This is the Ford Transit Custom PHEV, a plug-in petrol-electric hybrid van that’s currently being tested as part of a trial of 20 prototypes across the UK, both by Ford and a number of commercial fleet operators. Auto Express had the opportunity to drive one such prototype on UK roads to see what the future holds for Ford’s iconic light commercial vehicle.

Based on the Ford Transit Custom, the PHEV prototype replaces the standard van’s 2.0-litre diesel engine with electric motors and a range-extender petrol engine – a three-cylinder 125PS EcoBoost unit as found in the Ford Fiesta supermini. This is mounted longitudinally in the engine bay in the space left by the usually transverse diesel, with a generator mounted behind it. As a series hybrid, the Transit Custom PHEV’s driven rear wheels are not connected to the petrol engine in any way; instead, the three-cylinder engine is used to charge the batteries on the move, which in turn power the van’s electric motor.

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The Transit Custom PHEV can also be charged via a cable – it’ll take 5 hours for a full charge on a domestic charger, or 3 hours on a standard fast charger. The Transit PHEV will travel 31 miles (50km) exclusively on electric power, or up to 300 miles once the petrol engine kicks in and starts generating electricity from a full fuel tank.

Save for a small display mounted on the dash and some additional buttons on the roof, the Transit Custom PHEV prototype is no different to the latest Ford Transit Custom on the inside. The same goes for the rear load area too – there’s no impact on load area despite the van’s bank of underfloor batteries, which have been fitted in place of the standard Transit Custom’s fuel tank. A smaller tank is fitted further forward under the central bulkhead.

Once running, the Transit Custom’s traditional diesel clatter is notable by its absence. The petrol engine doesn’t fire up until required, so pulling away and getting up to speed is a near-silent experience – though a synthesized sci-fi humming noise is emitted outside to alert pedestrians at lower speeds. The van drives much like a traditional automatic, with some ‘creep’ when moving from a standstill which makes things easier in traffic queues.

There are four driving modes, with each determining how the petrol range extender is used on the move. ‘EV Auto’ is the standard setting that automatically calculates when to charge the car’s batteries, while ‘EV Charge’ facilitates maximum charging from the petrol engine. ‘EV Now’ switches the Transit Custom PHEV to full electric power and ‘EV Later’ aims to maintain the batteries’ current charge level if the driver is planning to use full EV mode later in the journey.

An engineer from Ford told Auto Express that the Transit Custom PHEV will be able to operate in conjunction with ‘geofencing’ technology, meaning fleet owners will be able to specify specific areas where their vans will switch automatically to electric power without relying on drivers. The current 20-strong test fleet operating in London uses the system to change to full-electric mode in the Congestion Charge Zone. The Transit PHEV will even recognise when it’s headed towards a geofence and will charge its batteries accordingly.

The prototype we drove has a smaller, less powerful motor than will feature in production models, but still offered a characteristically electrified punch of instant low-down torque. The prototype’s steering is quite heavy, but a Ford engineer explained that the finished article will get a variable rack for more assistance at low speeds. Particularly strong regenerative braking helps charge the batteries but takes a little getting used to, as does the engine note which although well isolated from the cabin doesn’t match road speed at all once it’s fired up to charge the van’s batteries.

 

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