Can Nissan's all-electric van boost the appeal of commercial EV fleets?

Can Nissan's all-electric van boost the appeal of commercial EV fleets?

Nissan e-NV200 electric van commercial EV
Nissan Motor Co.
Japanese auto giant Nissan is wading into the world of electric vehicle fleets.

Last year was a banner one for electric vehicles. Registrations quadrupled to almost 14,500 in the U.K. alone under the government's plug-in grant scheme, and the auto industry is predicting further growth with almost 40 new models due to come onto the market over the next three years.

But this growth is dominated by electric cars.

More than 25,000 plug-in grants have been awarded since the U.K. program for electric cars started in January 2011, but only 1,117 buyers have taken up the grant of up to $11,700 off the purchase price of a new van since a dedicated van program was introduced 13 months later.

The relatively slow progress of the electric van market is particularly strange when you consider that operators of commercial van fleets tend to be highly cost-conscious and have a good understanding of the range their vehicles need, meaning electric vans often offer a good fit for business customers.

The Nissan e-NV200, officially launched in June, is targeting the breakthrough that the nascent electric van sector has been waiting for. The largest of the nine vans available under the scheme, it certainly has all the tools needed to help drive the electric van market out of the doldrums.

Nissan accounted for 5.4 percent of the market last year, but it has big plans to use the e-NV200's promise of low-cost, cleaner transport to win sales among business and public sector fleet operators, such as local authorities and the NHS.

So can it deliver? Well, starting at $19,600 with the battery leasing option or $24,250 for full ownership, you get a lot of van for your money. Capable of carrying a maximum payload of 1,675 pounds, the e-NV200 promises "best-in-class" cargo capacity, stretching over 6.6 feet from front to rear, 4.9 feet side to side and 4 feet between wheel arches, which leaves room for two standard Euro pallets with space to spare.

Nissan e-nv200 traffic alert
Will Nichols
A traffic alert displayed in the Nissan e-NV200.
Maneuverability is also good, with hill-start assist and a rear-view camera coming as standard, while the visibility from the raised cab is an advantage. Some interior features brought over from the Nissan LEAF also enliven the drive, including ones showing your energy consumption and highlighting nearby charge points. However, some of the traffic alerts seem a little alarming — an air raid on the A20?

Of course, the running costs will be the big selling point for many businesses. Nissan said it could cost as little as 29 cents per mile to run the van, while it is also free from vehicle excise duty and the congestion charge in London.

In addition, fleet customers should be impressed by the range. At 106 miles from an eight-hour standard charge, there is more than enough in the tank to cover most city driving. However, using energy-thirsty options such as the heating will knock up to 20 miles off this range, making cross-country journeys trickier.

In contrast, the e-NV200's ECO mode extends battery life by adjusting acceleration and climate controls to minimize energy consumption. And a separate B mode can be used to increase the strength of the regenerative braking system, effectively replicating the engine brake on a diesel or petrol van, regardless whether you are in ECO mode.

ECO mode also brings down the top speed from 76 mph to 60 mph, which does not make much difference on most city roads, but can be felt far more on the motorway.

There are a few other downsides. Despite the light steering and torque you associate with electric drives, at higher speeds the van can feel as if it is struggling. It is quite a shaky, bouncy drive unless something in the back weighs down the vehicle.

In the COMBI five-seater version, that ballast could be provided by the rest of the family, albeit for a starting price of $26,148 — just under $2,196 more than the cheapest Nissan LEAF. Cities from London to Barcelona and New York are planning to put the COMBI to use as a zero-emission taxi.

However, the van version looks more targeted at a specific audience's needs and with more companies looking to cut costs and provide greener transport options, it well could prove the platform Nissan is looking for to build its fleet business.

The e-NV200 presents a compelling green and cost-efficient alternative for any business that operates vans that stick to predictable routes of under 100 miles a day. It could well provide the spark the electric commercial vehicle market requires.