Everyone is talking about going electric, and there are more models coming to market all the time. But in the van sector, sales in 2022 were still dominated by diesel models, with more than 259,000 sold - 92% of all van sales.
In a sector that had a tough time with registrations of all vans down 20% compared to the year before, due to the stuttering economy and model shortages, 16,744 electric vans were sold, which was a 31% increase on the year before.
Without doubt electric vans are starting to make their presence felt in the commercial vehicle sector, but even allowing for some unique trading conditions, diesel-powered vans are still by far the dominant beast.
So why is that? We look at some of the reasons, and where electric might be making ground.
Because they do not have a battery pack, usually installed in the floor between the front and rear wheel, diesel vans can carry bigger and heavier payloads than electric vans.
Comparable Ford Transit and e-Transits shows the difference in payload capacity, where the diesel version can carry nearly half a ton more than the electric version.
For models that have the same roof height and wheelbase, the payload of the diesel version is 1393 kg and has a loadspace of 10m3, while the electric one can only carry 900kgs and has a capacity of 9.5m3.
For some van roles, range (and specifically daily range) is highly important, and it is here that diesel has an advantage.
For example, Mercedes quotes a range of up to 162 miles (based on official figures) for its eVito panel van, while the maximum claimed economy for a diesel Vito is 38.7 mpg. Even just part filling it with 50 litres (10.9 gallons) of diesel would result in a range of 422 miles if you could achieve its official mpg figure.
The issue to consider is how many miles do your vans really do? Even just 100 miles a day, 50 weeks a year is 25,000 annually – which should be well within the daily capability of many electric vans, if they can always be charged overnight.
But if you need more operational flexibility and can’t afford to have EVs sat charging during the working day, or there isn’t the capability to charge at home or at work overnight, then diesel may still be the best option for you.
While there may be a ban on the sale of new diesel vans coming in 2030, after that date they will still be driven on UK roads for years to come. However, it might well be the case they are not being run on diesel, but on cleaner alternatives such as biofuels, hydrogenated vegetable oils, and even synthetic fuels, although this will depend on manufacturer recommendations for each model and engine.
If you’re looking to buy outright, diesel vans cost less than electric. Taking the Ford Transit as an example, the e-Transit range starts at £48,045 (ex VAT), and the diesel models from £37,393 (ex VAT).
Where it all gets murkier is with in-life running costs and residual values. Without doubt, an electric van charged at home will be cheaper to run than a van filled with diesel, although if that electric van is charged in public, the costs are far closer. And there’s the ever-moving targets of electric and diesel prices, and how efficiently each driver drives, to factor in.
But there are other factors to consider too. The long-term real-life service, maintenance and repair costs of electric vans are still yet to be fully understood, and so are used values.
This is not the case for diesel. They’ve been in the market for so long that it is possible to predict their wholelife costs far more accurately. It might well be that electric works out cheaper in the long run, but for some businesses, certainty around budgeting and costs is more important, and that’s where diesel vans can have an advantage.
With vans, choice is important. Each operator might need a different configuration to suit their own operational requirements, and there are still significantly more options of diesel van than there are electric.
As an example, on the Vanarama leasing site*, there are 246 different electric vans offered, and in quite a wide range of configurations, from small panel vans to dropsides. So it is likely you’ll find something that suits your needs.
But there are still far more diesel models on the market. Search for those and there are 1907 results, so that even if you can’t get the exact model you are looking for because of the shortage of stock, there’s likely to be something similar that can do the job.
Diesel vans will still be commonplace long into the next decade, but increasingly they will be replaced by electric, the Association of Fleet Professionals says.
“Electric van production is beginning to ramp up quite quickly and while the numbers remain relatively small in overall industry terms, this appears to be creating what are – in current terms – relatively short lead times that can be measured in months,” said AFP chair Paul Hollick.
“As with electric cars, there is a strong possibility that manufacturers are channelling greater resources into electric van production in order to meet corporate emissions targets and this could additionally lead to comparatively strong availability over the next few years.
“The fact is that in the absence of any other widely available zero emissions technology, electrification is the future for light commercial vehicles.”
*Search results on Feb 1, 2023