- Winter test of popular all-electric small van in the UK
- What it’s like to drive – and how it copes in the cold
- Arguments for and against electric vans considered
Let’s be clear: an electric van isn’t for everyone. While progress continues at an ever-quickening pace, at this point in time electric propulsion has only limited functionality in the light commercial vehicle sector – even when dealing with one of the best-selling examples in Europe, the Renault Kangoo ZE.
In fact, up until 2016, the Kangoo ZE was the best-selling small electric van in Europe – losing the title last year to the Nissan e-NV200. At times it’s accounted for as much as 10% of all Kangoo production. Which is quite impressive for a vehicle that has an official range of just 106 miles per charge of the battery pack.
That sort of detail makes you wonder why anyone would buy one at all – and believe us, after a week of testing, it’s apparent that anyone thinking they’ll actually be able to travel that far between charge points is in for a shock (if you’ll pardon the pun).
So why would anyone buy an electric Kangoo van?
Don’t underestimate the power of image.
In order to make it more obvious that you’re driving a zero emissions vehicle, when the Kangoo was facelifted in 2015, Renault gave the ZE a special makeover, tinting the big badge in the grille blue and adding surrounds to the headlights that make it look a little like some kind of masked superhero.
Okay, so that’s going a bit far, but the look is as distinctive as the sound of the optional ZE Voice system at low speeds, a warning to pedestrians that this otherwise silent vehicle is approaching. It’s a kind of high-pitching keening noise – but not as unpleasant as that suggests.
Point being that a distinctively environmentally friendly slant could help your business stand out.
Electric vehicles also promise low running costs. This obviously depends on your electricity tariff and how you plan to charge it – overnight, off-peak is best – but you should spend fewer pennies per mile with one of these versus the diesel equivalent.
On top of which, the number of city centres investigating ultra-low emissions zones is only going to increase as we approach the end of the decade. It won’t be too long before an electric van may be the only way to deliver to some urban customers.
What’s the bad news about an electric van?
The range anxiety is real.
To be fair to Renault, while it quotes the official 106-mile figure it also states that real-world use is more likely to see 53-78 miles between charges. The remaining distance is clearly displayed in the instrument cluster.
Like all vans, how far you’ll go is influenced by driving style and payload; drive like Lewis Hamilton with a strop on after a hardcore visit to Ikea and you will need to get stuck into a socket sooner.
Trouble is, if you do need to make an emergency electricity stop, you’ll be there for quite some time, as replenishing a battery pack is not like making a quick splash and dash for diesel. We weren’t joking about charging it overnight.
Making matters worse, current battery technology doesn’t like cold weather, so you’ll find the range drops in winter – compounded by increased use of the energy-sapping heating.
Testing in January we were getting an indicated 60 miles per charge, but found that how quickly this actually fell in use inevitably depended on where we were driving. Short bursts of acceleration in urban areas seem to strip the miles away very quickly, while a sustained 50mph cruise feels like it could go on forever.
Makes sense when you think about it.
What’s the Kangoo ZE like to drive?
As with all Renault vans, the suspension does a great job of balancing comfort and control. And with no noisy diesel engine rattling away, refinement is high both inside and out – which should please your neighbours if you keep odd hours.
The official 0-62mph time, however, is a glacial 20.3 seconds. In practice it never feels that slow.
For while the electric motor’s 60hp rating sounds seriously low, it also produces an instant 226Nm of torque. Enough pulling power to easily get a small van moving briskly, and the Kangoo ZE will maintain 70mph on the motorway.
Performance does drop off if you engage the range-enhancing Eco mode. Even so, flatten the accelerator right to the floor, and you get a decent kick, as if the automatic gearbox has selected a lower gear. In realty the electric motor requires only a single-speed transmission.
Is it really cheap to run?
As simplicity like this suggests, maintenance costs should be far lower than with a conventional van.
There’s no oil to change, no clutch to worry about, and if you take advantage of the electric motor’s braking effect whenever you lift off the accelerator – slowing the van quite dramatically – you’ll find the conventional brakes last far longer.
Electric vehicle tech is generally more expensive to buy in the first place, but the Kangoo ZE does qualify for the government plug-in van grant – which at the time of writing saves you 20% of the asking price (up to a maximum of £8,000).
For this particular ML20 Business model, that means a basic cost to you of £16,313 (excluding VAT and delivery) if you opt for the i-van version, which includes outright purchase of the battery pack. Or you can buy just the van for £13,146 and rent the battery – which costs from £33 a month, depending on your annual mileage and contract term.
Most Kangoo ZE operators go down the rental route, since like all batteries, capacity will reduce over time and replacement cost if you buy one is going to be very high – certainly in the thousands of pounds. Still, Renault claims it is yet to have any batteries drop below the replacement threshold in regular use.
What’s the Kangoo ZE like as a van?
Largely identical to a conventional Kangoo, since the batteries are located below the load floor and the gross vehicle weight (GVW) is adjusted to compensate for their extra heft. The shorter ML20 model we’ve got on test has the following load area dimensions and capacities:
- Maximum load length: 1,476mm
- Maximum load width: 1,219mm
- Maximum width between the rear wheelarches: 1,045mm
- Maximum load height: 1,129mm
- Load volume: 3.4 cubic metres
- Maximum payload: 632kg (depending on specification)
The Kangoo ZE is only available in Business specification, and though it comes reasonably well equipped as standard – including sliding side door, six load lashing points, electric windows and mirrors – the most interesting items on our test van were optional.
Chief amongst these was the folding bulkhead that comes with a passenger seat that collapses into the floor to safely accommodate longer loads up to 1,731mm. Cost: £270. Shockingly (ahem), the cable you need to charge the Kangoo using a domestic three-pin plug socket is £495.
A further £90 buys you an overhead shelf, £60 adds a central storage console, and a rubber floor for the load area is £90. The fully-integrated infotainment system with DAB radio, sat-nav and eco driving menu is £810, but you do get a ZE-specific on-board computer as standard. Air-conditioning is £738.
As we said at the beginning, the Kangoo ZE won’t be for everyone. But if you’re looking for a small, cost-effective van and have a consistent daily mileage that falls within Renault’s more realistic range predictions then you may be surprised at just how well a van like this could work for you. It is pleasant and easy to drive, and cheap to run.
Two provisos. Firstly also consider the Nissan e-NV200, which uses very similar electric technology and has the same claimed maximum range of 106 miles – but combined with best-in-class 4.2 cubic metre load volume and a 703kg payload rating.
Secondly, if you’re in no rush to buy it’s worth waiting for the updated Kangoo ZE (and e-NV200) arriving later in 2017, since a new motor and battery pack promise a 50% increase in driving range.