The electrified backbone of Britain and beyond?

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How do you take the iconic diesel-powered Ford Transit, electrify it, and create a minibus for the future? Richard Sharman visits Minibus Options to find out

The all-electric version of the world’s best-selling cargo van – the Ford E-Transit – is now available as a minibus, thanks to a collaboration between Ford and Whalley Bridge-based Minibus Options.

CBW is no stranger to road testing high quality vehicle conversions from Minibus Options, but the E-Transit test drive was one I was particularly looking forward to. Having started in the industry in a company whose fleet was 90% Ford Transits of the 1987 and onwards era, and then having experience with different model generations a decade ago, it was going to be interesting to see the evolution.

But before we get to the test drive, I wouldn’t be doing the E-Transit justice without running through the development process of the hugely important change to the Ford product line up. It was 58 years ago that the very first internal combustion engined (ICE) example rolled off the production line, so Ford has nearly six decades of operators that expect the new E-Transit to deliver on its heritage and be better than perfect from day one.


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Transit Smart Energy Concept

Before the E-Transit was even announced, Ford had been experimenting with electric minibuses. In April 2019, Ford revealed the new Transit Smart Energy Concept – a one-of-a-kind 10-seater minibus that was helping the company explore solutions for maximising the energy efficiency and driving range of electrified vehicles. Research has showed that using the climate control system in a battery-electric vehicle can reduce the driving range by up to 50% in cold weather, and compared to goods vehicles, multi-occupant vehicles such as minibuses require significantly more energy to create a comfortable temperature for passengers. That energy is provided by the high-voltage battery, presenting a significant challenge to the vehicle’s maximum range.

The fully-functioning, all-electric Transit Smart Energy Concept delivered a 150 kilometre range from a four-hour charge, supported by energy-saving and energy-generating innovations from solar panels to powertrain heat recovery systems. Developed by engineers at Ford’s Merkenich Technical Center in Germany, the Transit Smart Energy Concept used the same drivetrain technology as the StreetScooter WORK XL commercial vehicle, and a Ford Transit chassis fitted with a battery-electric drivetrain.

Future iterations of the concept were planned to enable the driver to control heating and cooling of individual seats – and deactivate non occupied seats, saving energy. Automatic passenger detection inspired by existing airbag deployment technologies was also planned to feature.

A London Hire Ford E-Transit wheelchair-accessible nine-seater is seen alongside the test vehicle. RICHARD SHARMAN

Hybrid models

Prior to announcing the all electric E-Transit in November 2020, and the first examples hitting the road in 2022, Ford had already been offering two hybrid iterations of the Transit. The plug-in hybrid variant features a 35-mile electric-only range and 310-mile total range with selectable driving modes designed to maximise available battery charge and minimise vehicle emissions. When the electric range has been used up, the 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol engine kicks in, acting as a range extender to charge the batteries that power the 123bhp electric motor. Official fuel economy is 91.7 mpg, and the battery pack is covered by an eight-year 100,000 mile warranty.

The range also has the EcoBlue Hybrid, a mild hybrid that captures energy when vehicle brakes or decelerates, storing it as charge in a 48-volt battery. The electric drive provides torque assistance to diesel engine and drives electrical ancillaries, allowing the system to enhance fuel efficiency rather than providing a performance boost over standard powertrains. This allows fuel savings from the 2.0-diesel through a reduced load on the engine and an auto start-stop function.

With these two models already in place, the all electric E-Transit was the next natural progression, but to ensure Ford offered its customers the best possible product, it first had to undergo a punishing testing regime designed to recreate the effects of a lifetime of intensive use. The testing saw the E-Transit complete 10 years’ worth of hard work in just 12 weeks including challenging winter driving conditions in Michigan, simulated extreme heat, cold and altitude in Ford’s environmental test chamber in Cologne, and the giant potholes and rough road surfaces at the company’s Lommel proving ground in Belgium. E-Transit testing was also conducted at the Dunton Technical Centre in Essex, the entire series of tests designed to ensure it is as durable as its diesel powered sister models. The approach recreated the effects of more than 150,000 miles of driving – or a decade of hard work.

Ford’s Environmental Test Chamber can recreate conditions from the Sahara to Siberia, and helped engineers refine the all-electric powertrain and cabin environment for performance and efficiency by subjecting the new model to temperatures of over 40°C – hotter than most deserts – for two weeks using 28 4,000-watt spotlights. To cope with such extremes the E-Transit’s battery pack features liquid-cooling technology for optimum performance in hot weather.

At the other end of the scale, the E-Transit also had to prove it could function at -35°C, colder than a Siberian winter, and with a full load making the punishing climb to 2,500 metres, as high as Austria’s Grossglockner High Alpine Road, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. On top of that, thousands of passes over bumps, potholes and cobbles were performed at Ford’s Lommel facility, simulating cobbled streets, rough back roads and challenging un-made tracks from around the world, hopefully all far worse than anything it might encounter in the UK.

Durability of the E-Transit’s battery pack, electric motor and unique rear suspension were also tested by repeatedly driving the new model through mud and salt baths and through saltwater sprays, simulating winter roads and fords as well as testing the components’ corrosion resistance. The electric motor’s reliability was proven by running it continuously for 125 days.

The step solution engineered by Minibus Options on the accessible model, designed to ensure underfloor batteries are not impacted if a side collision were to occur. RICHARD SHARMAN

Van to minibus

Minibus Options Sales Director and all-round minibus expert Fred James told CBW about the process of converting the E-Transit from a van to minibus: “The battery on the E-Transit is 68kWh with, currently, no other options to increase that. In terms of the range, the base van we convert has a WLTP range of 140 miles, but once converted to a minibus, and with the extra weight, I suspect it is still capable of achieving at least 130 miles, although as with any electric vehicle, temperature can have a massive impact on the range.

“When the first E-Transits were delivered to our site during the hot summer of last year they were displaying a range of 153 miles. During the cold weather this winter they were coming off the charger and displaying 137 miles, so as with any electric vehicle, you have to take the battery temperature into account when it comes to the range. Luckily, Ford has developed a system that allows you to pre-condition the saloon temperature whilst the vehicle is still on charge by way of a timer, which will save operators a lot of battery power straight away. Looking to the future, we have been told by Ford that a bigger battery may be an option next year at some point.

“When you look at the side profile of the E-Transit, from the B pillar to the D pillar is where the battery is located in a big tray between the chassis members. Crash protection is also fitted to each side of the battery tray. In terms of the electric motor, there are two options. You have the 184PS and 269PS version, however, we are basing all our conversions on the 184PS motor as the 269PS motor provides an awful lot of torque that would not be required for transporting passengers. We have found the 184PS more than ample for following conversion to a minibus.

“One of the challenges we have faced when converting the E-Transit to a minibus, in comparison to the diesel variant, is that you cannot mount anything – like the fixing for the side entry door step – underneath the vehicle. Technically, this means that currently we cannot have an M2 accessible minibus because it does meet the step height requirement. There is a whole host of reasons why standard step solutions cannot be used, and these all come back to the battery and ensuring that if the vehicle were involved in a side impact accident nothing could impact or pierce the battery cells.

“In regards to Minibus Options converting the E-Transit, in January 2022 we were asked to join a team of engineers from Ford Europe to collaborate in building a minibus solution for the new model. In the first instance we had to create two minibus conversions that would be displayed at the Euro Bus Expo at the NEC, one of the London Hire stand, and one on the PHVC stand. We are now on a pathway to being on Ford’s price listing, but at the moment we are using Ford’s homologation service, which is getting the conversions through whole vehicle type approval, and we are currently working with Trust Ford, which is the worlds largest Ford dealer group and is owned by Ford Europe. The vehicle you are testing in this feature will be the joint demonstrator for us and them.

“So far we have converted six minibuses, but we have orders for 120, which is more than 6 months of work ahead for us. The initial batch of E-Transit vans for conversion were ordered in February 2022 and were expected to be delivered to us in June of that year. We have all the interior fittings and seats ready to go, we are just waiting for the vans to arrive with us. Customers include a number of brokers and London Hire, which is seeing huge demand for this vehicle due to the expansion of the London Ultra Low Emission Zone expansion. Once the van deliveries start becoming more regular we will be able to convert up to 300 a year alongside our own range of minibuses from various manufacturers.

“Our existing minibus range mostly requires to go for Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) as the customer specification is almost always different for every vehicle built, with the E-Transit and working alongside Ford, we aim to get Whole Vehicle Type Approval on a number of variations of the conversion. By doing this, it means that we convert the E-Transit to one of a set of variations depending on what the customer requires, making vehicle conversion and delivery much quicker. It would just mean that the customer would have to choose one of those variations, rather than building the vehicle specification from scratch. That said, the customer would still have five or six core models to choose from. We have been converting vehicles long enough to know that those options will cover at least 80% of our customers’ needs.”

The interior of the accessible model prior to seats being fitted, showing the inboard PLS wheelchair lift arrangement. RICHARD SHARMAN

Interior options

When it comes to deciding the configuration of the interior of the conversion there are currently two options, a straight M2 15-seat fixed minibus or an M1 nine-seat accessible one. The vehicle I tested is the 15-seat minibus option, but if you go for the nine seat accessible it can carry a maximum of two wheelchairs and still have two single seats on the nearside. An inboard wheelchair lift is fitted at the rear, and the other main difference is that a luggage pen is fitted next to the driver, instead of a double seat.

Something to note here is that the 15-seat option does not have additional heating to the saloon of the vehicle, as at the moment Minibus Options says there is not an efficient enough unit that can be purchased that would not effect the range of the vehicle. However, their engineers have managed to duct the heating from the dashboard demister unit into the saloon under the luggage pen on the accessible model.

As mentioned by Fred earlier in this feature, standard step options could not be used for the side door entrance due to the location of the batteries. But Minibus Options has been able to engineer a solution suitable for an M2 specification that folds out, and would not impact the batteries in a side collision. This makes it much easier to board the vehicle and effectively creates two steps to the saloon floor, rather than one big one. Grab rails are also fitted to aid passengers with boarding and alighting.

Once inside the E-Transit you are greeted by a high quality conversion that is light and airy, with two-tone soft interior trim to the sidewalls and roof, a skylight that doubles as an emergency exit, LED interior lighting and tinted glazing, which is fitted by Minibus Options and features sliding windows on both sides of the vehicle.

Flooring is by NMI, with 12 tracked Phoenix Blenheim seats, fitted with lap and diagonal all age belts; the seat legs are also by Phoenix. The other three seats at the front are factory fitted by Ford. Operators can also specify Cogent Kite seating and AMF flooring.

The interior of 15-seater, of which 12 seats are accessed through the side entry door. RICHARD SHARMAN

On the road

Stepping into the cab of the E-Transit, it has a very familiar feel, and if you own a recent Ford car, you will find the dashboard layout very similar. The one thing that isn’t familiar, especially if you are used to the older generation Transit is the 12” Ford SYNC touchscreen display, which controls pretty much everything in the vehicle, but also includes navigation, DAB radio, wireless smartphone connection and if subscribed, emergency assistance.

From the drivers seat, the E-Transit does feel big on the inside, with an overall length of 5,981mm and a height of 2,533mm. It is probably the height of the vehicle that gives you that feeling. Once you have unplugged the vehicle at the front from the external charger, you turn the key and you are ready to go, just don’t expect to hear many noises as the E-Transit is very quiet once operational.

It was a cold day, hovering around 1°C, so Fred had kindly preconditioned the interior for me, an option that saves power by warming or cooling the vehicle for you before taking it off charge, saving valuable energy in the battery. A Quickclear heated windscreen is also fitted, but I advise you use this before setting off if the interior has not been preconditioned!

Getting ready to depart the yard, I found that the gear selection uses a rotary switch to select a gear; there is also an electric parking brake with an automatic feature that applies it when you come to a halt. Prior to hitting the road I went to the touchscreen and selected ‘slippery’ from the drive modes, as there was heavy rain with some sleet mixed in. Other modes included ‘normal,’ ‘low’ and ‘eco.’

Once on the road the first thing you find is that like many electric vehicles, the E-Transit does not hang about. The 184PS (134kW) motor gives you 430Nm of instant torque, although this 2,894kg unladen weight example was limited to 50mph.

Temperatures were now falling to -1°C, so it was time to switch on the heated seats in the front of the vehicle, which worked quickly. In addition, the heat from the demister unit was as good as you would find in a diesel variant, easily heating the interior and keeping the windows clear, despite the falling sleet.

On the twisty roads of the Peak District the power is unrelenting on steep hills and the maximum speed was easily maintained, but equally, once you reach a sharp corner the chassis dynamics really come into play and the E-Transit feels like a safe steady drive, even in the wet. Another benefit is that although you have the weight of the batteries under the floor between the axles, you also have the motor mounted on the rear axle, which ultimately plants the rear of the vehicle to the floor.

You may have heard of one-pedal driving when it comes to electric vehicles, and this is definitely possible with the E-Transit. Depressing the ‘L’ button in the centre of the rotary switch gives you increased brake regeneration and slows the vehicle down nicely once you take your foot of the accelerator.

The base vehicle for the minibus conversion is the 4.25t Trend model, which is good news for operators as this specification comes with a vast array of extras; the only thing it really misses externally is alloy wheels, but I am sure there is an option to order those. The E-Transit 15-seat minibus can be yours for around £65,000, which might sound a lot but you have to remember that minibuses are no longer at the budget end of the market. They can earn you good money, with the additional benefit of this model being its zero-emission cachet.

The cab area is ergonomic and of high quality, with Ford’s multifunction SYNC 4 12” touchscreen display. RICHARD SHARMAN