Is the future of campervans electric?
Words and photos by Peter Vaughan
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of What Motorhome magazine. Click here to buy a digital edition.
The best-known hybrid car, the Toyota Prius, was launched in Japan in 1997 with a plug-in version arriving in 2012. Now, finally, there is a PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) version of one of the campervan market’s favourite base vehicles (and the best-selling van in the UK), the Ford Transit Custom.
It is currently unique in its sector and, although a growing number of light commercial vehicles are now offered in pure electric, battery only (BEV) form, these are destined for city centre delivery work and are currently unrealistic options for almost all leisure users.
The Transit Custom PHEV (note that there is no such option for the larger Transit, used for coachbuilt motorhomes) seems to have been a long time coming, with a lengthy period of fleet trials before being offered to the market. Now that it’s here, what exactly is it?
Well, it looks like a standard Transit Custom (or people-carrier Tourneo Custom as tested here), bar the flap in the nearside corner of the front bumper where the plug goes in. This Transit, however, comes with two separate power sources instead of the usual 2-litre diesel engine.
A battery-powered 92.9kW electric motor drives the front wheels, while a 124bhp 1-litre EcoBoost petrol engine (like the one used in non-hybrid Fiestas and Focuses) works to recharge that lithium-ion battery and extend the vehicle’s range – the petrol motor never drives the wheels.
Ford says that the PHEV will take you up to 35 miles (two less if it’s the Tourneo rather than the panel van) using electric power alone (although, just as with a diesel vehicle, driving style and other factors such as weather conditions can affect this figure).
Even turning up the heater on a winter’s morning or switching on the air-con in summer will reduce your electric range noticeably. Regenerative braking helps to recharge the battery as you go and you can also replenish the battery power at most AC network charging points. It takes 4.3 hours to fully recharge from a domestic three-pin socket or 2.7 hours from a fast charger.
Most importantly, though, the addition of the petrol engine gives the hybrid a total claimed range of 310 miles, so it is more realistic for touring than any electric-only van. Do note, though, that you cannot tow with this vehicle and top speed is limited to 75mph.
The cost of going green
With its chrome grille, 16in alloy wheels and Kapoor Red paint, the Tourneo Custom Titanium that arrived for our test showed how smart these latest Ford vans can look, but then it also carries a £62,950 price tag as seen here (less the UK government’s low-emission plug-in grant that will pay for 20% of the purchase price, up to a maximum of £8,000). And that is one of the issues that will restrict demand – cost.
Even as a panel van, the PHEV (in mid-range Trend spec) is priced from £41,450 excluding VAT, whereas an equivalent diesel model starts at just £25,450. That suggests a typical-spec PHEV campervan would retail at around £65k to £70k.
And don’t expect the same variety of conversions, as the hybrid model is only available in L1 H1 form (the short-wheelbase, low-roof van).
However, payload of the van is still over a tonne (so a camper conversion is viable, unlike with some electric commercial vehicles), and the size and shape of the load space is no different to the diesel-powered Transit Custom.
For leisure users, Steve Wood at Roy Wood Transits points out further drawbacks. He feels that the higher cost of a hybrid campervan will not just be at the point of purchase, pointing out that the “potential cost of replacement batteries at seven years will, undoubtedly, adversely affect residual values, given that the life of a modern camper is 15 years plus.”
That said, the Ford handbook states, “The high voltage battery system is designed to last the lifetime of your vehicle” but we can’t help thinking that this is based on the life expectancy of a delivery van. Just think how many campervans are still on the road at 30+ years old…
Steve also has concerns about the practicality of using an electric camper, saying that “limited infrastructure on campsites for charging is unlikely to change given the extortionate utility company costs to upgrade sites in rural locations.”
So, will you be able to recharge your PHEV camper on a campsite, before heading into a low emission zone? We asked the Caravan and Motorhome Club, whose External Communications and Sponsorship Manager, Nikki Nichol, responded:
“The Club has seen members using the existing site EHUs [electric hook-ups] to recharge hybrid towcars and sometimes electric cars towed behind motorhomes for several years.
“Power available per pitch or to a site as a whole is not unlimited, however, so we ask owners to charge these vehicles via their caravan or motorhome, thus treating vehicle charging as another demand they need to balance to stay within the available power limits. It’s broadly similar to running electric heating in terms of power demand.
“This generally works fine for hybrids and such like with relatively small batteries. With a 13.6kWh battery, the Transit PHEV fits into that group, and should be readily chargeable overnight in most circumstances, when other power demands are relatively low.”
“As numbers of hybrid and, particularly, fully-electric vehicles become more common, we know this will increase the strain on site power supplies to cope.
To that end, our ongoing redevelopment at our site at Cayton Village, near Scarborough, includes the provision of limited numbers of dedicated vehicle charging points in addition to the normal pitch EHUs. For maximum versatility, these are distributed between the main car park area and some of the pitches.
“Depending on how we configure them, these can charge at up to ten times the rate achievable via the standard EHUs, which makes them capable of fully charging vehicles with larger batteries overnight, or providing a significant top-up charge in a relatively short time period. This is just the next step in what we anticipate to be many stages of adapting to new power technologies.”
Despite all of these issues, it is well documented that numerous potential campervan buyers have been seeking a ‘green’ option, with questions being asked with increasing frequency at the major motorhome shows. Early adopters are likely to be those who live and/or work in urban areas and especially cities with restrictions or tolls for diesel vehicles.
On short electric-only drives, such as to the supermarket or the school run, the PHEV Ford could save you money, too. It is also exempt from the London Congestion Charge and the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). Quoting from the handbook again, ‘The high voltage battery does not need maintenance’, so there should be reduced servicing costs, too.
Plugging in and charging the Ford Transit Custom campervan
Our Tourneo arrived with two hook-up cables, one for commercial applications (as you’ll have seen at motorway services, etc) and one for a standard three-pin plug at home. The domestic lead cannot be used with any form of extension or adapter and its seven-metre length meant parking nose-in on my drive and posting the cable through an open window, not something to do overnight!
However, plugging in is as easy as you’d hope and is accompanied by a green light on the charging equipment and flashing blue lights around the socket on the vehicle to show the state of charge.
Inside the cab, it’s all familiar – doubly so as we had CMC’s Transit Custom-based HemBil Escape on test at the same time. The duo-tone fascia here would give a welcome lift to a camper interior but it’s the two ‘fuel’ gauges that catch my eye. The left one shows battery charge, the right one petrol in the tank.
Then, what looks like a rev counter at first glance is actually a ‘power gauge’. Its green section indicates that the battery is charging when braking, decelerating or driving downhill, the blue sector tells you that you’re driving efficiently, and the white area is like the ‘naughty zone’ where harder acceleration is depleting your battery power.
These details aside, the PHEV’s controls are just like those of a standard automatic Transit Custom. So, insert the key, turn and, err, nothing. Not a sound, just the display lighting up. Now, as you select ‘drive’ on the transmission lever, you notice a further option, beyond ‘D’. Engage ‘L’ and you get maximum regenerative braking.
There’s another consideration, too – the Drive Mode switch on the dashboard. Choose from Auto EV, which uses the petrol engine only when the battery needs charging; EV Now, which uses only battery power but which can cut acceleration and climate control to increase range; EV Later, which could be useful if you know you want to conserve battery power for a low emission zone at the end of your journey; or EV Charge, which uses the engine to charge the battery but is not a substitute for plugging in.
Driving the Ford Transit Custom campervan
In many ways, this feels just like any other Transit Custom to drive, except that under electric power it is eerily quiet. Acceleration at town speeds is surprisingly brisk, too, although the power gauge is a haunting reminder of what you’re doing to the battery’s charge if you get too carried away.
I’m sure I drove in a more relaxed style than I would in my own VW T6 camper but, with just 13 miles covered on battery power, the gauge had dropped below half. By 22 miles it was game over and I could hear – but not feel – the EcoBoost engine cutting in. Not that you’ll be especially aware of engine noise – at 50-60mph wind noise is more noticeable than the motor and the PHEV is definitely quieter than a diesel.
Performance won’t be a disappointment if you’re used to the 130PS diesel Ford, so the only unusual aspect that you’re really aware of is how little you use the brakes – with the gearbox in ‘L’, simply lift off the power and that’s usually enough retardation, unless you need to come to a complete stop.
Switching between the modes is easy and it’s useful to be able to save electric power for town centre motoring at the end of your trip. Our near-100-mile test route involved town and country roads, much like a campervan weekend away, but my plan to top up the battery while I stopped at a supermarket stalled as there were no charging points in its car park.
That highlights the still-limited infrastructure for battery-powered vehicles and that drivers need to plan ahead. At least there’s no range anxiety with the backup of the petrol engine, but the end of my tour didn’t reveal any great cost saving – 36mpg overall is very similar to the fuel economy of a diesel camper.
Verdict on the Ford Transit Custom campervan
For most campervan buyers, diesel is still the answer, of that there is absolutely no doubt. But, if you live in a town or city, and your camper is your only vehicle, used for short trips all week and longer runs at the weekend, the Transit Custom PHEV could be a unique solution that eliminates tail-pipe emissions in your local area and circumvents any local restrictions on diesel vehicles.
What does the industry think of hybrid campervans?
With the PHEV version of the Transit Custom now properly on the market, we asked the key Ford convertors about their plans to offer hybrid campervans. Here are some of their thoughts and feedback.
“The level of interest is increasing, especially from those in urban environments. Heating will be a challenge (in adapting conversions normally built on diesel vans), otherwise we think minimal change will be required to our conversions.”
CONCEPT MULTI-CAR (CMC)
“Questions about alternatives to diesel have disappeared since the pandemic, now people just want a camper – now! Reimo in Germany is investigating whether any changes are required to the way the seat system is bonded in, but once that’s resolved we’ll be adding the PHEV model to our Escape price list.”
“We have had enquiries on the PHEV but when people see the electric range they lose interest. We have not investigated converting one but I believe the floor level is the same, so this shouldn’t be a problem except the underfloor tanks might not be possible and I expect the weight will increase.”
“There are no plans currently for a PHEV version of the Nugget.”
“Demand is growing at a fast rate for an electric/hybrid camper and we’re getting two or three enquiries a day! Price is an issue (because of the base vehicle cost) and we can’t go ahead with a PHEV Custom camper until Ford gives us the go-ahead, as we are QVM approved. But in six months’ time we could have three electric camper options (including the Ford) and we don’t expect any changes to our conversion except for having to move the leisure battery.”
“It’s only available in the L1 van, so no good for our Triton. We do not get asked for this much, the odd query every few months. Our Proteus conversion should not change. We aim to offer it as an option for next year.”