CHRISTIAAN HETZNER

Opel's Ampera bombed, but thankfully for its successor no one noticed

The Ampera-e, shown, has a similar name to the ill-fated Ampera plug-in.
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Christiaan Hetzner is Automotive News Europe Germany correspondent.
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One of the eco-friendly highlights premiering at the Paris auto show will be the Ampera-e, Opel’s second foray into electrified powertrains. Yet the brand’s marketing chief, Tina Mueller, revealed in a German magazine interview that the model came close to getting a different name.

When Opel was deciding on a name for the General Motors' brand's first full electric car, Mueller opposed calling it after the Ampera plug-in hybrid, which was a critical success but failed to win many customers.

"I was against the name at first, because I thought it had been burned. But that wasn’t the case," Mueller told WirtschaftsWoche in an interview.

The original Ampera was a sister model to the Chevrolet Volt, just as the Ampera-e is a sibling of the Chevrolet Bolt.

The Ampera’s 16 kilowatt hour lithium-ion battery allowed it to travel between 40-80 km (25-50 miles) and once depleted, a 1.4-liter gasoline  engine generated electric power to extend the range to 500 km. By today's standards, these specs are a joke but back in late 2011 when the model launched, they were impressive and Opel pioneered the technology among European automakers.

I still believe that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative, might not have stepped in to rescue Opel when parent General Motors entered bankruptcy in mid-2009 had it not been for the promise of a bright new future symbolized by the Ampera, which had debuted as a concept in Geneva just months earlier.

And while the car took home numerous trophies from the motoring press during its brief lifespan, including Europe’s Car of the Year award for 2012 that it won together with the Volt, commercially the Ampera was an unmitigated flop.

The near 46,000 euro price tag – more than twice the cost of a conventional internal combustion engine car of its class – obliterated customer interest. Even a 17 percent price cut in Germany did nothing to lift demand. European sales peaked in the first year at less than 5,300 cars in 2012 and three years later it was pulled from the market after volumes fell below 1,000 units in 2014.

In fact the public completely forgot about the car even though it was sold as recently as last year. It's not hard to see why. You could more easily spot a Ferrari on the road than an Ampera, and executives admitted the model got no advertising support. After years of heavy losses, investing limited resources to push a niche car made no sense financially. Nor did the brand’s pragmatic dealers believe in the model, feeling it was a gimmick priced far beyond the finances of Opel’s customers.

"We had fantastic alternatives [for names]. But the Ampera-e in the end beat them all and has no negative associations," Mueller said. "Our market research showed that virtually no one knew the name Ampera."

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