Ford claims the plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) version of its Transit Custom will account for 10% of the model range’s total sales within two years.

The Custom is by far the UK’s biggest-selling van – in the year to the end of September sales had reached 43,416, according to the SMMT.

Ford trialled the Custom PHEV in London – which operates an Ultra Low Emission Zone – with businesses including Heathrow Airport, Sky, Speedy Hire, Transport for London, British Gas and Vodafone.

With a claimed zero-emission range of 35 miles, the manufacturer believes that in the short to medium term the Custom PHEV presents the most practical option available for operators trying to meet clean-air targets in cities before the charging infrastructure is improved and the battery ranges of pure-electric vans extended.

“Emissions-free mobility is essential for the future of our cities and their citizens, but we know there are still barriers we face in the move to electrification,” says Mark Harvey, director of Ford’s Urban Electrified Van programme.

“We also know that businesses still have legitimate concerns about the range of fully electric vehicles, as well as their cost-effectiveness and reliability. These trials have helped Ford and its customers to investigate the extent to which PHEVs can help to achieve urban air-quality goals, whilst not compromising on productivity.”

During the trial, Ford claims 75% of the fleets’ mileage in central London and 49% in Greater London was completed using pure-electric power, which it says proves that even without a fully established electric vehicle charging network the hybrid vans can reduce tailpipe emissions in the inner city while also utilising the flexibility of a petrol range-extender to complete longer journeys when required. Ford claims a total range capability of 310 miles for the hybrid van and over this distance puts fuel economy at 91.7mpg and CO2 emissions at 60g/km.

Simon Robinson, chief programme engineer for Special Commercial Vehicles at Ford, describes the Custom PHEV as “a stepping stone into electrification”.

The Custom PHEV is offered in a single L1H1 variant and Ford says that thanks to packaging the battery pack beneath the vehicle’s floor, the payload of up to 1,130kg (in Leader trim) and load volume of 6.0m3 are the same as for the equivalent diesel van.

The PHEV can be operated in four modes: EV Auto (which switches between pure-electric or the 1.0-litre petrol Ecoboost range-extender depending on driving conditions), EV Now (which uses zero-emission battery power), EV Later (which uses the range-extender while storing battery energy for later), and EV Charge (which uses the petrol motor to both power the van and top up the battery).

When driving the Custom PHEV in left-hand drive we found it to be typically responsive and Ford-like in EV Auto, with the single-speed automatic transmission working smoothly with the range-extender on faster roads or with the battery in stop/start conditions.

It’s worth keeping a close eye on the charge level dial in this mode, however, as it gets through it quickly.

Select EV Now in urban settings and the PHEV behaves like a typical electric van, accelerating rapidly from a standstill and breaking sharply when you release the throttle as it regenerates charge – especially when Low, rather than Drive mode is selected.

EV Later leverages regenerative charging to effectively preserve the battery charge when driving on motorways, for example, while using the range-extender to power the van. While this setting is less quiet than EV Auto, the least comfortable and noisiest mode is EV Charge, in which the range extender can be heard working hard to top up the battery, which results in a noticeable reduction in driving performance.

Aside from regenerative charging Ford expects customers to charge the Custom PHEV at home or at the depot rather than at public charging points and says filling up takes 4.3 hours via a domestic 240V 10A power supply or 2.7 hours with a commercial type-2AC charger.

Robinson says a geofencing module will become a standard fit on the Custom PHEV from spring 2020. This will automatically switch the van to EV Now mode when it enters a controlled-emission zone if sufficient battery power is available, although he hastens to add: “It won’t leave you stranded [if no charge is stored].”

Custom PHEV prices, excluding VAT, start at £39,145 for the entry-level Leader, rise to £40,595 for Trend and peak at £42,950 for the top-of-the-range Limited trim.

The Custom PHEV’s battery pack is covered by an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty and Robinson claims the vehicle’s total cost of ownership is already “comparable to or better than a diesel”.

He predicts prices will come down further as battery availability increases and the technology improves.

Ford Transit Custom plug-in hybrid L1H1

Price (ex VAT)     £42,950
Price range (ex VAT)     £39,145-£42,950
Insurance group     tbc
Warranty     8yrs/100,000mls
Service intervals     tbc
Load length     2,555mm
Load width (min/max)     1,390/1,775mm
Load bay height    1,406mm
Gross payload    1,110kg
Load volume    6.0m3
Engine size/power    999cc/126hp  
Combined fuel economy    91.7mpg
CO2     60g/km