London Electric Vehicle Company

The London taxi – now available in van form

THE MOST surprising car I’ve driven in the past year has just pulled another hankerchief out of its sleeve. The London black cab is now available – as a van.

It just doesn’t sound right somehow, does it? The Friday night ride home of choice across much of the capital – and an increasingly familiar sight in this part of the world too, particularly in Liverpool and Manchester – has been transformed from the B-pillars backwards into something that resembles a bloated Volkswagen Caddy, but beneath the skin shares the same combination of electric motors (and some internal combustion back-up, in the form of a 1.5-litre petrol engine as a range extender) as its more familiar, fare-fetching cousin.

While the London Electric Vehicle Company claims it can travel 377 miles in one hit – meaning that should The Champion ever launch an Inverness edition it’ll be able to deliver a freshly-printed batch without having to stop to charge up – it’s actually pitched as a response to what it calls “the Amazon-isation of retail”. In other words, all those short trips from parcel depots to your door because every other person on your street orders their stuff online. That’s a lot of short hops for blokes in vans – and a lot of air pollution if it isn’t kept in check.

But I reckon the van has the potential to be a hit for much the same reason the black cab is – it’s really, really good at what it does. When I drove the TX taxi last year I reckoned its ability to take contactless payment and provide drunken passengers with an in-built WiFi zone for their Instagram selfies was smart stuff – but not half as clever as the way it drove. A seven-seater that’s roughly the same size as a Land Rover Discovery Sport had the sort of turning circle you’d expect from a Smart, was a doddle to drive and had all of its electronic trickery harnessed by a Tesla-esque touchscreen that dominated the dashboard and was intuitively easy to use. If LECV can give a van – even one that does look a bit like a drunken Austin A35 from the front – the same sort of qualities in something than can carry two Euro pallets, then I reckon it’ll quickly build up a healthy queue of fans.

In fact, the biggest battle will be the one thing LEVC hasn’t announced yet – the price. All that’s been confirmed is that it’ll be less than the £55k its taxi cousin currently costs, but bear in mind Nissan’s all-electric NV200, with a 174-mile range, costs £19,116 before VAT.

You might not be able to get to Inverness in it, but that’s a 35-grand saving. The black cab makers might have to pull off some more magic to square that difference…

The new London taxi – probably the best car you’ll never drive

It might look traditional but the new black cab is very high tech

AWFULLY sorry, readers. I’ve quite openly failed this week to provide the sort of sensible consumer advice The Champion sticks up for – because the most eye-opening car I’ve driven in years is one which you’re unlikely to ever hop behind the wheel of.

Not that it’s some decadent chunk of carbon fibre supercar or a leather-lined saloon fit for the reserved spaces in the company, although it does cost £55,500 – about the same as a high-end E-Class or A6. In fact the reason why you’re unlikely to ever end up in the front seat is that the whole point is to experience it from the back – because it’s the new London taxi.

Apparently there are three LECV TXs plying their trade on Merseyside but the London Electric Vehicle Company – as the black cab’s makers are now officially known – is already ramping up production, so chances are that one will end up ferrying you home after last orders in the near future. Even if you’ve had an entire evening’s worth of real ale, the back’s a nice place to be, with a panoramic glass roof, in-built WiFi zone and a little gadget to accept contactless card payments without having to stretch towards the driver. It’s also the first black cab that allows wheelchair users to sit facing forward rather than sideways – the sort of stuff that matters when it’s a tenner a ride.

But it’s actually at the business end where things get really clever. The new arrival only weighs 100kg more than the outgoing TX4 black cab but it’s stuffed full of batteries and electric motors rather than a clunky old turbodiesel. It’ll glide about for 120 silent miles, so that any conversations you force on your passengers about how the country’s going to pot won’t be interrupted.

What about the chap in the suit who wants you to drive him to Leeds – and to hell with the cost? No problem – there’s a petrol-powered 1.5-litre engine for back-up, and although it sounds a bit like a very quiet air con unit when it kicks in it’ll still plod happily up the M62 at 70mph. You can also charge the batteries up to 80 per cent in just 25 minutes – and reassuringly, it still looks like a black cab.

Yet the reason why it’s such an eye-opener is because no car the size of a Range Rover Sport should have a turning circle that’d make a Smart owner jealous. You hop in and you have the sort of high-up driving position you’d expect from a Transit van, and yet everything feels light and effortless. It’s quiet, handles far better than anything its considerable size really ought to and the way the electric motor and petrol-back up works feels wonderfully natural. Get the hang of the engine braking and you can almost drive it using one pedal.

Back in the day you had to be either a fully-fledged cabbie or Stephen Fry to want to spend hours at a time driving a black cab. But even without a single fare to pick up I’d happily have the new one – it’s that good. That’s sensible consumer advice, surely?