Electrification has already absorbed the car world – from EVs to a whole variety of hybrids – and slowly the same is happening in the van world.
Kickstarted by brands like Nissan and Renault, more recent zero-emission additions have recently emerged from the likes of Volkswagen, Iveco and the Peugeot/Citroën/Vauxhall collective.
Britain’s most popular commercial vehicle firm, Ford, took a while to come up with a suitable electrified model, but 2019 saw the launch of the Transit Custom plug-in hybrid. It’s the brand’s first plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV), and a revised version of the country’s most popular van for about the last 500 years.
Aside from being Ford’s being first PHEV, this is also the first plug-in hybrid van on sale – just beating the LEVC LCV to market.
While following the crowd and making an all-electric Transit Custom might have been the easy route, Ford says it’s chosen a plug-in hybrid for several reasons. First, the payload is signifcantly better than an all-electric van, although not quite as good as the regular Transit Custom. Secondly, there is no need to worry about range anxiety. And thirdly, as more cities are set to implement low-emission zones, the Transit Custom PHEV will likely still be exempt from emissions-based charges.
Aside from the powertrain, which we’ll cover in detail later, there isn’t much different about this plug-in hybrid Transit Custom, aside from the charging flap in the front bumper and revised dials and eco switches in the cabin.
How does it look?
Aside from the charging flap in the front bumper, which could look like a massive tow hook, the plug-in hybrid Transit Custom looks identical to the standard van.
The range-topping Limited version brings car-like looks thanks to 16-inch alloy wheels, body-coloured door handles and bumpers, as well as stylish LED daytime running lights – similar to those fitted to the Fiesta.
It’s worth noting that currently, the PHEV is just available in a single L1/H1 body size, which can be had as a panel van or a Kombi with a set of rear seats. It’s also offered as the Touneo Custom – a more luxurious people carrier offering seating for up to nine adults.
What’s the spec like?
Electrified versions of vehicles always cost more than the standard combustion engines, but just how much more the Transit Custom PHEV costs than its equivalent diesel version is alarming.
The standard Transit Custom range starts from an affordable £22,840, but the equivalent version to the PHEV costs from £26,490. So, what about the PHEV itself? Well, that will set you back an eye-watering £39,145, though Ford says it should hold its value far better, but it will be a big initial offset for businesses to make.
It’s offered in three grades, which admittedly are better-equipped than the standard van. The entry-level Leader comes with Bluetooth, electric front windows and air-conditioning.
Trend brings a leather steering wheel, front and rear parking sensors and automatic lights and wipers, with the range-topping Limited version adding heated front seats, 16-inch alloy wheels and body-coloured bumpers to get rid of the classic cladding.
What’s it like inside?
The ‘hardly unchanged’ look also continues to the cabin, though look closely and you’ll spot as few EV-specific details.
This is noticed mainly when you look at the dials, with a gauge showing when the van is either charging or using the engine replacing the rev counter, along with clear indicators of how many miles of electric range you have remaining, alongside the overall range. There is also a button for the EV modes in the middle of the dash, though it could be more handily positioned.
Mid-spec vans upwards also come with Ford’s excellent Sync 3 eight-inch infotainment system – allowing for a host of connected services, as well as satellite navigation and mobile apps that come from in-built Wi-Fi.
One of the stand-out highlights of the Transit Custom PHEV is its 1,130kg payload, which is significantly better than you’d get in a fully-electric van. The load space volume of 6.0m3 is also the same as an equivalent regular diesel Transit Custom – an impressive feat given the additional weight and spacethat electrification adds.
This is undoubtedly a key benefit of choosing a plug-in hybrid over an EV at this current stage on the way to electrification.
What’s under the bonnet?
Ford’s first plug-in hybrid LCV powertrain sees the company’s popular 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol engine paired with a 93kW electric motor and a 13.6kWh battery to produce a combined 125hp and 355Nm of torque.
Ford describes the combination as a ‘range extender’, because the petrol engine doesn’t actually turn the wheels. Instead, it acts as a generator to power the electric motor and/or charge the battery. However, on longer journeys there is a heavy reliance on the engine to provide this back-up for the electric motor.
The claimed electric range of 35 miles is ideal for city use, though in our mix of driving we found the electric ran dry well ahead of Ford’s predictions. But the key benefit for many will be the zero-emission capability, which does a sterling job of cutting CO2 emissions down to 70g/km, along with a claimed fuel economy figure of 91.7mpg.
What’s it like to drive?
Behind the wheel, it’s amazing just how easy this plug-in hybrid Transit Custom is to drive, and it will likely be a pleasant surprise to those used to diesel-powered models.
The initial torque and silence off the line and at lower speeds is fantastic – a welcome change from a diesel’s tractor-like chug. The dials also make it clear to see when your electric motor is being powered by the battery or the petrol engine, too, while specific EV settings allow you to customise when you wish to use the electricity. For example, if you’re heading towards a low-emission zone and want to conserve the electric miles, you can flick it into ‘EV Later’ mode and then switch to ‘EV Now’ once you arrive at the location.
The only thing with the system is that once the battery runs out, the petrol engine itself is small and underpowered to move something of this size – leading to a rather unrefined drone from the single-speed automatic gearbox as you attempt to get up to speed.
By opting for a plug-in hybrid as its first electrified powertrain, Ford has successfully dodged the limited electric ranges and limited load-carrying ability typically associated with fully-electric vans.
While the limited electric-only range makes this PHEV a version that’s best-suited to cities, it could be ideal for businesses needing to do that mix of rural and urban driving – but wanting to ensure they can save the electric for once they get to the city.
But the high list price next to the diesel model is the elephant in the room that could prohibit many from switching over to an electrified powertrain. Either way, this new plug-in hybrid is a great addition to the Transit Custom line-up, which offers a further option to those looking to cut their businesses’ carbon footprint.
Model as tested: Ford Transit Custom PHEV Limited
Price: £42,950 (excl VAT)
Engine: 1.0-litre petrol plus electric motor
Gearbox: Six-speed automatic
Power: 125 hp
Torque: 355 Nm
Max speed: 74 mph
Fuel economy (combined): 91.7 mpg
CO2 emissions: 70 g/km