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Petrol versus Diesel for Vans

  • Diesel vans under increasing scrutiny – could petrol be a better choice?
  • Petrols have wider power bands, are more refined and cheaper
  • Diesels last longer, are more efficient and have more pulling power

Written by Liam Campbell Published: 7 August 2014 Updated: 3 October 2014

Up until five years ago, diesels had all but replaced petrols on the LCV scene but with an increasingly anti-diesel agenda taking place at Westminster and the advancement of petrol technology, the petrol van is back on track. We assess the pros and cons of both fuels to determine which is best suited to you and your business.

Brief history

In the ’80s, petrol and diesel sales in vans were relatively on par. While diesel engines had the fuel economy and longevity, petrol engines were worlds ahead in terms of refinement, engine noise and power – and you didn’t have to wait the best part of a minute for the glow plug light to go out.

All that changed with the wider availability of turbo power, and the arrival of common-rail technology at the turn of the millennia was the final nail in the petrol van coffin.

Arguments for petrol

After the EU began legal proceedings against the UK for breaching air pollution limits, Westminster has taken on a new anti-diesel stance, contrary to the pro-diesel agenda ten years ago. Transport for London plans to charge an extra £10 for driving in the centre of the capital from 2020, while Islington became the first council in the UK to charge (£20) for idling diesel engines. There’ll no doubt be more councils to follow.

Diesels aren’t as simple as they used to be either. Nowadays, most diesels are fitted with two-stage turbochargers and diesel particulate filters, while the Euro6 generation of vans look to require exhaust emission after-treatment systems like trucks.

Diesel particulate filters (DPFs) are most efficient when driven at a constant speed, for at least 15 minutes; any less and they’re prone to clogging up on short, or stop-and-start, runs. A typical DPF replacement costs around £1,200 and can fail as low as 60,000 miles for city operators, although some companies offer DPF cleaning and second hand DPFs, which are slightly cheaper. Failure to replace or clean a DPF could ultimately cost you a lot more.

Petrol engines also weigh considerably less than their diesel counterparts, which can reduce the kerbweight by as much as 30 or 40kg. Although this does mean more goods can be thrown in the business end, petrols do struggle with heavier loads. On the plus side, the reduced weight means they are slightly better balanced which helps with the handling.

Despite rapid advancement in the refinement of diesel engines, they still aren’t quite as smooth as the petrol. Vibrations on the steering during idling and noise in the cab while accelerating are a lot lower when compared with a diesel.  

The final say for petrols is that their list price is generally lower. In the case of the Nemo, the petrol engine is £1,500 cheaper than its equivalent diesel variant.

Arguments for diesel

High torque outputs, which are a natural attribute of diesels, is a key attribute van buyers look for. It’s the turning force, rather than power, that helps fully laden vans off the mark at traffic lights or pickups climb a particularly steep incline.

Diesels tend to last longer than petrols, and is one of the reasons why vans are kept for an average of 10 years before being replaced. This is because diesel has a superior lubricating property and the engines are designed to withstand much higher pressures. This helps maintain strong residual values as vans typically cover more miles than passenger cars.

Whereas petrol prices are slightly cheaper than diesel, the fuel economy of an average diesel still beats petrol by quite a way. For example, the Transit Connect’s 1.6-litre TDCi 75 is 16.9% more fuel efficient than the 1.0-litre Ecoboost 100 on the combined cycle, and the lead increases on the highway and with a heavier load.


There is no such thing as a ‘typical van driver’ as distance and workloads vary greatly, from inner city florists to long-distance highway maintenance. Having said that, this is an argument confined to the sub 2.5t market; chiefly because there are no petrol engines above that threshold anymore.

Diesel spells out two of the key characteristics van buyers look for in a van, pulling power and fuel economy, and for that reason will be the mainstay for years to come. However, if you spend a lot of the time idling around, say Islington, a petrol may just be the choice for you.