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The pros and cons of electric vans

On the fence about electric vans? Here we’ll run through their pros and cons, from price tag to load capacity.

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There are more electric vans hitting UK roads every month, although their take-up has been somewhat slower than for electric cars.

Over the first five months of this year, almost 7,000 new electric LCVs have been registered. That’s about 150 units down on the same period last year, as a result of a very poor month in April, but generally the trend is for steady yet unspectacular growth.

Diesel remains the dominant fuel choice for new vans, with about 134,000 new diesel LCVs registered up until the end of May. However, we’re starting to see more electric vans coming to market – and there will be a few electric pick-up trucks coming soon as well.

In other parts of Europe, there’s more enthusiasm. A report commissioned by Ford Pro found that Germany had the highest EV proportion of new van registrations in 2023 at 9.5%. People in the survey said that reduced operating costs were the top reason to switch to EVs but there were still concerns about charging.

So, if you’re sitting on the fence about electric vans, here we’ll run through the pros and cons, and in the following months will delve into them in more detail.

You can get electric vans in all sizes, but most of the initial interest to date has been in small- and medium-sized vehicles, which are best suited to stop-start town and city work over relatively short distances.

Pro: Electric vans are easier to drive

The majority of existing petrol and diesel vans have manual gearboxes so, as any town van driver knows, a day of stop-start driving involves pushing down the clutch pedal and changing gear hundreds of times. Electric vehicles have only a single-speed gearbox so there are no gears to change, no clutch, and no gear lever. That makes town driving simpler and much more relaxing.

While electric vans still cost more to buy outright, adding an automatic gearbox to a petrol or diesel van adds to its price. For example, an automatic transmission costs around £2,000 extra on a diesel Ford Transit Custom. There’s also no engine noise, compared to the familiar clatter of a diesel engine, so you or your staff should find an electric van both easier to drive and a calmer place to be.

Pro: town vans don’t need a big range and are cheaper to charge

In town and city environments, vans cover relatively few miles each day. Electric vehicles are also at their most economical in low-speed urban environments, where they can use the electric motor to do a lot of the braking and regenerate some electricity.

Working vans usually go back to the same place at the end of each working day. If this is at a private home with off-street parking, topping up using a home charger overnight is easy, cheaper on a domestic electricity rate and loses no working time. Equally, if the electric vans return to a depot or office parking at night, they can be charged overnight there.

If the van driver needs to top up at a public charger during the day these are more expensive, but a quick top-up charge need not take long on the latest vans, so can usually be accomplished during a lunch break.

Con: they need to stop to recharge more often

Like an electric car, an electric van will not go as far as a petrol or diesel one until its needs to be charged up to full or have a top-up charge.

While many diesel vans claim to have a driving range of more than 350 miles from a full tank, the official maximum range of a Ford e-Transit Custom is 209 miles. And, like all electric vehicles, this will drops further during cold weather or motorway driving.

Con: they’re more expensive to buy

On paper, the electric price difference over an equivalent petrol or diesel van jumps out. Because of the current cost of batteries, there is still a premium on the up-front cost.

As of June 2024, an electric Ford Transit Custom starts at just over £43K (plus VAT). A similarly equipped diesel Transit Custom with automatic transmission costs just under £37K – a saving of £6,750, or about 18%. If you’re happy with a more basic specification and manual transmission, you can get a diesel Transit Custom from as low as £32.3K.

Likewise, the small Vauxhall Combo Electic starts at about £35.5K, while the equivalent automatic diesel automatic slides in just under £30K – a 19% difference.

Note that these are all recommended retail prices from the manufacturer’s website, correct as of June 2024. At any given time, you might get a better deal on a particular vehicle from your local dealership, so it always pays to shop around and haggle.

Pro: the purchase cost can be offset in other ways

Currently, the Government is offering grants to encourage the uptake of for plug-in hybrid and electric vans. The maximum discount available for some small vans is £2,500 those listed include the Renault Kangoo E-Tech and Vauxhall Combo-e. The maximum discount available for some large vans is £5,000, and these include the new Ford E-Transit Custom and Volkswagen ID.Buzz Cargo. This grant should be included in the vehicle price already, so you don’t need to do anything and can’t claim it afterwards.

In London, there are additional benefits. Sole traders, micro businesses, small businesses or charities with a registered address there who have vans or minibuses that do not meet the ULEZ emissions standards and donate or scrap them and replace with an electric van can get £9,500. That already exceeds the price premium on the two vans listed above, so you’d be in front compared to buy an equivalent new diesel van.

Zero-emission vehicles are also currently exempt from the central London £15 daily congestion charge, but this will end on 25 December 2025. Outside London, EVs are exempt from paying charges to enter the clean air zones currently operating in Bath, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Portsmouth, Sheffield and Tyneside (Newcastle and Gateshead).

An electric van needs less servicing. They have no exhausts, no diesel particulate filters (which clog up with town use), no fuel systems, oil filters, gearboxes or clutches to wear out or maintain. That all means that scheduled servicing should be less on an electric van.

A few months ago, our sister site The Car Expert checked servicing prices for electric cars against equivalent petrol and diesel models. We found that EVs were, on average, about 24% cheaper to service. This data didn’t include any LCVs, but the numbers are likely to be similar (in fact, it was about 30% for Peugeot and Citroën van-based people carriers).

Con: they can carry less weight

An electric van typically weighs slightly more than an equivalent diesel model due to the weight of the battery. Therefore, an electric van’s maximum payload is generally less than the diesel version.

For example, the targeted max gross payload of the new Ford Transit Custom Plug-in Hybrid is 1,350kg while the equivalent new Ford Transit e-Custom’s maximum payload is 1,088kg. That means you can carry 260kg more cargo in the diesel version, which is significant for many operators.

Pro: electric vans are the same size inside and out

For short-haul deliveries, being able to carry less weight may not be as important as the maximum load volume – the space inside. Because the batteries in the latest electric vans have been designed to sit below the floor, the shape of the loadspace is exactly the same, and electric vans can be configured with the same combination of sliding doors, seats, length and versions (pick-up, tipper, minibus etc.) as the combustion-engine versions.

Some van manufacturers offer hybrid models, which have both a combustion engine and an electric motor (and battery). This can eat into your load volume compared to a pure diesel or pure electric van.

What sort of businesses could benefit from an electric van?

There are actually plenty of businesses that could quite easily run an electric van instead of a fossil-fuel model. It may not be the cheapest choice overall but it would certainly be a viable option, particularly if your business image would benefit from the green-tinted halo of running an electric van.

If most of your work is in urban areas, an electric van is very efficient. You can also ‘regenerate’ electricity every time you lift off the throttle or hit the brakes – which happens a lot in town driving. That helps to eke out additional miles between charging, and something that a diesel or petrol vehicle simply can’t do.

For mainly town driving, your running costs will be a lot lower on an electric van – especially if you have access to private charging at home or at work, rather than having to use public chargers.

If load volume (space) is more important to you than payload (weight), an electric van may be a good bet as well.

What sort of business won’t benefit from an electric van?

If most of your work involves motorways or long journeys, an electric van isn’t ideal. Steady driving at 60-70mph will drain the battery much more quickly than lower-speed work around town – it’s basically the opposite of fuel consumption in a petrol or diesel van.

On longer trips, especially if you’re near maximum payload, you’ll probably have to stop and charge en route, which could add considerable time to your journey. And if you’re paying for electricity from public charging points, it’s considerably more expensive than charging at home or work.

If you’re looking to buy a used van, there’s currently not a lot of choice in electric models. That keeps resale values pretty high, so you’re looking at a considerable price difference compared to a used diesel van of similar specification.

More on the way

The shift from fossil fuels to electricity is well underway, and the choice of new electric vans is steadily increasing. It will take a while for these to filter through into the used van market in significant numbers, but it’s steadily growing each year.

As well as more electric models from existing van manufacturers, there are new players entering the market as well. Chinese brand Maxus has had electric vans, and even an electric pick-up, on sale for a couple of years now. Meanwhile, Korean brand Kia is planning to enter the electric van market with at least three new models (small, medium and large vans) over the next few years.

Technology is also improving, so if an electric van doesn’t meet your needs right now, that could well change in the not-too-distant future. So maybe your next van might be another petrol or diesel model, but the one after that could be electric.

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Russell Hayes
Russell Hayeshttps://amzn.to/3dga7y8
Russell Hayes’ early career was 14 years of motoring journalism in print, television and online. He worked for What Car? and Complete Car magazines, the BBC's original Top Gear programme and Channel 4's Driven. Since 2007 he has written motoring history books on subjects including Lotus, TVR, the Earls Court Motor Show, the Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Beetle and Bus and the original Aston Martin V8. Now a full-time author, two more books are in the pipeline for 2021 and 2022.

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