The way the Transit PHEV drives around towns is going to be a real revelation to anyone used to a diesel van. With only the electric motor running it is almost silent of course, but also gives instant pulling power. In fact, we found it a little tricky to get away smoothly in a lightly-loaded version as the motor was so keen to get going.
Once the battery is exhausted the petrol motor kicks in, but unlike most other hybrids there is no mechanical link between the engine and the wheels. The little 1-litre petrol unit merely acts as a generator to create energy for the electric motor. If you are stationary it will usually be silent (unless you need air con or heating) and then it cuts in almost silently as you press the throttle.
Accelerate hard and the engine will respond by upping its speed to create more electricity. It’s a little odd sounding and not entirely pleasant but a vast improvement on a clattery diesel. Don’t expect it to be fast though – although acceleration up to 30 mph is quicker than you might expect, it tails off at dual-carriageway speeds and above.
Unlike most Transits, the PHEV has an automatic gearbox (or more precisely, only one gear) which means there’s no clutch to pump in traffic. In its easiest mode, you simply select D and drive away. There are some more interesting choices though, if you want to get the most out of the clever powertrain. Firstly, selecting ‘L’ on the gear selector gives extra regenerative braking (like the ‘B’ modes in many other EVs) and it’s strong enough to mean you can forget about using the brake pedal at all if you plan carefully. It’s not quite as aggressive as the lift-off braking in some other electric vehicles though.
Then there are four drive modes. The simplest is ‘EV Auto’ which makes all the decisions about which motors to use according to the way you are driving and the state of the battery. The other modes allow you to use pure electric power – if the battery is charged – or run the petrol engine to either charge up the pack or save the electric energy for later in the journey. This is useful if you know you’re going to be going into a city, for example.
Other than the powertrain, the Transit is remarkably fun to drive, especially compared to other vans.