February 18, 2020

Transit PHEV delivers the best of both worlds

Interest in electric vans continues to rise as operators look for vehicles able to meet stringent emissions limits in cities. But it is tempered still by range anxiety. Ford’s Custom PHEV aims to address the problem. Dan Gilkes reports.

Ford unveiled the production version of its Transit Custom PHEV at the recent IAA commercial vehicle show in Hanover. Two weeks before the event, Van User had the opportunity to drive one of the fleet of test vehicles that have been undergoing a 12-month trial with potential customers in the London area.

While the test vehicles have yet to adopt the revised front end and cab interior of the latest Custom – which will be part of the production vehicle – under the skin they are representative. That is, apart from the drive motor. On the test vehicles it is a 50kW motor, but for the production model it will be a 70kW unit. This is apparently in response to calls for more hill-climbing power from test drivers.

We had the opportunity to try the van at the recent Cenex LCV low carbon event at the Millbrook test facility in Bedfordshire. The drive included a tour of the facility’s city test route, which includes various stop/start junctions and roundabouts, plus a circuit of Millbrook’s famous alpine hill route. This includes three increasingly steep hill circuits, with every kind of corner thrown in for good measure.

As with all electric vans, turning the PHEV on elicits little more than a green light on the dash, unless there is no battery power at all, in which case the 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol engine will also kick into life. The engine has no direct connection to the driving wheels, but is used as a range-extender, to charge the batteries when required.

That means that the PHEV requires a much smaller 14kWh battery than a full electric van, as it’s only good for around 30-miles of zero emission running. This in turn, when combined with the weight of the compact three-cylinder engine, means that the driveline is little heavier than a traditional diesel engine and transmission, so the Custom PHEV still offers a payload over 1-tonne and there is no loss of load volume.

The driver can select from three driving modes, using a switch on the dash. These are: EV Auto – which is the default setting that allows the vehicle to decide what is running and when; EV Now – uses electric power only, for use in urban areas where it is not possible to run the engine; EV Later – uses the engine to constantly maintain the battery power ready for its next urban use.

The battery can be charged with a domestic 240V power socket, requiring five hours to fully charge, or a rapid charging point can bring the battery to full power in just three hours. In addition, of course, the petrol engine charges the battery through the day, so unless the last miles of the day were in a low-emission area, the van should finish the shift with some battery charge.

Though operating as a generator, the petrol engine has various rpm settings, depending on the charging requirement. At its most economical, the range-extender should provide up to 300 miles of additional travel. Even when under its highest demand however, the compact EcoBoost motor is never intrusive, humming away in the background to create battery power for the driveline.

Admittedly, we tried the van unladen, but it never seemed to struggle on even the steepest climbs of the alpine route. The van pulls away smoothly, if a little hesitantly at times, and the single-speed transmission simply accelerates to cruising speed without any fuss.

The electric power steering is direct and relatively light, making it easy to thread through the city route obstacles. The brakes also work well, with regenerative braking less obvious than
in a full EV.

In the revised cab interior there will be a power/charge gauge to replace the standard rev counter and a smaller gauge for battery charge, which replaces the engine coolant readout. The trip computer functions have been reconfigured specifically for the PHEV.

When it goes on sale next year, the PHEV will be offered in a range of high trim levels, with driver assistance technology including Active Park Assist and Lane Keeping Aid. Expect the interior to also get Ford’s SYNC 3 communication and entertainment system with the 8” touchscreen.

There are still no prices available, but an initial drive proves that end users have little to fear from the PHEV model. Indeed, the extended range and no loss of carrying capacity should make it easier to integrate the Custom PHEV into a fleet than a full EV, promoting take-up.