Best hybrid vans 2021

  • All the info about hybrid vans sold in the UK, including the different types
  • Pros and cons versus standard vans - and electric vans
  • Comparison test of the two most practical plug-in hybrid vans

Not quite ready to commit to a 100% electric van? Then how about a hybrid? Hybrid vehicles combine conventional engines with electric motors to provide more eco-friendly driving with the ability to refuel at a regular service station - and yes, you can buy a hybrid van in the UK.

There's not a huge choice, but we've driven all the hybrid vans on sale here - and carried out a direct comparison test of the two most practical models, the Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid and the LEVC VN5.

On this page you can read that test and we'll talk you through the types of hybrid vans available, how they differ, and which offer the advantages you actually need. We'll also compare them to pure electric vans and talk about the government Plug-In Van Grant (PIVG) that's available to subsidise the cost of some hybrid electric van models.

What are the different types of hybrid van?

Hybrid vehicles work by adding an electric motor and battery pack to a petrol or diesel engine, and they come in three main types:

  • Conventional hybrid electric vehicles of the type that Toyota and Lexus market as 'self-charging'; these are capable of driving on electric power alone, but only for short distances because they don't have very large battery packs
  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) have a larger battery pack allowing them to drive for several miles at a time on electric power; these come in different types, including so-called 'range-extenders', which we'll get to in more detail in a moment. They're called plug-in hybrids because you need to recharge that batteries via the mains (though they will drive if you don't do this, they won't be very efficient at all)
  • Mild hybrid electric vehicles (MHEVs) can't drive on electric power at all; instead the electric motor - known as a 'starter-generator' - is used as a mild engine booster and to enhance the stop-start system

In the UK there are no self-charging hybrid vans at all. This technology has simply not been used on light commercial vehicles yet, and we're not expecting a sudden rush of them any time soon either. There just aren't enough benefits for vans.

MHEV technology is relatively new and is used as a means of making existing engines more efficient. Ford already builds some mild-hybrid vans (versions of the Transit, Transit Custom and Fiesta Van) and we do expect to see more of these in the future - simply because petrol and diesel internal combustion engine (ICE) technology is moving in this direction in order to meet the latest emissions requirements.

However, since mild-hybrid tech doesn't allow you to drive on electric power, and therefore with zero emissions, it will be no use at all in any future zero emissions zones that may ban any vehicles that can't drive electrically. As such we're only going to mention them briefly here.

Best hybrid van UK 2021 - Ford Transit Custom PHEV plugged in to charge, orange

This leaves plug-in hybrid vans, and while there are only three of these on sale in the UK, they do have proper zero-emissions capability and do claim some amazingly eye-opening fuel-economy figures.

That said, they all also use a petrol engine with the electric motor, rather than diesel. Which means when the electric motor isn't doing the driving they can be quite thirsty.

What hybrid vans are sold in the UK?

Of the three plug-in hybrid vans on sale here, two are proper vans: the Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid and the LEVC VN5, and you can read more about these in the twin-test below.

The third is the Mitsubishi Outlander Commercial, a commercial 4x4 version of the Outlander PHEV passenger SUV.

Mitsubishi Outlander Commercial PHEV - a hybrid van on sale in the UK

This looks great, drives nicely and is well equipped. But it isn't especially practical. Load space is limited to the amount of room you get in the back of an Outlander with the rear seats removed, payload is barely more than 500kg, and it has a high loading height, to boot (no pun intended).

Still, it's a great long-distance companion if you need something more useful than a car, and it has some off-road capability - which neither of its plug-in van rivals can match. Claimed fuel economy is nearly 140mpg, but to get anywhere near that you'll need to be doing short journeys making the most of the promised 28 miles of electric driving range.

You may also need to consider that Mitsubishi is leaving the UK market at the end of 2021, though dealer, servicing and parts support will continue.

Why aren't there more hybrid vans?

Most van makers have elected not to bother with hybrids and gone straight to building all-electric vans. So while Nissan and Renault have had decent success with the electric e-NV200 and Kangoo ZE, for example, there are no plans for any Nissan hybrid electric vans and future Renault hybrid vans are more likely to be of the mild variety.

Similarly, while it's taken Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen a fair old time to get into the electric van market, in doing so they have so far skipped the hybrid step. Don't expect to see a hybrid Sprinter any time soon, but with the next Transporter based on the next Transit Custom, we may see a plug-in hybrid version of that in around about 2023 or 2024 (Ford has already confirmed a second-generation Transit Custom PHEV).

We don't expect to see many other plug-in hybrid vans going on sale otherwise. With rivals such as the Vauxhall Vivaro-e now able to offer over 200 miles of driving range from a pure electric model, most manufacturers will continue the trend of shifting straight to 100% electric.

Hybrid van pros and cons

Compared with a regular petrol or diesel van, it's the true hybrids' ability to sometimes drive on electricity alone that makes them stand out. This is good for emissions, improving air quality and enabling charge-free access to ultra-low and zero emissions zones - not to mention complying with ever-tougher legislating. But if used properly, this electric capability should also reduce your running costs.

Best hybrid van UK 2021 - LEVC VN5, driving, silver

Electricity is cheaper than petrol or diesel, so the more you can run on electric power the better off you will be. Hence the increasing popularity of plug-in hybrids in the car market - though PHEVs do rely on you plugging them in for chunky amounts of time in order to maximise their efficiency.

Compared with pure electric vans, the hybrid advantage is driving range. When the batteries run out, a hybrid van can keep going - albeit less efficiently - while an electric van will be forced to stop and recharge, a time-consuming business, even on the fastest charging points.

When a hybrid needs refuelling you can just stop at a petrol station, as with any other van.

The disadvantages of hybrid vans start with their complexity. This makes them more expensive to buy and heavier, which reduces payload - though 100% electric vans are inevitably heavier still as they have bigger batteries. If not used correctly, hybrid vans aren't especially fuel-efficient, either.

Using a petrol engine to drag around a reasonably big van is already a bad start even before you add the extra weight of the hybrid technology. You will need to keep the batteries charged as much as possible and use them when most appropriate on your journeys - fortunately all hybrid vans come with different driving modes to help you do this.

Are there any hybrid pickups?

Not at the moment. It's possible we will see this technology on pickups in the future, however, as they too have emissions requirements to meet.

Mild-hybrid engines are almost certainly coming to pickups in the next few years, as they will be to more commercial vehicles in general.

Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid vs LEVC VN5 - which is the best hybrid van in the UK?

Best hybrid vans UK 2021 - Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test - side-by-side, front, silver, red

As the UK's bestselling van, the Ford Transit Custom is well known, and in most respects the PHEV version springs no surprises - though as you'll discover later on, the electric-only driving range could be more substantial.

The LECV VN5, however, is perhaps less familiar. It's 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.

The VN5 and Transit Custom use very similar technology – which is to say that they are both range-extender vehicles rather than plug-in hybrids in the traditional sense. 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 charging port flap in the front bumper the only visual clues this Transit Custom is any different to other examples of the 2021 Parkers Van of the Year.

Which hybrid van is most 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.

Despite this, 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.

Best hybrid van UK 2021 - Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, Transit Custom load area

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 this 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 below.

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?

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 gives it double the WLTP electric driving range – 61 miles versus 30.5 miles.

Despite this, the VN5 can 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.

It's also worth noting that as of March 2021, the Transit Custom PHEV's short electric range means it no longer qualifies for the Plug-In Van Grant (60 miles is now the minimum). This means you will have to pay full retail price for the Ford, while the LEVC is still available with a government subsidised discount.

Best hybrid van UK 2021 - Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, VN5 eCity badge

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: a 1.0-litre EcoBoost turbo petrol with a 125hp electric motor compared with the VN5's 1.5-litre engine and 150hp electric motor. Remember: it’s only the electric motor that actually drives the wheels in these vans.

Speaking of those wheels, 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.

Best hybrid van UK 2021 - Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, rear view, silver, red

You won’t really notice much difference between FWD and RWD driving around most of the time. But where the instant torque of the electric motor will quite easily cause the Transit Custom to spin its wheels when accelerating from a standstill in anything but perfectly dry conditions, the VN5 mostly 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 otherwise 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.

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.

Best hybrid vans UK 2021 - Ford Transit Custom PHEV cab interior

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.

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.

Best hybrid vans UK 2021 - LEVC VN5 cab interior

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 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.

Best hybrid van UK 2021 - Ford Transit Custom PHEV vs LEVC VN5 comparison test, front view, 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.

Hybrid van 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