/ Motoring

Are eco cars about image as well as efficiency?

Toyota Ampera eco car in white

Do you have to compromise on performance and style when opting for the latest environmentally friendly car? Our research shows you can have a desirable car that also has good green credentials.

Bluemotion, Greenline, EfficientDynamics, Blue Drive… it seems like we’re all driving eco cars these days. Pretty much Mercedes’ entire range falls under the ‘BlueEfficiency’ banner, for example.

But while the car industry churns out thousands of increasingly fuel-efficient cars (enforced, admittedly, by punitive EU taxes), there are some cars that go further – sometimes literally. These are the truest eco cars – those that use electric power and advanced technology to eke out every possible mile-per-gallon.

Our latest group test brings together five such models: the Nissan Leaf, Peugeot 3008 Hybrid4, Renault Fluence, Toyota Prius Plug-In and Vauxhall Ampera. The Nissan and Renault are powered purely by batteries, the Toyota and Vauxhall are petrol/electric hybrids and the Peugeot is a diesel/electric hybrid. So which is best? Watch our video to find out:

Plugged in to electric cars

Well, the electric cars are both admirably quiet and easy to drive, but their limited range and high price tags still rule them out for most people. Unless you never venture more than 50 miles from home, you’d need to buy a second car – a normal car – and how green is that?

The hybrids get around this problem by using internal combustion engines to increase their range. Unlike conventional hybrids such as the Peugeot, the Prius and Ampera can also be plugged into the mains to boost their batteries while parked. It’s a ‘best of both worlds’ solution that means you won’t be left stranded if you can’t find a plug socket (or a long-enough extension lead!).

In truth, even the plug-in hybrids are no more economical in the real world than the latest fuel-efficient diesels – especially for motorway journeys. Factor-in those high purchase prices and none of them will necessarily save you money. But for many drivers, mpg is the new mph, and being green is a lifestyle choice.

Eco cars put through their paces

That’s why I’d pick the Ampera. The Toyota actually wins our group test for various, eminently sensible reasons, as our eco cars video explains. But the Vauxhall is fun to drive, looks great and has an interior that resembles a 1980s sci-fi vision of the future. It can’t quite match the Prius for fuel economy, but it does make you feel good about driving an eco car.

As a car enthusiast, the Ampera gives me hope that leaner, greener cars don’t have to be dull to look at and boring to drive. People buy cars to suit their wants as much as their needs (how else do you explain all the 4x4s and sports cars on our roads) and, at the moment, the Ampera is the only eco car I actually want to own.

What would influence your choice when buying a green car? Do any of our eco car reviews tempt you into joining the green club?


No and no.

Eco is for the smug, self-satisfied of us who all subscribe to the middle-class ideals (Man-made climate change, no problems with immigration, voting is worthwhile, be vegetarian etc).

I personally think that petrol is now at market value and so have no qualms about firing up my big V8 Jag when I fancy nipping into town. I like cars, so I hate eco cars as they are a half-baked way to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Similarly, people think that all diesels offer better fuel economy, which in a small car, in a city, is not the case.

If you want to go electric, go electric, anything in between is a counter-productive, expensive, flawed, un-ecological mess.

My way to solve their “issue” with the combustion engine would be to have a removable battery for each electric car. Basically you drive round, then when you run out of juice, you simply go to a “filling station” and swap your battery out for a fresh, fully charged one.

Time to swap would take no more than filling a tank of fuel and I believe an Israeli company has already developed the concept.

[This comment has been edited to align with our commenting guidelines. Thanks, mods]

defo agree that a car is a car!. I too love cars in the same way as bikers love bikes – the speed, noise smell and sound. it is not just transport. Transport would be a Fiat Panda or a Smart Car or anything that Nick Cleg drives. Unfortunately I guess that eco cars will just become the norm as it becomes just too expensive to use oil and the car firms are too lazy to inovate. Also, fact is is that commercial electric cars suck or are too expensive at the moment. Also agree that trying for a hybrid is a waste of time and more out of the box thinking is needed with a no oil mentality.

Theres a reason Brian in Family Guy is scripted to drive a Prius! Bet he too likes Cous Cous.

Happen to like Clarkson, much like most of the country. Polls show it. He’s a no nonsense kind of guy who says things others would like to but are too afraid to in public. You’l just have to hope he never gets into politics else he would probably get in.

BTw.. the spell check on here is terrible! For a Dyslexic I’m having to use google 🙁

Hi Mose, we don’t have spell check on Which Convo. However, some browsers offer plugins with a spell check. I use Google Chrome and it has a spell checker included, allowing you to fix your spelling mistakes. Thanks.

par ailleurs says:
17 September 2012

What’s Jeremy Clarkson doing in Which? Good comedy writing but not exactly serious surely. Of course most ‘eco’ cars are nonsense, especially the fully electric, but we have to start somewhere. I actually like my modern, fuel-efficient and reliable Skoda with its 1.2 turbo petrol engine. I don’t want to go back to filling up too often and paying for excessive servicing as in the old days that Argus seems to miss. Any car is fine as a hobby car but modern technology is so much better.
I think Argus/Clarkson gives the game away in his anti immigration, anti vegeterian and even anti voting rant. Not a man to be taken seriously or become stuck in a lift with.

Thanks for proving my point

The most ignorant of middle-class eco warriors will always call someone a “Clarkson” if they can’t form an argument against the comments made. Those who have a sense of humour can see it for what it is and those that don’t become “outraged” after choking on their cous-cous. Just proves that Eco is all about ego, as the article suggests

With a modern petrol turbo engine like yours, I’ve read that they are very prone to coking. To save yourself from an engine rebuild every 30k you apparently have to drive the thing hard every now and again. I don’t know about you but having to either rebuild the engine or drive it hard will negate any savings I will have made on fuel.

What Car recently spoke to the design engineer of Fords new eco-boost engines after they tested the engine 5 times in real-life situations. The situation was the same every time 37mpg and the engineer agreed with them despite the PR telling him to keep it quiet.

In conclusion, eco engines are no more efficient that the engines of about 5 – 10 years old, they just produce less CO2 and cost more to repair when they coke up. Basically everything involving an internal combustion engine and efficiency savings has a net cost to your wallet.

The only way forward is FULLY ELECTRIC with either quick charging station or battery replacement centres.

By conforming Argus to a stereotype you’ve just made yourself one. Funny really.

Guys, lets not make things personal. Please stick to talking about one anothers’ points, rather than making jibes. Our community guidelines are there for a reason: https://conversation.which.co.uk/commenting-guidelines

par ailleurs says:
18 September 2012

Thanks for that Patrick. I fear that this thread is a lost cause though. I like good arguments with sensible and occasionally humorous asides. The original did worry me though. It had a very nasty undertone.
I’m not adding anything else here as I don’t think there’s any point.

Eco-cars have been fairly criticised, but that is because they are generally seen as direct replacements for conventional cars. Making an electric car that is powerful enough to achieve speeds of 70 mph and above takes a huge toll in battery life.

My solution is for car manufacturers to focus on electric city cars with a top speed of around 40 mph. These should appeal to families that own two cars, since they still have access to a larger, conventional car for longer distances at higher speeds.

I really don’t think that image matters.

My comment above focuses on only one of the criticisms (poor battery life) of eco-cars. Obviously there are others.

Michael Healy says:
20 September 2012

I couldn’t care less about the environment. I don’t believe in that nonsense of man made global warming. But I’m gonna buy a Prius plug-in and keep it for 10 years or so. I’ll have all that lovely gadgetry like cruise control, sat nav and so on plus I will be helping a cause that is most dear to my heart: my pocket! Petrol prices just keep on going up and up,
By the way, what is cous cous? Is it some kind of cat?

I made my choice and bought a Chevrolet Volt. Apart from the front bumper styling it is exactly the same car as the Vauxhall Ampera but over £2000 cheaper for the same trim level.

For me the difference between the Prius plug-in and Volt/Ampera was really shown in one online discussion: a Prius owner (insisting that it was much more economical than the Volt) posted their daily mileage and fuel consumption for the last couple of months: they had used some petrol every single day over that period including one day where they drove a total of 12 miles. So far as I can tell it just isn’t practical to drive a Prius plugin without also using petrol. By comparison, since I got my Volt in July it has burned petrol 4 times: on the way home from the dealer (95 miles, 40 of them on electric), a longer than usual trip to the shops (48.1 miles with the last 0.1 on petrol), when the engine decided it needed it decided to circulate the oil (0.7 miles of petrol engine as part of my usual commute), and an night away when I couldn’t recharge (51 miles electricity plus 17.8 miles petrol). All told that’s about 74 miles and 1.4 gallons of petrol used over a total 1300 miles. Obviously for many people the figures would be totally different, but if your daily use fits within the normal range then I think Volt/Ampera really do give you the best of both worlds.

Oh, and while I mostly charge overnight, I do try to use my solar panels for charging at weekends.

Running an engine for short periods like you have mentioned could well result in premature failure. Do check the manual and I think you will find advice to let the engine to run at normal working temperature on a fairly regular basis.

I have read the manual.
The Volt and Ampera have a pretty sophisticated engine management system. The 0.7 miles was a completely automated maintenance cycle: when I started the car it told me that it wanted to run a maintenance cycle and gave me the option to accept it or delay it for up to 24 hours. The actual running of the engine was then outside my control (other than by turning off the car). That cycle happens about once every 6 weeks if there hasn’t been enough other engine use. There is also a longer maintenance cycle that runs when the petrol is over a year old but keeps going until it has burned most of it or you put in some fresh.

The 0.1 miles was just bad luck, I really was hoping to get home before the battery ran out, but as an occasional thing shouldn’t matter.

Even under normal driving once the the Volt’s engine kicks in then except at high speeds it runs for a minute or two and then turns off again to run on battery for a bit.

There is no way that running for a couple of minutes is going to allow an engine to reach the correct operating temperature, so water and combustion products will condense and contaminate the oil.

A regional service manager once told me to ignore the advice in the handbook and use common sense when I queried the long service intervals recommended for my car.

There is bound to be a forum for owners of these cars.

It takes 15 – 20 miles to bring a petrol/diesel car up to full operational temperature (depending on the weather and driving conditions).

I don’t think you quite understand just how different the Volt and Ampera are from traditional cars. I don’t decide when to run the maintenance cycle; the car does (though I can delay it if inconvenient). I don’t decide how long to run the engine for; the car does. It says the cycle can take up to 10 minutes, but in this particular case it decided that a shorter cycle was sufficient. It may well take 15 minutes for a conventional car to fully warm up, especially if I’m in stop/start traffic, but in the Volt the speed of the engine is unrelated to the road speed; once again it is the car that decides how fast to run the engine.

With the UK model I could actually force the engine to run if I wanted, but until last month the only way to run the engine on the US Volts was to run out of battery. Trying to second guess the engine management really isn’t a viable option.

When it comes down to it, I have much more faith in GM (who I assume won’t want warranty claims) to have worked out the appropriate service intervals than a service manager who may have a vested interest in doing as much servicing as possible. The Volt calculates oil life based on how much the engine is used, but the service schedule requires it to be changed every two years anyway. Brake pads obviously need changing when worn, but the expected life is 100,000 miles (and the regenerative braking also makes it a lot easier to clean the front wheels).

It is your car, so you do what you want. I am merely mentioning what is fairly common knowledge about engines, and Terry has supported the fact that they take a while to warm up fully, which will remove condensation and volatile combustion products.

My recently purchased car came with a verbal warning and an insert for the instruction manual to make me aware that the automatic cleaning of the diesel particulate filter might need me to change how I used the car periodically to avoid an expensive bill. The manufacturer had realised that their computer-controlled automatic system was not up to the job.

Incidentally, the service manager I mentioned knew that I did all my own maintenance, so he was not trying to generate business. His job was to authorise goodwill payments for major out of warranty breakdowns. I was given a new engine because of a manufacturing defect in the engine of a three year old car.

I bought a Yaris Hybrid when they came out. I had a provisional deposit on an Ampera before the prices were announced; when Vauxhall announced the price at £30K+ I cancelled my interest and got my deposit back … Mainly cuz of price, but also the nearest Vauxhall dealer which would handle Ampera was over 100 miles round trip, and however good the warranty … Vauxhalls reputation for quality and reliability is lacking!
The Yaris has the advantage of Toyotas meticulous attention to detail, quality of construction … And an 8 year warranty on the batteries. Toyota has made over 3 million hybrids, so i reckon the bugs are out of it! Yes, it uses petrol, but today the computer tells me it is doing over 62 mpg on daily use. There is no road tax (yet!) and it will do London without the congestion charge! Quiet, comfortable and with proven technology, as I approach retirement, I want to keep my costs as low as possible … And a point which the report misses, is the cost of insurance! I found companies reluctant to quote on Ampera, but the prospect was of high cost. The Toyota, fully comp, protected bonus, legal cover and loan car all in costs less than £350 pa!
For me, the Ampera would have been a gamble, whilst the Toyota is proven! I consider it cheap to run, 5star encap safe, and an all round good motor! To hell with all the ‘green’ rubbish … I have a limited amount of money at my disposal, and my hybrid Toyota is giving me what I consider really cheap motoring! Thanks Toyota!

A far from convincing argument for a Yaris Hybrid. We have had a Fabia1.9Tdi estate in the family for over 6 years. It is currently driven by my son and he regularly gets 60mpg on his daily commute. It only costs £158 a year to insure (fully comp) too.

It cost £5,000 less than the Yaris Hybrid, is larger, roomier, faster and cheaper to insure and comfortably takes a family of 5 with luggage on holiday. It will be long time before a hybrid of any type becomes a sensible purchase. In fact, we are waiting delivery of a new Octavia 1.6 Tdi DSG estate which should be even more economical than the Fabia.

Indeed. What concerns me more is the £5000 grant for certain electric cars, despite the uncertain overall environmental benefit.

I would be happier if people were given a voucher to buy a bike if they surrendered their driving licence for a couple of years (providing that they did not cycle on the pavement, of course).


I don’t believe that electric cars and hybrid cars are helping the world’s ecology in any way. There are far too many hidden costs to these vehicles. And the electric only vehicles have a serious and insurmountable RANGE disadvantage.

I bet you anything you like that if you take some average drivers off the streets (the majority of whom will be moderate drivers at best) and give then some ECO cars and some conventional VAG diesel cars with DSG auto gear box (like a Golf or Octavia), the results would be unsurprising. The conventional diesel would be almost as economical as the hybrids and the long-term running costs (once the batteries are properly factored in) will fall clearly in favour of the conventional vehicles.

Unless there is a giant breakthrough in battery technology, electric vehicles will be restricted to golf buggies for the foreseeable future.

Jrharmer says:
21 September 2012

Hybrids are the coming thing. Plug ins forget it. The market will decide. Which! Get out of theway

Whether the Volt / Ampera or Prius is the best plug-in option will depend upon circumstances of the driver.
The Volt / Ampera clearly has a bigger battery and better range BUT this comes at a price – the Volt / Ampera is only a 4 seater (Prius is a 5 seater). The Prius Plug-In in real life driving has a very limited driving range of 12 to 13 miles (not 15.5 as claimed by Toyota). This range falls further if you use air conditioning or headlights. The Volt is vastly superior in this respect.
The Volt / Ampera may well be more a “driver’s car” (more fun to drive I believe) and more impressive as a machine on the road.
Warranty terms for emerging technology is an important consideration: 3 years on the Volt as compared to 5 years on the Prius (and 8 years on the battery for the Prius). Lithium-Ion batteries are unproven in terms of lasting more than 3 years in a car hence the need for a warranty in this respect lacking on the Volt / Ampera (note that Vauxhall’s “lifetime” warranty specifically excludes the battery as Vauxhall must be worried about the cost to them of replacing the battery after 3 years).
Then there are minor practicality issues: The Volt / Ampera is wider and longer than the Prius meaning that it will be a problem for some household garages.
The Prius has 15 inch wheels that give better fuel consumption than 17 inch wheels as fitted to the Volt / Ampera. 15 inch tyres are cheaper to replace than 17 inch wheels. I don’t know about the spare wheel situation on the Volt – it’s bad on the Prius as in just a repair kit, maybe the Volt is better in this respect.
Purchase price can be misleading. The Volt at £29,999 might seem like it’s only £2,000 more expensive that the Prius – but then if you want SatNav on the Volt this is an astonishing £1,745 optional extra! (included as a no-cost standard fitment on the Prius).
One other niggle with the Chevrolet Volt – lack of dealers, or dealers too far away (no such issue with the Prius).

4 rather than 5 seats is definitely going to rule out the Volt/Ampera for many people. On the other hand my previous car was an MX5…

I think you may have misunderstood the warranties: the Volt and Ampera both come with an 8 year battery warranty separate from the warranty on the rest of the car. The Ampera warranty is better than the Volt, and probably explains part of the price difference, but the ‘lifetime’ part only applies to the first owner.

I fold my driver mirror before putting the car in the garage: it does fit without doing that, but so tight it’s scary. Leaving it outside isn’t an option either: at least in my case it has to be in the garage for the charge cable to reach the socket.

SatNav on my Volt comes courtesy of Tomtom and cost £120. There’s even a handy power socket on top of the Volt’s dashboard so the wires don’t get in the way. I totally agree the £1,745 is ridiculous: on the forums at evchat.co.uk there’s a lot of dissatisfaction from people who did pay the extra only to find it can only take postcode sectors, not full postcodes. The SatNav option does come with some other features: Bose sound system, 30GB hard disc, and lines on the reversing camera screen to show where you’re going (my cheaper model just gets yellow and red icons).

The other difference is that if I’d ordered the satnav version I’d have got it two months before the non-satnav version: I think GM prioritised the model with the higher profit margin.

Yes, the lack of dealers is an issue and I do hope it improves. There are more Ampera dealers, but still not nearly enough. I believe that Vauxhall promise to do collect and return for Ampera servicing wherever you are in the country. I don’t think Chevrolet have been explicit about that but Cambridge Chevrolet where I bought mine have said they’ll collect mine for service (I’m 95 miles from them).

The Ampera and Volt in fact both have an 8 year battery warranty like the Prius.
The Volt does in fact have the Vauxhall original-owner “lifetime” 100,000 miles warranty – the Chevrolet has 3 years / 60,000 miles in comparison (and Prius 5 years).

Regarding the limited BATTERY RANGE ON THE PRIUS I should have said real life range 11 to 13 miles (probably a lot less in the winter).

Using the windscreen demister knocks a mile off the battery range on the Prius (ie. driving along with an indicator saying 7.7 miles left, windscreen mists up so switch on demister and range quickly reduces to an indicated 6.6 miles).

The internal combustion engine is very inefficient, wasting a lot of fuel in producing heat. In winter, that heat is useful to keep drivers and passengers warm and to help keep windows free from condensation and ice. We have heated rear windows, heated door mirrors, and sometimes heated windscreens. These and air conditioning take a fair amount of power and reduce fuel economy, but not drastically.

Enter the electric car. Using electric heating for any purpose will considerably shorten battery life. I have had a quick look at websites for a couple of electric cars and there is not much about the practical aspects of using the cars in winter. They do mention that their cars will do around 100 mph (really useful information) and have all the gadgetry of the day.

It took decades, but manufacturers of petrol and diesel cars now have to publish fuel consumption figures that are reasonably honest. I rather suspect that we have not got there yet with electric cars.

Hi wavechange, I can only speak about my experiences with the Volt, and of course we haven’t had any really cold weather yet, but GM do realise that turning on the heating will significantly reduce range (for that charge only which is what I think you meant, obviously it doesn’t impact the overall battery life). The car supports an option to ‘pre-start’ it from the remote control: that means, provided I remember to push the buttons 10 or 15 minutes before I leave for work in the morning it will have warmed up the cabin to an acceptable temperature using mains electricity (or in summer cooled it down) and also (possibly more importantly) warmed up the battery temperature management system; keeping the batteries at their optimal temperature is an important part of their strategy to maximise life.

That only helps when the car is plugged in of course (or rather I can prestart when it isn’t plugged in but that would just drain the batteries), so not much use when I’m leaving work.

The other thing is they recommend using the heated seats where possible rather than the main heater: I’m not so sure about that myself, it’s a bit like sitting on a hotplate.

Of course, if the worst comes to the worst and the battery drains from running the heating then all that happens is that I’ll start using petrol, so no big deal.

I don’t know much about the Prius plug-in, but I believe that when you put the heating on it simply starts the petrol engine (or sometimes does, or mostly does, not sure).

As to honesty of the consumption figures: there is so much variation depending on your pattern or use that it’s unlikely anyone will get the published figures. For the Volt the official figure is 235.4 mpg (1.2 litres per 100km), but my actual figure in practice is massively better (a fraction of a litre per 100km) because my pattern of use is more electric/less petrol than the official tests assume. The electric range likewise varies: I was getting 46-48 miles estimated range in the mornings (which seemed pretty accurate in practice) but in the last week as I’ve had the heating on that has dropped to 43-44 miles. All that seems in accordance with the claimed ’25-50 miles’ and it will be interesting to see just how low it drops mid winter.


You have one of these cars and I haven’t. It’s good to know that the manufacturers have given some thought to practical matters, even if the website does not focus on such things. Warming up the car when plugged in makes sense and it’s common practice to plug in engine heaters in conventional cars in countries that suffer from cold winters.

I am not opposed to electric cars, apart from the fact that none of the current offerings are affordable for many people. I believe that manufacturers should focus on cheap, low specification city cars with a top speed of 40 or 50 mpg. That would be of real environmental benefit and put much less demand on the batteries.

Best of luck with the fuel economy figures over winter. It will be interesting to know how you and others get on.

R Stride says:
23 September 2012

Very interesting but would you please tell your commentators to stop waving their hands around particularly the guy whilst driving! Very distracting to me just watching him.

bobg says:
6 October 2012

I am behind eco vehicles but the future is not looking good for electric vehicles. With news this week of the environmental impact of producing eco cars and the fact the UK will suffer electricity issues by 2015 things don’t look good. Possibly more scaremongering but if there are going to be electricity disruptions in a few years time I will steer clear of anything electric.

As for diesel it is proven to cause lung cancer so are diesel engine days numbered too – depends which way the govt turn on this one. I say just drive whilst yo ucan and use whatever fuel and car is best for your need

All EV manufacturers provide a claim abut the number of miles travelled before a recharge is needed. They don’t , however, claim whether those miles are with a fully loaded car with air conditioning, lights and other accessories. Even a guess would be appreciated; it would certainly affect the decision whether to buy electric or not.

In terms of producing a ranking, isn’t it more useful to have a standard based on a basic vehicle with one occupant driving on an even road and not using heaters, air conditioning or headlights? The unladen weight would be another useful statistic. After that the variations are too difficult to standardise for comparative purposes and are largely under the user’s control. The choice of route could make a significant difference to power consumption so a road test should follow the same route in both directions in order to average the gradients. Battery efficiency is almost certain to differ between different manufacturers as well and that would show up in a well-conducted miles-per-recharge assessment.