Japanese hatchback scored 257 points and was described as, “Like a normal car, only quieter”. It finished nine points clear of the runner-up, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (248 points) and 13 ahead of the third-placed Vauxhall/Opel Meriva (244 points).

That said, opinion was split among the jurors and several placed it last. Surprisingly, it was beaten into third place in the Green Car section by the Ampera and runner-up BMW320d Efficient Dynamics Edition. Perhaps, though, you can see why the Ampera scored over the Leaf when you compare what each has to offer the average driver.

The Leaf is a five-seater, five-door hatchback and the world’s first purpose-built, mass-produced electric car. Nissan claims it has a range of over 100 miles on a full charge, takes around eight hours to recharge using a 220-240V power supply and produces zero tailpipe emissions.

The official figures are 0-60mph in 12 seconds and 90mph top speed. Nissan claims the range of 100 or so miles is ample for the daily commute of the majority of drivers (though there are few motorists who never drive more than 100 miles).

The Nissan Leaf went on sale in the UK in March and is priced at £25,990 including a £5,000 government grant available to buyers of certain electric and alternative fuel vehicles. Nissan is working with various agencies to make on-street recharging a reality and fast charging a possibility at motorway service stations. But until the limited range and poor recharging infrastructure are addressed, many would-be purchasers will switch off.

It’s here that the innovative Volt/Ampera (which arrives in Vauxhall-branded right-hand drive in the UK in 2012) wins. This five-door hatchback is powered by a 16kWh, 4000lb lithium-ion battery pack with a 40-mile range, combined with a 74bhp 1.4-litre petrol engine which extends the range to 311 miles. General Motors is considering an ‘electric-only’ button so drivers can save their 40-mile battery range for restricted urban areas.

It records 0-62mph in nine seconds, a top speed of 100mph and will become available in the UK at an estimated £30-35,000.

For the average motorist who likes to be green, the Volt/Ampera is a more useful proposition than the Leaf. Why, then, did the Nissan win top honours? Well, it’s hard to fault the jury’s verdict when you look at it as an exemplar of the future on wheels. As Sir Chris Bonington said when asked why he climbed Everest: “Because it was there.”