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Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid review – petrol-electric PHEV van driven

  • New petrol-electric version of the UK’s bestselling van
  • Production PHEV driven long distance and around town
  • Full review including tech details and best way to use

This is it: the first plug-in hybrid van. Ford’s been talking about and planning this new part-electric version of the Transit Custom since 2017 – so long, the base vehicle has actually been through a facelift. But now we’ve finally driven the production model, and this review aims to help you understand whether the Transit Custom Plug-in Hybrid will work for you and your business.

Known as the Transit Custom PHEV for short – PHEV standing for plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, of course – this new entrant into the medium van sector doesn’t shout about its clever capabilities. The only way you’ll identify one from the outside is if you’re close enough to read the badge on the back, spot the flap for the charging point on the front bumper or hear the engine running.

Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid PHEV review - driving in Sweden, orange, 2019

For instead of the 2.0-litre diesel that powers the rest of the Transit Custom range, the PHEV uses a 1.0-litre petrol engine. But this isn’t what drives the front wheels.

Every movement this new-fangled van makes is propelled instead by a 92.9kW electric motor (equivalent to around 126hp) that works in conjunction with a single-speed gearbox, giving you progress akin to a smooth and effortless automatic transmission.

The only purpose to the petrol engine is to act as a generator when the lithium ion batteries run out, or on occasions where you want to save their charge for use later. It's a type of hybrid design known as a range extender.

It sounds complicated – and in some ways it is. But in most respects, and certainly all of the important ones, the Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid functions just like any other van. Only it’s a van that can run without producing any tailpipe emissions for over 30 miles at a time, making it a potential business saver should ultra-low emissions zones in cities become zero emissions zones in the future.

Keep reading our review, and we’ll explain.

What is the Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid like to drive?

In the most basic sense, it’s like any other van: you unlock it, you climb in it, you start it, and then you drive it away.

The difference is that as long as there’s charge in the batteries, you’ll drive away silently completely under electric power. It’s so silent at low speeds in this mode, in fact, that not only is there a muted spaceship sound to alert dozy pedestrians it’s coming but also a green van symbol on the dashboard to tell the driver it’s running.

Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid PHEV review - driving, rear view, orange, 2019

Maximum claimed electric-only driving range is 35 miles, so if the batteries are full it will keep on being quiet like this for quite some time. However, you do have a choice of four driving modes to help you make the best use of this zero emissions capability.

All told, the maximum driving range with full batteries and petrol tank is claimed to be over 310 miles, and at the end of this distance you can top up at a petrol station.

So this isn’t like being in a pure electric van where you can only go until the batteries run out and then have to stop for 40 minutes or more to get a decent chunk of extra mileage capacity.

What do the Transit Custom PHEV’s driving modes do?

If you’re already concerned that having four driving modes sounds too complicated, don’t worry – they couldn’t be any more straight-forward, right down to the way Ford has named them:

  • EV Auto
  • EV Now
  • EV Later
  • EV Charge

EV Auto is the default setting, and the one the PHEV will be ready to use every time you start it. As the name suggests, it will automatically use the batteries and the petrol engine, as required.

This means that in some high-demand situations – such as accelerating uphill with a heavy payload – the petrol engine will kick in to support the demands on the battery by the electric motor.

In practice, we found that it used the battery charge up pretty quickly, so unlike some plug-in hybrid cars now, which use sat-nav routing to decide the best time to use battery power, it doesn’t seem to be a super-smart system if you want maximum fuel economy or eco friendliness.

Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid PHEV review - gauges showing EV Now mode and power meter, 2019

EV Now forces the van to use nothing but zero-emissions electric power motor until the batteries run out. You might select this manually for use in cities, for example, but Ford is also planning a geofencing system that will automatically switch the van to this setting in set programmed areas; we’ll come back to this below.

EV Later switches on the petrol engine in order to maintain whatever battery capacity is currently left so that you can use it, well, later. The usage example of this if you know you’ve got an emissions controlled zone coming up further on in your journey.

EV Charge uses the petrol engine to not just power the electric motor but also recharge the batteries – again in the name of building up zero-emissions capability to use later. The flip side to this is that it’s the least efficient way to use the petrol engine, so it consumes more fuel.

Are those the only driving modes?

In addition to all of the above, the gear selector – which looks just like the lever in a regular Transit Custom automatic – has an L setting in addition to the D (for Drive) setting. The difference here is that the L mode has much more aggressive level of energy recuperation whenever you lift off the accelerator.

As with some fully electric vans, this means that when you lift off you get a quite substantial braking effect, using the drag of the electric motor to send some charge back into the batteries while slowing the Custom PHEV down.

Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid PHEV review - cab interior, 2019

In a lot of situations – especially in start-stop traffic around town – this braking effect is so strong you won’t have to use the conventional brakes at all. This is great for running costs, as it not only recovers energy that would otherwise be lost and sends it back to the batteries, it also reduces wear and tear on your brake pads and discs.

Making the most of this quickly becomes quite addictive, helped by the large ‘energy use’ gauge that replaces the conventional rev counter in the instrument cluster. This helps you understand how efficiently you’re driving, and when the van is making the most use of its ability to save and recover energy as well.

The more efficiently you drive, the longer the batteries will last, the more fuel you’ll save and the better your running costs will be.

Ok, fine – but what’s it really like to drive?

Mostly pretty intuitive, and generally impressively quiet – especially when running around town. The electric motor is much, much quieter than a diesel engine.

However, if you do have occasion to fire up the petrol motor – as will inevitably happen on longer journeys – this makes a modest but distinct sort of mooing sound, which isn’t necessarily in-sync with the speed you’re going.

Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid PHEV review - side view, driving, orange, 2019

It’s very much like a vehicle with a CVT automatic in this sense, as instead of the revs building gradually, in line with the acceleration you’re requesting, the engine shoots to the most efficient or powerful section of its rev range in order to best serve the demand.

It’s not exactly unpleasant, but it isn’t ‘normal’ van behaviour. But we suspect that any driver with the radio turned up won’t even notice.

Aside from this, the PHEV really is like any other Transit Custom, in that it rides bumps well when loaded, steers nicely with excellent precision, doesn’t roll around too much in the corners, and has the same comfortable, modern and practical interior.

It’s not a rocketship, by any means – feeling a touch lazy on the move compared with the more powerful diesels Ford now offers – but the electric motor delivers all of its 355Nm instantly, making it easy to get the van rolling at low speeds, and it certainly didn’t struggle with the half-payload we were carrying.

What’s the best way to use the Transit Custom PHEV?

It’s at its best in urban driving – so around towns and cities. This is where the batteries and motor combination are most efficient, and where the energy regeneration function works most effectively.

Ford has run extensive real-world trials of this technology with genuine fleet customers covering over 150,000 miles around London, and no less than 75% of miles covered in the central London area were completed on electric power alone. Used in the right way, the technology works very well.

Where it’s less good is on those longer journeys – if the petrol engine is running, it isn’t especially efficient.

What’s the mpg of the Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid?

The official fuel economy is 91.7mpg, measured using the latest WLTP testing standard – on the older NEDC standard it’s 104.6mpg. The WLTP test has been designed to be more realistic…

Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid PHEV review - front view, orange, 2019

Both figures probably look ridiculous, and you’ll only get close to them if you make the most of the batteries, which are claimed to give between 25.9 and 30.3 miles per charge under WLTP, which works out at 35 miles under NEDC.

Why hasn’t Ford simply built a pure-electric Transit Custom?

The simple answer is range anxiety – this is a product designed to bridge the gap between conventional combustion engines and pure electric power.

So while it will satisfy zero-emissions needs, it will also never leave you stranded out of reach of a plug. If the batteries run out you can use the petrol engine, and if the petrol runs out you can pop to the petrol station, refuel like a regular van and be on your way.

A pure-electric version of the larger Ford Transit is coming in 2021, however.

Why hasn’t Ford used a diesel engine with its hybrid technology?

The simple answer to this is weight. While a diesel-electric combo would probably be more fuel efficient when the batteries are depleted, the tiny 1.0-litre petrol used here helps compensate for the weight of the electric motor and the battery pack.

As a result, the petrol-electric hybrid gubbins carries almost no weight penalty versus the big, heavy diesel engine and big, heavy six-speed transmission that are taken out in order to fit them.

This helps to maintain a useful amount of payload capacity.

On top of which, petrol is considered a ‘cleaner’ fuel than diesel, with fewer harmful particulate emissions. Petrol is another way to clean up the van’s image – and potentially present a greener front for your business as well.

What is the payload of the Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid?

As a result of the weight balancing, the Transit Custom PHEV has a payload rating of 1,130kg.

While there are versions of the Custom that will carry more, this should still be enough for many businesses to make good use of it.

Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid PHEV review - load area, 2019

Similarly, although Ford is only offering the Plug-In Hybrid in the smallest L1H1 bodysize, there’s no reduction in load volume. With the batteries mounted under the floor it has the same 6.0 cubic metre capacity as any other L1H1 Custom.

L2 and H2 models are under consideration, but won’t be available straight away. You can buy an L1H1 Tourneo Custom Plug-In Hybrid eight-seater passenger carrier as well as a panel van, however.

How long does it take to charge the batteries?

Being a plug-in hybrid, you can connect the Transit Custom PHEV to the electricity mains in order to juice up the batteries – this is much more cost and fuel efficient than using the petrol engine to do the recharging.

The battery pack is large enough at 13.6kWh (kilowatt hours) that this isn’t the work of a moment, but is still much faster than with a pure electric van.

Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid PHEV review - charging port and plug, 2019

On a regular three-pin plug the charge time is 4.3 hours; on a proper electric vehicle charging point that might typically be installed at a home or office this drops to 2.7 hours.

Most users are expected to charge the van overnight, but obviously this depends on having access to a plug or charge point.

As for charging using the petrol engine, we found we were getting about 25% in around 25 minutes while driving in an otherwise normal manner. The fuel economy suffers (at one point it was down to 10l/100km according to the build-in display; that’s equivalent to around 28mpg) but it will still get you out of trouble should you need to enter a geofenced or other electric-only driving zone.

Ah, yes, the geofencing – what’s that about?

As with many other vans, the Transit Custom is an increasingly highly connected vehicle, with a 4G modem built-in. It will also be available with a geofencing module early in 2020.

Geofencing sets behaviour for certain geographic areas. This can be as simple as alerting a fleet manager when a van enters or leaves a depot, but for the PHEV Ford is planning to automatically engage the EV Now mode whenever the hybrid van enters an area set as a zero emissions zone.

The intention is to have a number of these – such as London’s ultra-low emissions zone – pre-loaded into the module when it’s launched, but operators will also be able to set their own geofenced zero emission zones as well.

Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid PHEV review - rear view, orange, 2019

So if you want to clean up the emissions around your yard – or anywhere else – but are concerned your drivers won’t remember to press the button, the van will be able to do this for them.

It does rely on having electric range remaining of course, so the EV Save and EV Charge settings will come to play an increasingly important role.

Though the geofencing module won’t be standard fit until 2020 (it was a late addition to the programme), every PHEV built will have the wiring for a retro-fit option, which Ford says it will offer for free.

How do the PHEV’s costs compare to a Transit Custom diesel?

Starting at £39,145 (excluding VAT) in entry-level Leader specification, the Transit Custom PHEV is approaching £15,000 more than an equivalent diesel model. Trend specification will set you back at least £40,595, with range-topping Limited costing from £42,950. There is no Transit Custom Sport PHEV.

That is not a cheap van.

Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid PHEV review - rear badge, 2019

However, according to Ford, if used correctly the reduced running costs (electricity can be far, far cheaper per mile than even diesel) and the promise of strong residual value mean that the additional outlay for the PHEV should be recovered in ‘four to five years’.

Better yet, those calculations have been done without considering the government’s plug-in van grant, which the Transit Custom should be eligible for (Ford is sorting this out at the time of writing). This will save PHEV buyers 20% of the asking price up to a maximum value of £8,000, and will bring down the point of cost parity accordingly.

What's the warranty?

For most of the van it's the same as any other Transit Custom: three years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first.

The battery technology is covered for eight years, although again only to 100,000 miles.

Should I buy a Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid?

As you’ve probably gathered from this review, the PHEV isn’t going to be suitable for every van user. If you’re regularly pounding up and down motorways for long distances, a diesel still makes most sense.

But if you do a lot of driving around town, or are faced with a future where ultra-low emissions zones and potential zero emissions zones are starting to loom large and threatening, this clever van does a good job of solving the problem – though you will have to use it correctly.

Whether it makes more sense than a pure electric van – and there are a lot more of these on the way in 2020 and beyond – also depends on how you’re planning to use it, and the degree to which you’re worried about range anxiety.

Pure electric vans are greener still, but you can’t quickly refuel them, and you’re likely to have to make bigger choices between range and payload.

In the grand scheme of things, the PHEV is a stepping stone to pure EV technology as it matures and evolves, but if you need an electric-capable van that demands very few compromises right now, this is an excellent solution.

Are there any rivals?

There are no other proper plug-in hybrid electric vans on sale right now. You can buy a commercial vehicle version of the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, but as a converted SUV this is far less practical than a Transit Custom.

There are no other mainstream van rivals planned, either – most manufacturers are going straight to pure EV – but new player LEVC will offer a van based on the latest London Taxi’s PHEV platform in 2020. But this too is a smaller, less practical vehicle than the Ford.

Also read:

>> The Parkers guide to electric vans

>> Ford Transit Custom full review

>> LEVC's London taxi based hybrid electric van revealed