With biodiesel increasingly accused of being responsible for rising food prices and causing environmental damage, more and more manufacturers are promoting exhaust emission-free electric vans as allegedly the best option for anybody worried about climate change.
The big news on the Smith Electric Vehicles stand was the Ampere. Based on the Ford Transit Connect and employing lithium-ion iron phosphate batteries, it offers a payload of up to 800kg and a range in excess of 100 miles. Top speed is 70mph. The 24kWh battery pack powers a 50kW electric motor.
Not to be outdone, ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicles) was eagerly promoting electric versions of Peugeot's Expert and Boxer. They too employ lithium-ion batteries, with a recharge time of from six to eight hours and offering a top speed of 60mph. Range is up to 100 miles.
A rather different take on battery power was offered by Stevens Vehicles. It's developed a pocket-sized electric load lugger under the Zevan banner that will handle a 450kg load and uses space frame construction and grp body panels.
This time around we're talking lead-gel batteries. Only 3,000mm long, Zevan can travel for 50 miles between recharges and can reach 56mph. Battery recharge time? From five to ten hours says the company.
Its closest rival at the show was the electric Aixam Mega. It too employs lead-gel batteries and they power a 48v motor. Maximum speed is a modest 30mph or so while the range is anywhere from 25 to 60 miles depending on the number of batteries fitted.
It's marketed as a van, a tipper and a chassis cab. Van payload is 335kg to 445kg depending on the size of the battery pack.
Piaggio has been promoting its electric Porter for some time. This time around it was exhibiting a refrigerated version able to deliver chilled food, sandwiches and so on, around city centres and developed in conjunction with Cold Logic, Hubbard and GRP. You get an 80 mile range from its lead-gel batteries.
Also realising the potential of battery power, fridge bodybuilder Paneltex has joined forces with VMS and Minitram Systems to produce a range of electric vehicles under the Zeroed banner. The line-up includes an Isuzu NPR using lithium-ion technology.
In passing it's interesting to note that Paneltex has acquired East Anglian fridge van specialist Somers.
Always guaranteed to have something intriguing to show, Lloyds TSB Autolease was exhibiting an electric Fiat Doblò Cargo Maxi produced by MicroVett of Italy. With a 4.0m3 cargo bay its lithium-ion batteries give it a 70mph top speed, a 70 mile range, a recharge time of from four to six hours and permit a 500kg payload.
At present alas it's not available in Britain. Hopefully that could change in the not too distant future.
With all this going on you might be forgiven for wondering what's happening at high-profile electric commercial vehicle maker Modec. With a presence on the Lloyds TSB Autolease stand as well as boasting its own stand, the company has now got a van on test with parcels giant UPS operating out of its Camden, London branch.
Modec's range also includes chassis cabs and dropsides grossing at almost 5.5 tonnes.
LDV isn't ignoring electric power's potential and is developing a battery-powered Maxus in conjunction with RVL. “It will be available in June,” says new LDV chief executive, Evgeniy Vereshchagin; the Birmingham based van manufacturer is owned by GAZ of Russia.
Around 200 to 300 a year will be produced initially, says LDV, with major supermarket groups already expressing interest in the vehicle. It will have a 55 mile range between recharges.
London-based specialist retailer of alternatively powered vehicles NICE was making its presence felt at the NEC. Its electric line-up includes Aixam's Mega and MicroVett's battery-driven versions of Fiat's Fiorino, Scudo and Ducato as well as Doblò Cargo.
So what's so good about electric vans anyway given their restricted range? Aside from the fact that fuel costs are minimal at as little as 1.5p to 2p a mile they're zero-rated so far as Vehicle Excise Duty is concerned, exempt from the London congestion tax, enjoy free parking across much of the centre of the capital and can be recharged at no cost in certain central London car parks.
Cargo capacities are improving thanks to the growing use of compact, lighter and more efficient batteries and prices will not necessarily break the bank. Zevan prices, for example, start at £11,995 plus VAT.
Maintenance costs are relatively low — insurance can be as well — although the battery pack may have to be replaced at some stage.
There is the counter-argument that while electric vans don't produce any emissions, the power stations they rely on do. There's also the question of the environmentally friendly disposal of time-served batteries to be borne in mind.
While electric vehicles may be flavour of the month at present, other alternative fuel technologies still have an important role to play.
Lloyds TSB Autolease was also displaying a hybrid diesel-electric Ford Transit using a system developed by Connaught Engineering. As well as an 85hp 2.2-litre diesel engine it employs a 48v electric motor with compact super capacitors providing the electrical energy.
Mitsubishi Fuso was extolling the virtues of its diesel-electric Canter Eco-Hybrid 7.5-tonner, on show in Royal Mail Parcelforce livery and powered by a 145hp diesel engine plus a 35kW electric motor.
NICE would like to import Micro-Vett's diesel/electric Iveco Daily but says the idea is attracting little support from Iveco's UK operation.
If you want to be seen to be Green, you don't necessarily have to invest in alternative sources of power.
Mercedes-Benz was displaying a Sprinter equipped with ECO-Start. An enhanced version of the Motor Start Stop system previously available, it stops the engine whenever the vehicle is stationary for more than two seconds, cutting exhaust emissions and fuel usage. It fires up again when the driver depresses the clutch.
Like electric vehicles and hybrids, it's a new interpretation of a concept that's been around for many years; but none the worse for that.
Both Citroën's new Berlingo and Peugeot's new Partner made their global debuts at this year's action-packed Commercial Vehicle Show, but they didn't have the stage all to themselves. The sub-compact Nemo (Citroën) and Bipper (Peugeot) vans were there too; and so were a pair of key competitors from major league rival Renault.
Making their presence felt at the National Exhibition Centre as they made their first UK appearance were Renault's new Kangoo Van and the short-wheelbase Kangoo Van Compact.
The latter comes with a 2.3m3 load area and can handle 500kg of cargo. Its bigger brother offers a 3.0m3 load bay and allows you to shift from 650kg to 800kg depending on which variant you choose.
Buyers can opt for a 1.5dCi diesel at 70hp, 85hp or 105hp, or a 1.6-litre petrol unit at either 90hp or 105hp. Both engines come with a five-speed manual gearbox, with the most powerful of the diesels supplied with a six-speeder.
The 105hp lumps aren't available in Compact. Unfortunately Renault's new offerings won't be in dealerships until later in the year.
Over on the Nissan stand the workhorse NP300 pick-up was making its first UK show appearance.
The successor to the D22, it gets a 133hp 2.5-litre dCi diesel and is up for grabs as a 4x4 in single-cab, two-door extended cab and double-cab guise. A 4x2 single cab is being marketed too, and NP300 is additionally produced as a 4x4 single cab tipper.
Close by were some of Nissan's new ready-to-go-to-work conversions on sale under the Good to Go banner. They included Cabstars bodied as a cage tipper and as a box van.
A beefy pick-up was the star of the Toyota stand. We're not thinking about the wacky-looking Hilux that Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson and James May drove to the magnetic North Pole, but a 3.0-litre diesel model that's good for a whopping 194hp.
It's a Hilux double cab that's had the benefit of a Toyota Motorsport performance kit. Peak torque is up from 343Nm to a mighty 430Nm.
For your money you also get 15in alloy wheels, a stainless steel mesh grille and a two-tone grey leather interior with heated front seats. Only 500 will be produced, and the newcomer goes on sale in the summer.
As well as spotlighting the new Fiorino — its version of Nemo and Bipper — Fiat was extolling the virtues of its new ready-to-go-to-work conversions, including a tipper sourced from Ingimex and a dropside, both based on Ducato.
LDV's Maxus was at the NEC in a host of new guises, including as a 17-seater yellow school bus and as the Aero Luton, produced in conjunction with bodybuilder J C Payne, with a 15.6m3 cargo area. Maxus was also present as a mobile post office — a vehicle that's likely to be in great demand given the axe currently being taken to the post office network — a private ambulance and as an upmarket motor home.
All Maxus models now come with ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, a CD player with MP3 compatibility and a height-adjustable driver's seat. An unglazed full-height steel bulkhead is fitted to all vans.
LDV also used the show to launch a new customer support package provided with all vehicles. It's called Maxus One
It embraces a manufacturer-backed four year/120,000 mile warranty with roadside assistance — including European recovery — for two years. Also available are service packages at from 50p a day and service and repair packages at from £1.50 a day.
Russian-owned LDV is still contemplating putting its concept MX100 (pictured) light truck chassis into production, but it will probably be 18 months to two years before it goes on sale. Based on a GAZ Valdai that's been redesigned to make it more palatable to Western buyers it's likely to be plated at 6.5 tonnes.
Land Rover's line-up included a Discovery van — it's come up with a van version of the latest Freelander too — while Vauxhall had a Movano on display with an Aluvan Luton body plus Black Edition concept versions of Corsavan, Astravan and Vivaro Double Cab.
Ford's stand was even more colourful than usual what with Transit Connect SportVan — now a production reality — not to mention a Ranger Wildtrak in Performance Blue (a new colour for the vehicle) with white stripes and a special edition Transit SportVan in Panther Black with silver stripes.
It also played host to an example of the new Connect-based Ampere electric van from Smith Electric Vehicles. Significantly, it carries both the Ford and the Smith brands; a recognition of its potential given the cripplingly high price of diesel.
Volkswagen's offerings included a five-seater Transporter Sportline kombi. It boasts 18in alloy wheels, lowered suspension, chrome grilles and side rails, front and rear spoilers and body-coloured bumpers, door handles and mirrors. Power is provided by a 2.5-litre 174hp TDI diesel.
Aside from Bipper and Partner, Peugeot was displaying a concept Sports Boxer created by Irmscher, with 20in alloy wheels and seats trimmed in grey and red leather.
Unfortunately the new Vito 3.2-tonner was not present — it will make its UK debut in the second half of the year — but Mercedes-Benz was promoting a Vito 120CDI Sport-X Dualiner powered by a V6 diesel with 204hp on tap.
At the other end of the price and equipment scale, Piaggio was exhibiting a handy-looking little vehicle called the Truk. On display as a dropside — a tipper is available too — and powered by a 500cc diesel married to a five-speed manual gearbox, it is built at the Piaggio plant at Pune in India.
Truk is set to go on sale in Britain by the end of September at no more than £5,000 plus VAT.
“With an unladen weight of just under 660kg it's classed as a quadricycle under UK regulations,” says Tim Slaughter, managing director of Piaggio distributor Perodua UK. It will, however, handle a payload of well over half a tonne.
The Commercial Vehicle Show is owned by a partnership made up of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the Road Haulage Association and the Institute of Road Transport Engineers, part of the Society of Operations Engineers. Once again, it was a superb event. If you missed it this year, then make it a priority for 2009. It will be interesting to see if the rise of battery power continues or whether the much more practical diesel hybrid approach can mount a challenge.