The big story in the light van sector in 2012 is likely to be the commercial vehicle industry’s response to the emergence of electric vans.
Two models, the Renault Kangoo ZE and the Ford Transit Connect Electric, are trailblazing the technology in the sector, which is itself pioneering the use of battery power in the market overall.
The subject is emotive and attracts strong opinions, by no means all of them positive.
Leasing companies and operators alike are concerned about costs, the recharging infrastructure, battery ranges, payloads, the intricacies of buying the vehicle and leasing the battery separately and what the implications of this might be when it comes to remarketing electric vans. They question whether there will ever be a step change in battery technology to make a more compelling business case for the adoption of electric vehicles.
Perhaps the biggest worry is whether legislation and pressure from manufacturers will coerce operators into taking on EVs that aren’t suitable for their business.
Mark Lovett, Leaseplan’s CV boss, claims: “Manufacturers are pushing electric vehicles onto a market that doesn’t want them.”
He adds that while some customers “raise the question of electric vehicles” because they want to be seen to be green, they shy away from actually taking on electric vans.
Nigel Base, the SMMT’s CV development manager, estimates the current market for electric vans to be not much more than 1000 units a year. But he adds: “There will be a market, it will be small and will grow over time.”
So despite the misgivings and teething problems, electric vans are almost certainly here to stay and the Renault Kangoo ZE appears to have stolen a march over its Ford Azure rival by opting to offer the battery on a separate lease deal.
Residual value specialist Glass’s reckons this option is likely to result in better whole life costs than an all-inclusive deal, such as the £39,995 price Ford has tagged to the electric Connect.
The Kangoo ZE costs from £16,990 plus from £60 a month for the battery lease.
Renault is not restricted by supply because the ZE comes down the same production line as the diesel Kangoo at the MCA plant in northern France.
The brand has announced its intention to lead the electric van market and does not want the ZE merely to fill a niche.
“The ZE is designed as a volume product, unlike its rivals,” the manufacturer says.
The electric Kangoo has the same loadspace (2.4m3) and payload (650kg) as the conventional version because the batteries weigh the same as a diesel engine, according to Renault, and are packaged under the floor. With a claimed range of 106 miles, Renault says the ZE would suit the 70% of van drivers who cover less than 60 miles a day. But the vehicle is clearly best suited to urban environments where its regenerative braking can recoup energy and add about 20 miles to its range.
Renault is not planning to make a loss on the ZE, despite the low purchase price. The firm’s vice-president of product planning, Beatrice Foucher, says: “We will make money on this generation of EVs.”
The Kangoo ZE won the What Van? 2012 Van of the Year award precisely because of its reassuring similarities to an automatic diesel light commercial.
Other than the silent ride and the aggressive regenerative braking that almost removes the need for
using the brakes in normal situations, the driving experience is far from alien and could quickly become second nature for most drivers.
Elsewhere in the light van sector Vauxhall’s new version of its big selling Combo, built on the same platform as Fiat’s highly regarded Doblo, hits showrooms in February priced from £13,885 to £17,355 excluding VAT.
The Combo is offered at 2.0 and 2.3-tonnes, with two heights (1.85 and 2.10m), load lengths (1.82 and 2.17m) and trim levels and with four engines.
Vauxhall claims that its payload capacity, from 750kg to 1-tonne is the highest in class, along with the Fiat Doblo, and the range’s load volumes go from 3.4 up to 4.2m3.
The Combo is available with a 1.3-litre, 90hp CDTi unit and a 1.6 CDTi with 90 and 105hp outputs. Top of the range is a 2.0-litre, 135hp version.
The 1.3 is mated to five-speed manual transmission while the more powerful engines have six-speed manual transmission.
The 1.6 is also up for grabs with Tecshift automated five-speed transmission. Apart from Tecshift, all powertrains can be ordered with Start/Stop functionality.
Standard equipment includes remote central locking with deadlocks, full steal bulkhead, trip computer, power steering, CD/radio and 12 volt power outlet in the dash.
Vauxhall has introduced a Sportive trim level, which offers air conditioning, metallic paint, body colour bumpers and door mirrors, nearside sliding door, height adjustable driver’s seat with armrest and lumbar support and full wheel covers.
Fiat has broken new ground with its Doblo by introducing the Work Up – a flatbed, drop side derivative. Fiat claims the Work Up’s flat load area can accommodate three Euro pallets. The load bay is 2.3m long by 1.8m wide and the payload capacity is a claimed 1000kg.
The load floor is made from multi-layer anti-slip wood and an underfloor compartment enables tools to be stored away from prying eyes and out of the elements. Load hooks, a ladder rack and a protective grille on the cab’s rear window are also fitted.
Citroen has boosted the green credentials of its Berlingo range with the addition of an e-HDi Airdream micro-hybrid drivetrain. The most frugal model in the line-up now has claimed combined cycle consumption of 60.1mpg
and CO2 emissions of 123g/km, improvements of 19% and 17.5% respectively, according to the manufacturer. The Euro5 1.6 90hp engine incorporates stop/start technology.
Nissan enhanced its NV200 late last year with the introduction of a more powerful 110hp version of the 1.5-litre dCi engine fitted to the range. The Euro5 unit is mated to a six-speed manual gearbox and has claimed fuel consumption of 53.3mpg and CO2 output of 139g/CO2.
The flagship engine is available in SE and N-tec trim levels priced at £13,635 and £14,335 (excluding VAT) respectively.
Peugeot received a fillip when van leasing giant Northgate praised the reliability of its Partner van.
Northgate has more than 7,000 Partners on its UK fleet and John Fleet, UK Asset director, says: “The Peugeot Partner is arguably the best kept secret in the LCV sector, quite simply it never goes wrong. I can’t remember a time when the new Partner has proved problematic or had to visit a workshop for anything other than a routine service.”
Northgate claimed the Partner  records the lowest number of defects on its fleet.
Renault is about to revamp its light commercial line-up, with new trim levels for the Kangoo, as well as the larger Trafic and Master, The range will now run from Debut to Core and up to the top-spec Sport trim. The firm has also axed the baby Kangoo Compact from the model range, meaning the entry point is now the standard Kangoo.

Used up

In the used market, George Alexander, CV editor of Glass’s Guide, says clean examples of the Renault Kangoo are meeting Guide Trade at the first time of asking due to the limited numbers available.
Demand for Citroen Berlingos and Peugeot Partners firmed up towards the end of 2011 with early models being considered to represent particularly good value.
An excess of blue Vauxhall Combos turned off some buyers but the improved spec of 1.3 CDTis on 2006/7 plates helped bring that back.
Tidy, late-plate VW Caddy’s are still highly prized but prices for older, ex-utility contract models are on the slide.
 Ford Connect T200s are available and selling to Trade and the T220 has also improved its performance.