VW's first large electric van brings zero-emissions driving to last-mile delivery services, but range renders it exclusive to the city centre

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This, in case the photos above hadn’t given it away already, is a 3.5-tonne van. Certainly not the typical test subject for a review on these pages — but it's absolutely worthy of one.

That’s because the e-Crafter is Volkswagen’s first fully electric commercial vehicle. Well, it is if you don’t count the 1970 T2 Electric Transporter. But seeing how VW only managed to sell 20 of those, this is much more deserving of the accolade.

With more cities issuing penalties for diesel vehicles using their roads, electric vans like this one will soon be a regular sight on our streets

Aimed at couriers, craftsmen and other 'last-mile' deliverers, the van was designed with input from UK businesses, including Gatwick and Heathrow airports. Both took part in trials earlier this year, creating thousands of driver profiles that helped influence the e-Crafter’s final specifications.

VW found that Crafter drivers typically covered 40-60 miles per day and made between 50 and 100 stops during a shift, with a dedicated parking space waiting for them at the depot or office when clocking off.

As a result, the e-Crafter uses the the Volkswagen same 35kW lithium ion battery as the e-Golf, here capable of an estimated 107-mile range and able to be recharged to 80% from a 40kW DC combined charging system in around 45 minutes.

The 100kW electric motor has also been repurposed from the e-Golf. It delivers the same 134bhp and 214lb ft of instant torque as it did in the hatchback, but it has been given an extra round of testing and refinement to ensure it could cope with the e-Crafter’s heavier loads.

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The powertrain is integrated into the vehicle underbody, with no impact on load width, height or cargo volume, meaning it can transport the same 10.7 cubic metres of stuff (or 10,700 litres, if you prefer). A maximum payload of between 970kg and 1.72 tonnes makes the e-Crafter every bit as practical as its diesel range-mate.

With that in mind, and with more cities issuing penalties for diesel vehicles using their roads, electric vans like this one will soon be a regular sight on our streets.

How does the e-Crafter differ from the standard van?

Before key meets ignition, almost exactly the same as a regular Crafter. The dimensions are the same, the fit and finish is identical, and only the smallest of differences reveal themselves in the cabin.

A Volkswagen rev counter borrowed from the e-Golf shows when the regenerative brakes are refilling the batteries, while the digital instrument cluster shows remaining charge instead of a fuel gauge — but that’s really about it.

That means the e-Crafter is still suitably van-like, with lots of hard-wearing plastics on the doors and dashboard that are built to withstand daily use and abuse. The rear-view mirror on our test car was redundant, with the optional bulkhead glass only giving a glance of whatever you happen to be lugging. Rear door glass will be an option, we’re told.

A lot of trim has been borrowed from VW’s consumer line-up, with air vents and switchgear that will be familiar to anyone who has driven a recent Volkswagen Golf. Standard specification is comprehensive, with a 7.0in infotainment screen, navigation, cruise control and climate control all included. For a commercial workhorse, there’s little to complain about.

Safety was a focal point for the engineers, too. The van won’t even start until every passenger has fastened their seatbelt; it refuses to move even with a foot flat to the floor. Automatic emergency braking, active lane-keeping assistance, a rear-view camera and park pilot are included at every trim level.

We drove the e-Crafter both with a payload and with an empty cargo bay, and both times the van impressed with its accelerative ability.

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Top speed is restricted to 56mph, but it gets there at a mighty lick, with the smooth acceleration you expect from an electric powertrain. Van drivers aren’t going to be embarrassing Tesla Model S owners at traffic lights just yet, but the e-Crafter can certainly shame a family hatchback.

There’s no option to adjust how strong the regenerative braking is, but the effects are powerful enough that you can largely drive with one pedal.

The single-speed transmission, meanwhile, is much more preferable to rapidly shuffling through the gears in a diesel-powered van. Also, with no combustion engine groaning at you all the time, the driving experience is far more serene.

The ride can be a bit trashy with no payload in the rear, but things settle down once there’s some cargo on board. Steering is light and visibility is decent (rear view notwithstanding). The way it accelerates aside, this feels very much like a Crafter van. Which is entirely the point, and a sign that VW’s engineers are on the right track.

Can the e-Crafter completely replace a fossil fuel van?

Unless you’re self-employed, you likely won’t have a choice. Large electric vans like the e-Crafter are set to become the fleet darlings of many city-based companies when they arrive in 2020.

With most short-distance drivers only racking up around 60 miles per day, the limited maximum range is unlikely to be an issue — even if it does make inter-city working impractical. The upcoming Mercedes-Benz eSprinter is set to use a larger-capacity battery, which might make those kinds of journeys feasible.

Prices are expected to start at around €69,500 when the e-Crafter launches in Germany later this year. That would translate to around £63,000 in the UK, excluding any incentives. The Government is committed to offering a grant for plug-in vehicles until at least 2020, but the current £8000 for electric vans is only guaranteed until October this year.

The initial outlay does seem expensive, even once you factor in a government plug-in vehicle grant, but the total cost of ownership sounds promising. Energy consumption is on par with a diesel van achieving 135mpg, and you have no tax or congestion charge to worry about.

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Drivers stand to benefit as much as the ones paying the bills, too, with silent running, instant torque and an automatic gearbox taking out a lot of the stress of driving a commercial vehicle.

It might have limited appeal right now, but the e-Crafter will almost certainly become a much more common sight in UK cities as the penalties for diesel vehicles become ever greater.

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