PSA Group, the parent company of both brands, admits that it has not really focused on its electric light commercial offerings in recent times, despite having a long history in the technology.
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Peugeot produced an electric version of its 106 car in the 1990s, and it was the best-selling EV in the world until the Nissan LEAF arrived in 2011.
Commercial users, meanwhile, were offered an EV variant of the Berlingo and Partner. Both used nickel cadmium batteries and offered a range of around 50 miles – approximately half of what’s possible today.
Yet PSA’s electric history goes back a lot further – the very first EV appeared in 1941. It was called the VLV, used four 12-volt batteries and was projected to be the answer to wartime petrol rationing.
In more recent times we’ve seen regular electric concept cars from Peugeot, Citroën and DS, and the brand has indicated its desire for an electric future by competing in the all-EV Formula E international racing series. But there hasn’t been any sustained promotion of the electric commercial range, until now.
That line-up currently comprises two models, electric versions of the effectively identical Peugeot Partner and Citroën Berlingo small van. They have been on sale for two years in the shortest L1 variety, and earlier this year were launched in a longer L2 variant.
Partner and Berlingo EVs are offered with a mid-level specification and this is very deliberate, as the plug-in grant offered by the Government to electric vehicle operators excludes options. Both are supplied with air conditioning, for the good reason that the system is both used to cool occupants and cool the battery packs.
Electric van range and charging
Range anxiety is the one aspect that puts off many a van operator from going electric, but actually the quite short daily mileages covered by vans especially in urban areas can make EVs a viable option.
The official NEDC range of the Partner and Berlingo EVs is quoted at 106 miles. However, according to PSA’s UK head of EV Helen Lees, appointed to the newly-created role in 2016, the ‘real-world’ range is typically between 80-90 miles.
“Range can be affected by a number of factors – driving efficiently, using the heating and the air-conditioning, carrying a full load, the outside air temperature, terrain, the road conditions – they all play a part,” Helen says.
“If you drive efficiently range will creep up – turn the air-con on and off and the range indicator will go up and down,” she adds, pointing to a vehicle which PSA had had on trial with a police force in northern England for a year. Trackers fixed to the vehicle have reputedly consistently recorded impressive mileages between charges.
When it comes to revitalising the battery packs, which incidentally are located under the floor so as not to affect the loadspace, all PSA vans are supplied with two charging ports as standard.
The traditional method is the AC charger, which has its port directly above the driver’s-side front wheel arch. It can use two different cables – a Type 2 which is what is fitted to most public chargers, or a three-pin domestic plug socket. This has to be restricted to a 10-amp cable as there is no way of governing what it will be plugged into. Charging takes eight to 10 hours, so effectively overnight.
The second alternative it the DC rapid charger, for which there is now a growing infrastructure, on 95 per cent of motorway service stations, and throughout London. This will boost the batteries to 80 per cent in just 30 minutes, and will then go no further to ensure it doesn’t overload the system. One doesn’t need to carry a cable for this, as it is attached to the charging unit.
On the road
PSA insists that driving an electric van is no different to being in a diesel or petrol model and they are right, to a point. A test route on both free-flowing country roads and urban streets of Coventry showed The Van Expert that the EV handles in exactly the same way as its conventional cousin, while an advantage of electric propulsion is that it will accelerate very crisply.
The major difference is when one comes off the right-hand pedal. Regenerative braking is a major element of an EV’s technical specification, as the kinetic energy generated is passed back into the battery. There is no such thing as coasting in this vehicle, as soon as your stop accelerating it will slow up quite markedly, which as we will detail shortly offers an interesting advantage to van operators in terms of maintenance costs.
The other major difference is the distinct lack of engine noise, particularly at slow speeds. Those used to the slight rattle, even from today’s refined diesels, may find the silence odd at first.
In all other aspects, the Partner and Berlingo EVs are just like their traditionally-powered counterparts. There is a different set of gauges to look at on the instrument panel, keeping you advised of how economically you are driving the van and how many miles of range remain – this can actually improve dependent on whether one is frugal or has all the air-con, heating and such like on and a full load in the back.
What are the pros of an electric van?
So why should a van operator consider an EV? They are significant investments at the start – £21,750 for the Partner or Berlingo.
This price includes the battery pack – declining efficiency as batteries get older has been another concern lined up against EVs, and in a bid to combat this Renault operates a lease scheme with a monthly battery cost dependent on use.
PSA has not gone down this route, but instead includes an eight-year warranty on all the battery packs supplied with its EVs.
Currently, the Government offers a plug-in grant for electric van buyers, just as it does in the car market. This is worth 20%, up to an £8,000 ceiling, though it is due to be reviewed in October this year.
There is also grant aid available for installing charge points – 75%, up to £500 at home and £300 per socket at a workplace, up to a maximum of 20.
So long as they cost less than £40,000 to buy, electric vans are still exempt from Vehicle Excise Duty (road tax), even under the revised rates operating since April.
They are also exempt from the London congestion charge and eligible for various EV-friendly schemes being introduced by cities, such as free parking and access to bus lanes.
Companies and their employees could also see other savings. Electric motors have fewer moving parts, so there are lower service and maintenance costs, and this particularly applies to the brakes, as the regenerative braking significantly extends the life of brake pads and discs.
Drivers, meanwhile, will see their benefit-in-kind tax slashed to 9%, and those allowed to use their company van for private mileage will pay 20% of the tax charged for a petrol or diesel equivalent.
Helen Lees admits that the UK electric van market is still very small – just 1,000 sold last year from four makers, compared to 10,000 electric cars. But PSA predicts major growth, particularly as fleets come on board; “Fleets take a long time to make a decision on new vehicles and we’ve been putting one to four vehicles in fleets for them to run trials with.”
Currently, Renault and Nissan dominate the electric van market, but PSA is the lead player among traditional-engined equivalents. “We haven’t been very focused on our EV product – we took a very small share in 2016 and we know our product has the strength to do significantly better, “ says Helen.
“With all drivetrains, we are the most dominant player in the market – we haven’t transferred that customer confidence to our EVs, and that is what we are focusing on doing now.”