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Running a motorhome: Alternatives to diesel


Car sales were down in October 2017 for the 7th month running as buyers shun diesels, sales of which were down by almost 30%. Meanwhile, alternatively fuelled vehicles – electric and hybrid models – are on the up. Motorhome sales are still increasing, too, with registrations for the first half of 2017 up by 14% – despite virtually the entire sector being diesel-driven.

As John Lally, Director General of the National Caravan Council, points out: “Holiday behaviour is changing; ‘staycationing’ is retaining – even increasing – its appeal. We are going on more frequent, shorter holidays.”

But, at the NEC show in October 2017, many exhibitors were facing frequent questions about alternatives to diesel. David Elliott of campervan manufacturer, Wellhouse Leisure, told MMM magazine: “People are more worried about ‘can I have it at home and visit the city’, rather than oh my god it only does 20mpg.”

Motorhomes and low emission zones

Of course, the growing number of low emissions zones – not just here, but across Europe – is one factor. Unless you live in an area that’s affected by these zones, it’s probably easiest to stay outside and travel in on public transport – just as most motorhomers will previously have done – but the real issue is the complexity of the situation, with different cities having different requirements and exemptions.

This confusion hasn’t been helped by the government’s headline-grabbing announcement that not only diesel but petrol cars will be ‘banned’ by 2040. What the tabloids failed to point out is that this is only for the sale of brand-new vehicles and diesel-hybrid and petrol-hybrid models will still be available to buy.

Your current diesel motorhome, therefore, looks to have a long life ahead of it, with no shortage of filling stations to service it for the next three decades or more! And should we really be so worried about a change promised in 22 years’ time, bearing in mind that this will follow at least four general elections? Especially as one forecast suggests that we’d need to build 10 new nuclear power stations or 10,000 new wind turbines in the UK to cope with a mass migration to electric vehicles, as well as funding a huge investment in vehicle charging points. And just one new nuclear plant could cost £20-billion and take up to 20 years to build…

How bad are diesel motorhomes?

Of course, the VW Dieselgate fiasco didn’t help the image of diesel vehicles, but, as the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) points out, diesel cars emit, on average, 20% lower CO2 than their petrol equivalents. In fact, since 2002, diesel cars have saved 3.5 million tonnes of CO2 – one of the principal greenhouse gases – from going into the atmosphere. As many as 96% of today’s commercial vehicles registered in Britain are diesel powered – and we wouldn’t be surprised if that percentage wasn’t even higher for motorhomes.

The latest Euro VI vehicles are the cleanest in history – and light years away from their older counterparts. As well as special filters, they also feature clever technology that converts most of the NOx from the engine into harmless nitrogen and water before it reaches the exhaust. The latest Euro VI campervans are classed as ‘low emission’ for the purposes of the London Ultra Low Emission Zone, meaning drivers of these vehicles will be free to enter the zone without paying the charge.

Turning to motorhomes, it is the torque offered by modern turbo-diesels, combined with good economy, that has made them so popular. Most modern base vehicles are only available with diesel engines and this seems unlikely to change in the short term.

At the 2017 Commercial Vehicle Show we asked leading van manufacturers about their plans for petrol or hybrid models and most said they had none coming in the near future.

Petrol-powered campervans in demand

However, there is demand for petrol-powered campervans here. Bilbo’s says around half its orders for VW campers are now for petrol models, following the launch of petrol T6s in the UK. And David at Wellhouse says, “It’s gone mad again for petrols on used [vehicles].”

Over recent years the only campervans offered with petrol engines have been those based on tiny car-derived vans such as the Fiat Fiorino, Ford Transit Connect and VW Caddy, or new conversions of used base vehicles imported from Japan – Toyota Granvias and Alphards, and the like (mostly with relatively large petrol engines of 2.4 to 3-litres).

The Japanese campervan scene has grown enormously since the first Mazda Bongos were imported in 2002 and a whole raft of converters has sprung up to serve this market (see our special report in the September 2017 issue). Wellhouse Leisure remains a leader in the sector and it extols the virtues of its latest import, the Honda Elysion with a 2.4-litre 160PS petrol engine, which it says will do 28mpg with ease. Coincidentally, we achieved around 27-28mpg from a brand-new petrol 150PS Volkswagen T6 Bilbo’s camper, while the 204PS model with DSG automatic gearbox returned 26-27mpg in our hands.

These figures may look low compared with equivalent diesels but we calculated an annual fuel bill less than £200 higher for the petrol T6s (based on 5,000 miles per annum – and not accounting for proposed increases in diesel prices). VW also points to reduced servicing costs for the petrol T6, while initial pricing is around £1,000 lower, too. Only two TSI petrol versions are currently available, though: a 150PS manual and a 204PS automatic.

Having now driven both, we’re smitten, especially with the effortless acceleration of the 204PS derivative, which feels more like a luxury car than any VW camper before it. Both power units are super-smooth – a world away from the petrol engines of the T4 in the late 1990s, the last time that a petrol VW camper was on sale here.

However, while many motorhomes in the 1980s and ’90s were offered with a choice of petrol, diesel or turbo-diesel engines, we don’t foresee petrol power being anything but a small part of the market going forward.

Hybrid motorhomes and campervans

Toyota has been building its Prius hybrid car for more than two decades, but there still wasn’t a single hybrid-powered motorhome at the recent NEC show. This is not the fault of the leisure industry, for suitable base vehicles do not currently exist and, with problems of limited payload already affecting many motorhomes, what would be left out to allow for the substantial extra weight of vehicle batteries?

Maybe the answer lies in the proposal for category B driving licences to have a weight increase to 4,250kg for hybrid and electric vehicles, to account for the added mass of the batteries. Could this help the Hymer hybrid B-Class prototype – as seen at the Düsseldorf Caravan Salon back in 2011 – return as a more realistic project? It had a diesel engine driving the front wheels and electric motors powering the rear ones, with a switch in the cab to select the power source. The batteries and electric motors added 265kg, we were told, and a Formula 1-style KERS system was employed to top up the batteries under braking. A production version was said to be five years away but, six years on, we’re still waiting…

The first hybrid motorhome

So, the first hybrid motorhome will probably be a Ford Transit Custom-based campervan, although the new Mercedes Sprinter (due late 2018) is tipped to feature a hybrid option (though no details have yet been released). Ford’s new plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) Transit Custom van has begun a 12-month fleet customer trial in London and this game-changer is scheduled for volume production in 2019.

The Transit Custom PHEV targets a zero-emissions range of 31 miles or more and features the award-winning EcoBoost 1-litre petrol engine as a range extender. The EcoBoost engine charges the on-board batteries when longer trips are required between charging stops. It uses a series-hybrid driveline configuration, with the vehicle’s wheels driven exclusively by an electric motor, rather than by the combustion engine – the motor is only used to top up the batteries, effectively as a generator.

The battery pack is a compact liquid-cooled lithium-ion design located under the load floor, preserving the full cargo volume offered by the standard Transit Custom van, so existing camper conversions such as the Auto Campers MRV, Danbury Go and Wellhouse Terrier should become available in hybrid form.

Ford will be the first volume manufacturer to offer PHEV technology in this segment of the van market – and, therefore, it will be the first vehicle of this type in the campervan market. As David Elliott predicts: “The EcoBoost engine is a gem and, with the electric power unit, I think Ford will get it right and there will be demand for it.”

He went on to say that every other question at the NEC was, “When will a hybrid be available?”

All Electric Ford was Europe’s No.1 commercial vehicle brand in 2015 and 2016 and the Transit Custom PHEV van is part of Ford’s global electrification commitment. The auto-maker has invested $4.5-billion to make electric vehicles and plans to introduce 13 new electrified vehicles globally in the next five years. In addition, Ford is undertaking a joint project with Deutsche Post DHL Group to produce electric delivery vans, becoming Europe’s largest manufacturer of medium-sized e-vans, with 2,500 vehicles built by the end of 2018. The StreetScooter Work XL is based on a Ford Transit chassis fitted with a battery-electric drivetrain. But Ford is not the only maker moving into all-electric commercial vehicles. 

We’ve already seen the Nissan NV-200 in electric form and we tested Hillside Leisure’s Dalbury-E campervan conversion – probably the world’s first electric motorhome – back in the January 2015 issue. We praised its quietness and instant acceleration but range anxiety kicked in when we discovered it had a realistic range of around 65 miles. Since then, Nissan, the world’s leading electric vehicle manufacturer has announced a version with a new 40kWh battery for a 60% extended range but no compromise in either load space or payload.

Hillside’s Adrian Cross has confirmed that his company will continue to offer the electric camper and, “With a range of around 105 miles, the new version will travel on one charge as far as most people want to go without a stop.” The new version goes on sale in spring 2018.

Even more exciting is the news that Volkswagen will build a production version of its I.D. Buzz concept from 2022 (see this feature’s opening image). The Chairman of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, Dr Herbert Diess describes the new model, which combines classic VW camper styling with the latest tech, as, “An important pillar in Volkswagen’s electric drive initiative and [it] carries the Microbus driving feeling into the future.”

The I.D Buzz will have its batteries mounted in the vehicle floor and its long wheelbase and short overhangs, making for more space in the interior, sound perfect for a campervan – the 2023 VW California, perhaps?! An I.D. Buzz Cargo van variant has already been confirmed. With a length of 4.94m and width of 1,98m, the electric VW is very slightly longer and wider than the current short-wheelbase T6 Transporter. 

Larger electric vehicles

What about larger motorhomes, though? Can we expect these to be electrically driven, too? There are already larger electric vans on the market, including battery versions of the Renault Master and Iveco Daily, with a production version of VW’s e-Crafter concept likely to follow. It is the Daily that formed the basis of Dethleffs’ e.home, shown at Düsseldorf in 2017. Another concept from another Erwin Hymer Group company, Dethleffs’ Sales Manager GB, Saskia Kohn, says they believe such a vehicle could be in regular production in five to 10 years’ time.

The biggest challenge to overcome is that familiar to any electric vehicle – range – while an electric base vehicle would currently cost 50% more than a diesel version. The e.home concept is exciting, though, and not just for green voters and early adopters of new technology. With electricity providing not just the motorisation but replacing gas for living area functions, this could change the face of motorhomes. To help supply all your camping needs, then, the Dethleffs is plastered with 31 square metres of solar foils.

A compressor fridge and ceramic hob are not new, but it’s heating that is the most energy-intensive aspect of a motorhome, so the concept comes with heat accumulator plates which absorb energy at temperatures over 26 degrees, releasing warmth in the cooler evenings. Further Ahead Of course, once an electric motorhome seems the norm, we’re sure to be looking at leisure vehicles that drive themselves.

Already, Erwin Hymer Group North America is believed to be the first motorhome maker in the world with a government permit for testing an autonomous vehicle on public roads...

This feature was originally published in MMM magazine. To read more features like this, subscribe to MMM magazine.



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