The van sector sits at a 3-way intersection of 3 fuels - electric, petrol & diesel. Choosing between them isn't easy, especially when you consider how new electric technology is & how established petrol & diesel are. That's why we asked Vanarama Van Expert Tom Roberts to compare the fuel types head-to-head in his latest article.
At first, it felt like I was being set up for a fail. The only thing running through my head when I started researching this topic was how on earth I would cover a 3-way head-to-head comparison of commercial vehicle fuel types. Then it dawned on me - deal with the reality of the fuels & the vehicles that use them - keep it simple. So, that's what I've done.
First, let's set the scene. Diesel is, by far, the dominant commercial vehicle fuel right now - after all, 97% of all vans driven on the continent are diesel powered. Petrol-powered commercial vehicles - yes, there are a few - remain something of a quirk & alternative fuels (e.g. electric) are only just starting to move out of the 'early adopter' phase.
Yet alternative fuels - especially electric - are the future of commercial vehicles. But when does that future become the norm? Probably sooner than we're all imagining.
Diesel Vans: The Current Norm
Every single van - apart from those engineered to be exclusively powered by a certain fuel - is available with a diesel engine. To list them all would take up several pages - suffice to say, if you can think of a van it's probably got a diesel engine.
The popularity of diesel vans is down to the normality of the fuel, product availability & familiarity of the engines. Euro 6D engines are quieter, offer excellent fuel economy, there are no restrictions on range (even when the vehicles are used nationally or internationally), residual values (the amount a vehicle is worth over time) stay strong & most diesel vans offer the highest payloads on the market. They just make sense for a commercial vehicle driver.
But, they are considered to be environmentally unfriendly with high CO2 & particulate emissions, their diesel particulate filters (DPF) are easily blocked in urban operation & depending on their age they may not be eligible for fee-free operation in ultra-low emission zones. However, diesel vans are the current norm & shaking them from that position will take some doing.
Petrol Vans: The Passing Trend
What was once THE fuel has long been usurped in the commercial vehicle world in favour of diesel, but that doesn't mean there aren't petrol-powered vans available. As of right now, the vans below are currently available with petrol engines:
Ford Vans: Fiesta, Transit Courier & Transit Connect.
VAG Group vans: Volkswagen Caddy.
Other manufacturers have, in recent times, re-introduced petrol options only to withdraw them from sale (e.g. Volkswagen Transporter). There's just not as much appetite for a petrol engine in the commercial vehicle world as there once was - simple as that.
There are some good things to say about petrol vans though, including low CO2 emissions (meaning petrol engines are currently deemed to be more environmentally friendly than diesel engines), the absence of a DPF to block up in urban use, potential lower outright purchase costs & an overall better driver acceptance level due to cleaner refuelling.
But lower residual values (the amount a vehicle is worth over time) make the whole-life cost of running a petrol van much higher than a diesel van & selling it on is therefore a bigger challenge. They also suffer from far higher fuel consumption when compared to diesel engines & most may not be eligible for fee-free operation in ultra-low emission zones.
Electric Vans: The Next Normal
We're already seeing huge fleet customers taking orders of electric vans - Amazon, for example, has just bolstered its European fleet of delivery vans with 1,800 electric Mercedes-Benz Sprinter large panel vans & Vito medium panel vans (500 of which will be deployed in the UK). The future is coming, albeit slowly, but the current range of available electric vans in familiar shapes & sizes looks promising. As of right now, the electric vans you can drive are as follows:
Renault vans: Kangoo ZE & Master ZE.
Mercedes-Benz vans: eVito & eSprinter.
PSA Group vans: Vauxhall e-Vivaro, Peugeot e-Expert & Citroen e-Dispatch.
Volkswagen ABT e-Transporter.
Iveco Daily Electric.
Maxus eDeliver 3 & eDeliver 9.
On the positive side, electric vans are the ultimate low-emission technology allowing full access to low emission zones & low running costs (in terms of fuel & maintenance). The latest models feature much-improved ranges compared to early vehicles & the battery packs no longer intrude into a van's loading bay. They're quiet, environmentally friendly & tick all the right 'going green' boxes.
However, right now they offer variable payloads - most of them considerably lower than their diesel equivalents, although they are improving. Comparatively, there's a poor choice of products available - but again, this is rapidly improving as more launches are announced. There's also the potential that the electric vans currently available will disappear into obsolescence as the technology (specifically how that technology affects range & charging times) improves. Battery durability is also largely untested, but the lengthy warranties offered by manufacturers should put those worries to bed - if they have faith in their tech, so should we.
Finally, initial costs are high, even after government grants, & the curse of new technology is reflected in uncertain residual values that will make selling them on when you're upgrading to a new one difficult. But then, if you leased one, you'd never have to worry about those costs ever again.
There you go, the 3 major fuel types available in the van world put head-to-head. Recommending one over the other is difficult, especially when you consider how new (& rapidly improving) electric vehicle technology is. For now, many van drivers will stick to diesel-powered vans simply because it's what they've been driving for the past decade or more - they know they can rely on it. But, electric power is clearly being positioned as the future of the sector.
Personally, I still need more convincing on electric vans & I know I'm not alone. The mistake would be to dismiss electric vans for the next decade, which is why I encourage everyone to at least try one out before laying down their judgement. The future is coming, but it doesn't have to be bought into right away. My advice is & always will be to make your choice of vehicle, & the fuel that powers it, based solely on your needs. In the meantime, I'm sure you'll all join me in continuing to enjoy our diesel vans & watching the development of electric vans with great interest.