What Car? says...
The Volkswagen Transporter is something of an icon, having stood the test of time since 1950. However, the world moves on, and as emissions regulations tighten and a proposed ban on combustion engine sales looms, change is inevitable. Volkswagen’s response to this is a new all-electric model – the Volkswagen ABT e-Transporter 6.1.
First announced in 2018, the ABT e-Transporter has now finally made it to the UK. It has been developed in partnership with electric specialists ABT – a German tuning company better known for their Formula E racing team’s partnership with Audi.
It’s based on the newest version of the Transporter, the T6.1. Visually, at least, the most significant change is a revised front grille. Where the e-Transporter is truly different, though, is the drivetrain, with an 83kW electric motor and 37kWh battery pack replacing the engine and fuel tank.
Competition in the medium-van segment is heating up and rivals to the VW e-Transporter include the Vauxhall Vivaro-e, Citroen e-Dispatch, Peugeot e-Expert and the Maxus eDeliver 3.
While each manufacturer is trying to establish its identity and competency in the electric van segment, buyers will ultimately compare these medium-sized electric vans on their ability to carry things and how far they can travel. With a claimed range of 82 miles, the e-Transporter is not only at the lower end when it comes to range – the Vivaro-e can cover as much as 205 miles – it is also only capable of carrying just under one-tonne.
Unlike the Mercedes-Benz eVito, rapid charging is available, though, with an 80% charge possible in just 45 minutes. It’s also important to note that the eTransporter does have the same volume carrying capacity as the diesel Transporter T6.1.
Competition is also not strictly limited just to pure-electric vans only, as a hybrid Ford Transit Custom PHEV and a hybrid version of the London Taxi, called the LEVC VN5, are also available in the mid-size van segment – both of which promise more than 300 miles of combined combustion engine and electric-only driving.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
For many, driving an electric vehicle is still something of a novelty and one that requires a whole new way of thinking – not least because of a bewildering array of options and menus on the dash. That’s not so much the case here.
Driving modes and regenerative braking options are commonplace on both electric cars and vans, but the ABT e-Transporter has shunned them in favour of a somewhat dialled-down and simplified driving experience. It doesn’t have fancy driving modes and there aren’t any options for regenerative braking. Instead, you simply put the “gear” lever into automatic and drive – just like you would in the DSG automatic version of the diesel van.
While it might be a more straightforward approach to driving, it is a shade boring. Electric vehicles can provide you with so much more and the ABT e-Transporter feels a bit basic when compared to Vauxhall Vivaro-e or larger Mercedes-Benz eSprinter. These both have driving modes and sophisticated regenerative braking systems that not only appeal to the more sensory elements of driving but can also help you drive more efficiently, while considering your battery usage and looking at the road ahead.
One function the eTransporter does have is a small amount of additional power on-tap, similar to a kickdown function on an automatic gearbox. Normal driving gives you 75% of the 83kW motor’s power, but push your foot harder on the accelerator and you get the full 100%. It’s similar to many automatic gearboxes paired to combustion engines, with the positive difference that the power arrives more smoothly and instantly, giving you a quick squirt of acceleration if you need to overtake or get out of a junction quickly.
As standard, the e-Transporter is limited to 56mph, which does feel a bit too low. However, an option to increase that to 75mph is available. The obvious benefit of the lower limit is that it will help preserve the 82-mile claimed range, but it feels just a few mph short of a sensible speed limit for a medium-sized van on UK roads, and emphasises the e-Transport’s mainly urban focus.
Speed limitations aside, the e-Transporter drives similarly to the diesel model, with its already sharp handling improved by the weight distribution benefits offered by the batteries.
By their very nature, electric vans are quiet, and even by electric vehicle standards the e-Transporter seems quieter still. There’s a whine from the motor at low speeds, but once that is overcome there is just a small amount of road noise.
If you’re not bothered by the simplified, scaled down driving experience then the eTransporter will reward you with an otherwise enjoyable and calming drive.
The interior layout, fit and finish
Those familiar with the regular Volkswagen Transporter will immediately notice that there is little difference between it and the electric version.
It has a smart, functional cab – just what you want in a van – with good-sized storage compartments and a rugged interior. But it’s also clever and rammed full of technology, including a 6.5in touchscreen that has a sharp, clear display and is fitted as standard on all electric Transporter vans. With it, you get DAB radio with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. What’s more, as a nod to future-proofing the interior, the dash also has a USB C charging point – something that VW is the only van manufacturer to currently adopt.
Other standard equipment includes an armrest and four-way adjustable seat with lumbar, heated seats, air-conditioning and electric heated mirrors. There’s also a fully adjustable leather-trimmed steering wheel with controls for that infotainment system.
Higher spec Advance trim level models get an additional 12v socket in the dashboard, automatic headlights, folding mirrors and front and rear parking sensors.
On the outside, Advance models get bigger 17in alloy wheels rather than the standard 16in steel wheels, along with body coloured bumpers, mirrors and door handles.
The only significant point of difference in the eTransporter are the dials ahead of the driver, with a power meter instead of a rev counter, and an energy gauge which shows you if you are draining or charging the battery.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
Since they started gaining popularity with the Nissan eNV200 and Renault Kangoo ZE, electric vans have always been great for those who need to transport volume and not weight. That’s because the loadspace is usually completely unchanged from the regular van as batteries are located under the loadspace floor. The e-Transporter is no different, which means that you can carry lengths just under 3m long as well as having space for 6.7cubic metres.
What is impacted is the payload. While many manufacturers have strived to strip as much weight as possible out of their vans to limit the deficit of their electric models compared to the combustion engine equivalents, the best performing e-Transporter model only has a payload of 996kg – more than 300kg less than the best-performing diesel van. The e-Transporter is limited because it comes in just one size, though, with only a single length and one roof height option.
There’s 1410mm of load height from floor to roof available in the van, 1700m across the width and 1244mm between the wheelarches. That’s enough to ensure that three Euro pallets can fit in the back. With a sliding door that also measures 1020mm wide by 1284mm high you can even load a pallet through the side.
Charging electric vans is perhaps the most contentious and important aspect of ownership. If necessary, the e-Transporter can take power onboard pretty quickly, with a 50kW DC charger able – in optimal conditions – to recharge the 16 cells of the lithium-ion battery in just 45 minutes. On a slower 7kW charging wall box it takes around 5.5 hours to get from zero to 100%.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
It’s important to remember the e-Transporter is a conversion performed by ABT, even though you can buy it from a Volkswagen dealership. As such, the fact it is a fairly straightforward conversion makes sense – even if does fall short of the ingenuity and leadership you’d more typically expect from VW.
For some, its simplicity may be appealing, but other, more technically advanced electric vans can be just as dialled down should you wish them to be, as well as giving you the option of maximising your range in the process.
On the other hand, the Transporter has loads of clever safety mechanisms in place and the electric van is no exception thanks to its electro-mechanical steering. The system, which is also found in the Volkswagen Crafter and new Volkswagen Caddy Cargo, enables the e-Transporter to offer a wealth of driver assistance systems that use the steering and braking to aid safety.
The Crosswind Assist system is one such example; it prevents you getting blown across the road by strong gusts of wind. There’s also automatic braking systems to try to prevent accidents as well as a driver alert system which monitors if you are dozing off. Unlike the top-trim diesel vans, there’s no adaptive cruise control, but as the eTransporter is not designed for intensive motorway driving it shouldn’t be needed anyway.
At more than twice the price, the e-Transporter looks expensive compared to a normal combustion Transporter. However, when compared against other electric vans on sale it is in the same bracket – and, as with those, there are considerable potential tax and running cost savings to factor in.