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Best Engine For Commercial Vehicles : Petrol, Diesel or Electric?

Best Engine For Commercial Vehicles : Petrol, Diesel or Electric?

If you own a commercial vehicle fleet, you will have a familiarity and a likely fondness for diesel vehicles. They have been the staple for decades; reliable, longer mileages and longer lasting. For most commercial businesses, your fleet will mostly consist of diesel vehicles. But does that necessarily need to be the case?

For a lot of owners, it would seem not as electric van sale figures continue to surge and the current vehicle climate seems to be shifting towards renewable energy motors. While this is a great move for the environment and should be embraced, what does this emergence of electric vehicles mean for your business and is it time to make the change?

In this guide, we look at diesel, petrol and the modern electric vans to see what gets you the most bang for your buck and whether the technology of electric vans is finally ready for the commercial world or if you are better off waiting and relying on your current fleet.

Diesel Vans: The Commercial Vehicle Blueprint

Almost every single commercial van currently on the market is available with a diesel engine, they are the most accessible model on the market and if you are looking for a particular model or have a preference, then they make an excellent choice. Diesel vans have been popular for decades due to the normality of the fuel, product availability & familiarity of the engines. The more modern diesel engines are quieter, offer excellent fuel economy, there are no restrictions on range and they require less refills than a petrol or electric engine. The strength in residual value of diesel vans has always been one of its strongest assets as the resell ability of diesel vans is reliable and provides good return on investment. Most diesel vans also offer the highest payloads on the market, making them incredibly useful for a commercial fleet. This is why they have been so dominant in the vehicle market; you can fill them with more, go further without stopping and they typically last a long time. Also, they are typically cheaper than electric vehicles and even more so if you buy second hand (though the EV price point is always dropping).

However, diesel vans also have their share of downsides, most notably in the price and environmental departments. While diesel vans typically last longer, they also cost more to repair if something does go wrong. They are also typically more expensive to run when compared to electric vans. Also, it is no secret that the price of diesel is continually on the rise and in some cases, it might not even be available at some gas stations with ‘no diesel’ signs becoming a somewhat common occurrence in the UK.

In an age where companies are tasked with improving their environmental impact, diesel engines are considered to be environmentally unfriendly with high CO2 & particulate emissions, their diesel particulate filters (DPF) are easily blocked in urban operation (which can cost a lot to replace) & depending on their age, they may not be eligible for fee-free operation in ultra-low emission zones that continue to surround the big cities in the UK. This might be an issue if you are working in local villages or cities without emission zones currently but odds are high that most major cities will have an emission zone before long. According to gov.uk, the following cities either have a low emission zone in place or are planning on adding one in the near future :

  • Bath
  • Birmingham
  • Bradford
  • Bristol
  • Greater Manchester (under review)
  • Portsmouth
  • Sheffield (starts end of February 2023)
  • Tyneside – Newcastle and Gateshead (starts end of January 2023)

With the increased focus on low emission zones and more renewable forms of fuel, diesel engines are becoming quite costly and starting to veer towards old-fashioned. However, diesel vans are still the current norm and for now, they still have a lot of upside even if they are not as perfect for commercial vehicles as they once were.

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Petrol Vans : A Passing Fad

If you’ve been in the commercial vehicle industry for a while or used vans for a while, you’ll likely know about petrol vans. Petrol is obviously the preferred fuel for most cars on the road and petrol engines were tried in a range of different vans but they never really caught on. While new petrol vans are still on the market and you can find second hand vans at a cracking price, petrol vans are continually being pulled off the market due to a lack of demand. Why is that?

Well, they have most of the downsides of diesel vans with few of the upsides. That’s not to say petrol vans are completely useless. As mentioned before, they are usually cheaper, they have fewer emissions and lack the PDF blockage issue, making them typically better for built up urban areas. Also, petrol is cheaper and more readily available throughout the country and less likely to rocket in price due to the public need for petrol (though recent petrol prices have been up and down like crazy with last year’s petrol price spike still only just recovering).

However, petrol vans are still likely to fall foul of low emission zones and while better than diesel fuel for the environment, petrol vans aren’t going to look much better from an environmental point of view. They are also less reliable, harder to sell and have a shorter range so often cost more to run.

Petrol vans had a decent niche market for those worried about diesel emissions and who mostly focused on smaller and local commercial business as the shorter range didn’t really matter, the reduced payload wasn’t a massive problem, they didn’t have the DPF issue of diesel vans and they were cheaper for smaller businesses. However, they have mostly been replaced in this market by the quickly emerging electric van, the true contender to the diesel crown.


Electric Vans : Are they ready for commercial use?

Electric cars are no new phenomenon with hybrid and fully electric cars being around for over a decade but electric vans are more new. When they first came out, the electric van was good but clearly in its infancy. The vans were quiet, good for low range journeys and cheap to run but they were also quite expensive to buy, had poor payloads and had fairly unpredictable ranges compared to more reliable diesel engines. The infrastructure was also limited and this made finding a charging point difficult and one that worked well even more so.

Nowadays, electric vans have a lot of upsides. The most of which is the lack of any emissions while driving. This means you can go through any low-emission zone in the country and it also looks a lot nicer to potential customers. Also, the vans are still very quiet, making them perfect for domestic visits. Payloads have also gotten better thanks to lighter batteries and most electric vans stack up fairly well against diesel vans (though it is worth noting that diesel vans still have better payloads overall). Running costs are also far cheaper even with the current cost of living crisis bumping electricity costs. The batteries hold their charge far better than they used to as well, meaning that overnight charging is a more viable option (though recent studies have shown that overcharging or even charging to max consistently can impact battery life).

This is where the heart of the electric van dilemma lies. The technology is still emerging and this makes it incredibly difficult to know whether to invest. Knowledge over battery and engine life is limited and batteries are still quite expensive to replace. This not only means unpredictability but it means that the residual value of a van is fairly poor with new rapidly emerging technologies and improvements making old vans obsolete pretty much immediately. That’s not to say if you buy a van today, it’ll be obsolete tomorrow but it’ll have limited value when you go to upgrade to a newer model down the road. Electric vans still being new means that vehicle diversity is relatively low. While popular models like the Ford Transit and the Citroen Berlingo have seen great additions in the electric van market, other makes and models are still ‘in development’ which means that if you have a particular preference, you might be stuck waiting.

Question marks still persist over the range. While increasing all the time, 100 miles or so is a fairly typical expected range which is fairly adequate for most commercial vans. However, the infrastructure can still be unreliable and restricted at times. At time of writing, there are around 42,000 charging points in the UK across 15,550 locations. This is a strong increase and the numbers keep going up. However, the above image, taken from Zap Map which is a leading electric charging point location service, paints the picture. There are still plenty of gaps in the infrastructure with the North particularly seeing a lack of investment. Also, the quality can be largely unpredictable. Most charging stations are designed to offer rapid (1 hour to full) or fast charging (3-4 hours to full) but this isn’t always the case with chargers breaking or running at a slower rate. Also with limited chargers per location, this can lead to long queues in quieter locations which can severely impact your response time if you run a quick emergency service. When back at your workplace, charging stations are relatively reliable and installations are fairly easy to sort but on the go charging is still relatively difficult.

Overall, there is a lot to like about electric vans and it is certainly where the market is eventually heading. Quiet, cheap to run and constantly improving, there is a lot of upside beyond just being greener. However, the technology still feels relatively under optimised, the range and lack of infrastructure can cause problems particularly for those working up north and the lack of real knowledge about shelf life makes them more difficult to recommend than a diesel van.


Should you upgrade at some point? Definitely. Should you upgrade right now? It really depends on your needs and what your business needs from a van. If you are running a small local business, it could be perfect. If you are running a bigger operation, I’d probably hold off for now and see what the newer technology brings. The knowledge that the vans are only going to improve makes any major investment feel a little foolish as your van will inevitably drop considerably in value. Something you could do for a larger fleet is invest in an electric van and see how your team gets on with it. For running an entire commercial fleet, electric vans feel a little too unpredictable to fully commit right now but for a single van, maybe as a more public appearance van, they could certainly do the business. 

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