Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 – battle of the plug-in hybrid vans

  • Comparison test of the UK’s only range-extender electric vans
  • PHEV van twin-test considers everything from practicality to driving experience
  • The best choice if you want to go electric but are worried about range anxiety?

Not quite ready to commit to a 100% pure electric van? Then the next best step may be a plug-in hybrid van. Combining a petrol engine with an electric motor and a large lithium ion battery, these are able to travel a useful distance on electric power alone but can be refuelled at any filling station.

There are just two proper plug-in hybrid vans on sale in the UK: a version of the oh-so-familiar Ford Transit Custom and the perhaps less well known LECV VN5, a van from the firm that makes the famous London taxi – as you would probably have guessed from the look of it. LEVC is backed by Chinese automotive giant Geely, which also owns Volvo, and the VN5 is built in Coventry.

Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, 2020, rear view, angle, red, silver

The VN5 and Transit Custom use very similar plug-in electric vehicle (PHEV) technology – which is to say that they are both range-extender vehicles rather than conventional hybrids. This means that the only thing that ever drives the wheels is the electric motor; the petrol engine under the bonnet only functions as a kind of back-up generator, providing additional electricity when the batteries run out.

To this end, LEVC prefers its VN5 to be referred to as an electric van, rather than hybrid. But Ford is quite comfortable naming its van the Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid, a subtle badge on the back and a hidden charging port at the front the only visual clues this Transit Custom is any different to other examples of the 2021 Parkers Van of the Year.

Which plug-in hybrid van is more practical?

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking these two vans are far from direct rivals – in isolation, the VN5 has the looks and proportions that make it seem like a small van, while the Transit Custom is clearly a medium van, like the Volkswagen Transporter or Vauxhall Vivaro.

But park them side-by-side, and it turns out the VN5 is actually longer and taller than Transit Custom on the outside. And while neither is what we’d call cheap, the LEVC is a substantially more expensive product; both qualify for the UK government Plug-in Van Grant (PiVG).

Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, 2020, dead-on front view, red, silver

If you want maximum load space, the Ford is the way to go. It’s a more conventional van shape with a raised cab and a short bonnet, making room for a 6.0 cubic-metre load area that’s larger in every direction – most notably width.

The VN5 has a 5.5 cubic-metre cargo space, which doesn’t sound much less until you see it – which you can in detail in the gallery at the top of the page. That’s a boot bag in the pictures not a body bag, incidentally, but its 1,556mm length should help you gauge the space inside both vans – and the side door opening width. There’s a full comparison table of the dimensions at the bottom of this article.

Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, 2020 - VN5 load area, rear doors, boot bag

Where the Transit really carries an advantage, so to speak, is payload. With a maximum payload rating of over 1,200kg it can carry nearly 50% more than the VN5, which has a maximum payload rating of only 830kg.

Which is the better electric van?

However, if it’s maximum electric vehicle capability you’re after, the VN5 has the Transit Custom thoroughly licked. The taxi-based van has a battery pack that’s more than double the size of the Ford’s (31kWh versus 13.6kWh) which given it double the WLTP electric driving range – 61 miles versus 30.5 miles.

Despite this, the VN5 is able to charge faster, too. Using 50kW rapid charging you can get a full top-up in 30 minutes; the best the Transit Custom can do is 2.7 hours using a much slower wallbox charging point.

Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, 2020 - side-by-side, front, silver, red

While both will drive around 300 miles in total once the petrol engine gets involved – again, the VN5’s ultimate range is higher, but only by a little this time – the greater electric range not only means that the LEVC will be twice as useful if you regularly need to enter zero emissions zones in the future, it also means better fuel economy right now, reducing your running costs.

This assumes you make the most of the electric capability, of course. Running either of these vans mostly on the petrol engine is going to be a pricy business; a choice of driving modes will help you make the most of what the batteries can do – by allowing the vans to make decisions automatically or selecting the best time to deploy their zero-emissions powers.

Which is better to drive?

For two vans that are very similar in concept, the execution is remarkably different – and this extends to the way they deploy their power.

Each uses an electric motor and a three-cylinder petrol engine. But perhaps surprisingly, the Transit Custom has the smaller, less powerful drive system, combining a 1.0-litre EcoBoost turbo petrol with a 125hp electric motor – the VN5 has a 1.5-litre engine and 150hp electric motor. Remember: it’s only the electric motor that actually drives the wheels in these vans.

Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, 2020 - side-by-side, rear, silver, red

What’s more, the Ford is front-wheel drive (FWD) while the LEVC is rear-wheel drive (RWD) – in fact, the motor is mounted back there, hence it has a slightly higher load floor than you might expect.

In practice, you won’t really notice much difference driving around most of the time. But where the instant torque of the electric motor will quite easily cause the Transit Custom to spin it wheels when accelerating from a standstill in anything but perfectly dry conditions, the VN5 just grips and goes. And thanks to that extra power, it goes more quickly, too – something that makes a difference on motorway slip roads, if not so much around town.

Sharing a trick steering set-up with the taxi means the VN5 also has a crazy-tight turning circle, which is one of those things you don’t know you’re missing until you’ve experienced it. There are a lot more electronic noises in the LEVC, though, making it seem a slightly less polished product.

We’d make the same comment about the overall driving experience. The Ford’s petrol engine can be a little loud at times, but the Transit Custom is overwise a very impressive thing to drive. You sit higher, and there’s a touch more roll in the corners, but the quality of the chassis tuning really shines through.

Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, 2020 - dead-on rear view, silver, red

As such, it’s the VN5’s suspension that runs out of ideas more abruptly on bumpier roads, the firmness of its suspension turning to sharpness and then a distinct lack of sophistication when it comes to dealing with rippled surfaces.

Neither van is going to give you grief on motorways or in city centres, but it’s the bigger, bulkier looking Transit Custom that feels happier hacking around on country lanes, delivering a more rounded overall driving experience.

What are they like inside?

The Transit Custom isn’t a class-leading product for no reason. The cab is spacious, seats three and manages to feel well made, appear good-looking in a rather un-van-like way and still offers plenty of practical storage. The Sync 3 infotainment system does the job, too – though you will have to pay extra for it on the more basic PHEV models.

Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, 2020 - PHEV cab interior, steering wheel, infotainment

In the VN5 you’re lower to the ground, with a long, low bonnet in front of you – giving you good forward visibility and making it easy to position the van on the road. However, the cab only seats two, feels comparatively cramped and doesn’t even have a proper glovebox. The door mirrors are tiny, too, not a patch on the large, twin-lens items Ford equips you with to keep an eye on the road behind and the kerb near your wheels alike.

LEVC fights back with a number of fancy features – a fully digital instrument cluster, for example, and a large, upright touchscreen infotainment system that, like much of the switchgear, comes directly from a Volvo. It all feels well made, too, though we did find the sliding side door less easy to shut than the Ford’s.

Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, 2020 - VN5 cab interior, steering wheel, infotainment

Almost all of the in-cab controls in the VN5 are situated within the touchscreen. This is something we’d usually be very dubious of, but actually this is all done extremely well, with large digital buttons and impressive responsiveness. Even if it’s still not quite as easy as reaching out and touching a dial like you do in the Transit Custom when it comes to adjusting the heating, you would get used to this quickly, we feel.

Which plug-in hybrid van is best?

It’s hard to argue against the Transit Custom PHEV here. The Ford carries more, feels just as premium and well-made inside, offers more space for driver and passengers, and has just that bit more polish to its driving experience. It’s a very impressive alternative to a fully electric van.

But the LEVC VN5 still has skills the Ford can’t match. Double the electric range is certainly something that shouldn’t be ignored, while the clever steering and additional performance are not to be sniffed at, either. The distinctive image the VN5 presents may even help put more eyes on your business, and in terms of load space it’s really not that far behind.

Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, 2020 - front view, high, red, silver

Where the VN5 does struggle by comparison, as a total newcomer to the van world, is with the supporting dealer network. Ford has the greatest number of service centres in the UK, LEVC one of the smallest.

Though it has ambitious plans to expand, and makes bold claims about the lifecycle of the VN5 – giving it a five-year / 150,000 warranty to back this up versus Ford’s three-year / 100,000-mile cover (both guarantee the batteries for eight years) – this lack of local support will be enough to rule the LEVC out for a lot of businesses.

If you can make the VN5 work from this perspective, it is most definitely worth a closer look. But for now, our pick would still be the Transit Custom, the success of this Plug-In Hybrid model being yet another string to the bow of Ford’s superb all-rounder.

Comparison table

   Transit Custom PHEV  LEVC VN5
Exterior length  4,973mm  5,233mm
Exterior height  2,000mm  1,990mm
Width with mirrors  2,272mm  2,083mm
Width without mirrors  1,986mm  1,945mm
Max load length  2,554mm  2,447mm
Max load height  1,406mm  1,373mm
Max load width  1,775mm  1,574mm
Between wheelarches  1,351mm  1,109mm
Load volume  6.0 cubic metres  5.5 cubic metres
Side door height  1,324mm  1,199mm
Side door width  1,030mm  938mm
Rear door height  1,347mm  1,272mm
Rear door width  1,404mm  1,253mm
Max power  126hp  150hp
Max torque  355Nm  240Nm
Official WLTP mpg  91.7  314
WLTP electric range  30.5 miles  61 miles
Battery size  13.6kWh  31
Fastest charging  7.2kW / 2.7 hours  50kW / 30 mins



Also read:

>> Our main Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid review

>> Our main LEVC VN5 review

>> The best electric vans you can buy now

>> Future electric vans coming soon

>> The Parkers guide to electric vans