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Hybrid vans explained

Electric Vans / Electric Van Guides / Hybrid vans explained

The term ‘hybrid’ when applied to vehicles can be a little confusing. Many of us are not fully familiar with the concept, technology, advantages, disadvantages and how a hybrid differs from other methods of propulsion. Our Van Expert Tim Cattlin provides us with a simple to understand explainer which should uncover some of the myths and mysteries…

So, what exactly is a hybrid van?

The term hybrid means that the van is powered by a combination of technologies. Currently, in the van world, this is where an internal combustion engine (known as an ICE and fuelled by petrol or diesel) combines with an electric motor to propel the vehicle along. There are not that many on the market, currently, you’ll only find the Ford Transit Custom PHEV, the LEVC VN5 and the Toyota Corolla Commercial fitted with a hybrid arrangement.

Somehow, they operate together? How does that work then?

Toyota Corolla Commercial graphical display

There are two types of hybrid. The first uses a true combination of power from the engine and motor and this is the type fitted to the Toyota. Under normal circumstances, the van will drive away under electric power, but when required, the engine will introduce itself and either provide a share of the power needed to turn the wheels, or it may take over completely. This ‘mix’ is undertaken automatically by the vehicle’s internal management system and needs no driver input. Whilst driving, the engine will also generate electricity, re-charging the battery pack and replacing the power that has been used. Hybrid vehicles usually have a graphical display showing the driver where, at any given time the power to the wheels is coming from.

The second type of hybrid is known as a ‘range extender’. Here, the engine never provides power directly to the wheels, the van being an electric vehicle with an onboard generator (in the form of the engine) which charges up the battery pack ‘on the fly’. This is the arrangement used on the Ford Transit Custom PHEV and the LEVC VN5 vans. The battery is generally quite small offering limited electric range, but as the engine is always on hand to replace charge, this isn’t usually an issue. Some range extending hybrids can be plugged into a chargepoint allowing the driver to start a working day with the battery fully charged, relying less on the onboard engine and reducing the amount of fuel it consumes.

Are they easy to drive?

Yes. I have driven both the Transit Custom with the range-extending technology and also the Toyota which many would call a ‘full fat’ hybrid. The experience is different though – whilst the Toyota is a seamless drive with an engine so quiet you don’t notice it engaging and disengaging, the Ford, whilst being equally easy to operate can startle the driver when the engine ‘kicks in’ to provide charge, and, when climbing a steep hill so using a lot of electrical power, you can’t help but notice the engine revving quite loudly as it attempts to replace the charge being drained.

Because the hybrid has an engine, would it be unable to freely enter a new zero-emission zone?

Although all these vans can be switched to 100% electric power only using the range left in the battery pack, currently there would still be a charge for entering a zone, for example, the one in operation in Oxford. The Custom PHEV is classed as an ultra-low emission vehicle, with a £2 per day charge, and the Toyota a low emission vehicle, requiring a payment of £4 per day, the same as a modern Euro 6 diesel engine van. Only 100% electric, zero-emission vans can enter the zone without charge.

How does a hybrid compare with a diesel or electric van in fuel costs?

This is a tricky one. Why? Because with a plug-in hybrid, it depends on how often you charge it up using mains electricity. If your operation allows you to top it up it every night and you only cover 20 or 30 miles a day, you’ll hardly use any petrol in your Transit Custom PHEV at all and it’ll be much cheaper to run than the equivalent diesel. If you rely on the onboard charger and cover lots of motorway miles, you’re unlikely to see much, if any saving.

What is a mild hybrid engine?

These are being seen more and more, in both passenger cars and, notably with Ford in vans. Much closer in technology to a conventional drivetrain and having a petrol or diesel engine driving the wheels, the van typically has an additional 48-volt battery and electric motor. When coasting, the motor acts as a generator, charging the battery and when required, this charge is released back into the motor, assisting the engine. The van is never powered purely by electricity as a conventional hybrid can be.

Wouldn’t I be better just going for an electric van?

Quite possibly – the advantages of a hybrid are generally surpassed by a fully electric van. They do have one selling point though, any range anxiety is limited to how low the fuel is in your tank, and refilling will only take a couple of minutes. But for those wanting to contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment and are not quite ready for the full transition to an electric van, a hybrid is certainly worth considering.