Towards the end of last year, What Van? was invited to take part in a new event designed to showcase future powertrain technologies. Paul Barker headed from Brighton to London to see what was going on.
It’s just before 6am on a Saturday morning and I’ve pulled into the car park of the Hilton Metropole Hotel in Brighton where there’s plenty of activity for such a ridiculous hour of the weekend. It looks like the late stages of a building project, with power leads running backwards
and forwards across the tight underground garage, but these wires are providing the juice for the raft of electric vehicles among the 64 registered entries for the first Brighton to London Future Car Challenge.
The event, however, isn’t solely for EVs, and is open to road-legal production or development vehicles, cars and vans up to 3.5t, powered by either electric, hybrid or conventional means, the third category as long as it’s under 110g/km for CO2 emissions.
Running backwards up the route that the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run will take the following day, the Future Car Challenge will head north from the coast with competitors aiming to use as little energy as possible, in a bid to win prizes awarded in 14 different car and commercial vehicle categories. And thanks to Ford, What Van? is actually taking part in two vehicles, as I’ll be leaving Brighton in the electric Transit Connect Ford is to launch in collaboration with Azure Dynamics this summer, before swapping into an Econetic-branded Fiesta Van at halfway for the run into London, where we’d end up taking over Regents Street on a Saturday afternoon.
In the interests of fairness, there are other commercial vehicles also taking part, including an electric Caddy Maxi developed by RLE International and Energetique, and a pair of electric Citroen Nemos from Nicholson McLaren.
Post briefing, and with road book in hand detailing the twists and turns of the 57-mile route, it’s time to make our way down to Brighton’s Madeira Drive in the electric Transit Connect for the ceremonial start. As number 10 of the 64 starters, we’re off early, lining up behind another Ford entry in the form of the Focus Econetic, which itself is following a pair of Minis, a diesel being driven by rallying legend Paddy Hopkirk and an electric version piloted by Prodrive boss David Richards.
My co-pilot in the Connect is Ford GB’s EV specialist Tim Nicklin, who has plumbed the route into his satnav, cutting the risk of unnecessary miles. He’s also Ford’s UK-based expert on all things electric, and quietly confident about the Transit Connect’s chances when it launches this summer.
And as we head out of Brighton it’s not hard to see why. Due to a technical problem with the way organisers are taking an energy reading, it’s not actually possible to measure the Connect’s usage, so this is purely a demonstration run for the Ford. Disappointing, but it does mean I can have a couple of proper acceleration blasts to see how the van performs, even if Tim is getting unnecessarily twitchy about us making London before running out of battery power if I keep adopting full throttle.
With a theoretical range of 80 miles there’s no reason, if we behave, why there wouldn’t be 20 miles to spare when we hit the final destination, and weaving through the Sussex countryside, the range indicator is ticking down at a pretty much identical rate to the odometer’s rise. Although it’s in (generally) gentle driving conditions, with no load in the back and without using the heater – which is a big killer of EV range – the lack of drop-off in range is impressive and offers hope that EVs can be a reasonable part of the 21st century transport solution.
Acceleration is impressively brisk, at least matching a diesel-powered version, with uphill performance particularly impressive. Some early electric vehicles struggled to pick up pace on inclines, but the EV Connect had no such complaint levelled at it. In fact, it was better to drive than the Renault Kangoo ZE we sampled last year, as the French LCV was set up with massive brake-energy regeneration, which was capable of dramatically slowing the vehicle without touching the brakes, whereas the Transit Connect has no such affliction. It makes it much more relaxing, and much more normal, to drive, even if it doesn’t recoup as much energy when decelerating.
There are quite a few people out in the Sussex villages, watching the array of green cars coming past, 24 hours before the veteran models come back the other way. The competing cars are easy to spot with their large numbers stuck to the door, and the full branded Transit Connect EV grabs its fair share of attention as it wafts by, with only road noise to betray its presence.
Rolling into the halfway point in Crawley, it’s time to get serious, as the second half of my journey will be trying to maintain the high-70s on the trip computer that my driving partner Jay Nagley of Autoblog had achieved in part one. Unlike the Transit Connect EV, the Fiesta Van was competing for class victory, so the fuel economy, and therefore my ability to drive efficiently, mattered.
An agonising 32.85 miles followed, trying desperately to avoid anything that would waste momentum. We actually hit a high of 83mpg on the trip computer despite the best efforts of various Surrey roundabouts and one-way systems, but in the end London had its way and the carnage that is Streatham and Brixton just before lunch on a Saturday meant keeping the Fiesta Van’s head above 80mpg was a mission too far. The trip computer finally dropped below 80mpg just a couple of miles from the finish line, ending on a still impressive 77.8mpg. Despite the congestion that marred the last dozen miles or so, we’d still managed to beat the van’s official combined fuel figure of 76.3mpg.
But it really was an effort. That level of eco driving is a stressful existence, having to think about every little movement on the accelerator, every gearchange, every lane-change decision, trying to minimise the chances of having to stop, and therefore waste a load of fuel regaining the momentum you once had. Every touch of the brake pedal is wasting energy already spent, but there were times where I’d have made it through traffic lights if I’d have accelerated a bit more quickly, or leaving too big a gap in heavy traffic meant someone would chance it and pull out from a side road, making me lift off. Agonising.
But eventually we cross the finish line just off London’s Pall Mall, where the van’s fuel tank is brimmed and the results noted, even if they won’t tell us what they are at this stage. We’re then pointed off to St James’s Square where the Fiesta gets a well-deserved wash and scrub before joining the parade of all 64 finishers as we convoy round to a Regents Street that’s closed to traffic for us, yet crowded with Saturday shoppers and tourists. Edging through the crowds to line up for an afternoon on display, it’s interesting to sit back and watch the general public’s reaction to various vehicles. While many of the cars and vans look completely normal, the Transit Connect is a popular choice, with people fascinated with what an electric vehicle looks like under the bonnet. Tim fields question after question from the general public who still can’t quite believe these vehicles are a production reality at reasonable prices, and can make it from Brighton to London, even if there wasn’t too much left in the metaphorical tank at the end of the trip.
But the inaugural RAC Brighton to London Future Car Challenge did achieve a couple of very useful things. It served to illustrate that the answers to lower-emission transport are going to be varied – as demonstrated by the two Ford commercial vehicle entries, one an optimised diesel engine and the other a electric vehicle. But lining up in Regents Street, alongside some of the cars that would the following day head down to Brighton on the veteran car run, also proved that the general public has both a lack of knowledge about how hybrids, electric vehicles and hydrogen power differ from what they’re used to, and how they will fit into their lives. No-one’s quite sure how and when these technologies are going to make complete commercial sense for operators, but they are all coming, and we all need to be aware of how they’re going to fit into the market.
All that eco-driving effort turned out to be worth it when our Fiesta Van was crowned as best in class. There’s now a glass trophy earned in part by What Van? sitting in Ford’s headquarters after the Fiesta Van took the Most Economical LCV internal combustion engine vehicle. It was a great first event for the Future Car Challenge, and one that could well have done enough to grow into a regular on the calendar. Keep an eye out later this year to find out!