Photo courtesy of Echo Automotive
Next year, Echo will offer a hybrid retrofit kit for Ford E-Series vans. The kit costs about a third of the price of a new vehicle.

As American work-truck buyers are shifting to new European-style vans, a new start-up called Echo Automotive wants to help owners get more mileage out of their older-style vans, which are expected to remain in circulation for 10 or more years.

Echo's plug-in hybrid kit, which is scheduled to go into production in early 2014 and cost about $10,000, bolts onto an existing vehicle's powertrain and promises a boost of up to 50% in fuel economy. The Arizona-based company, which is building the unit in Anderson, Ind., showcased one at this year's Work Truck Show, held on March 6-8 in Indianapolis.

Hybrid power has been available for commercial trucks for years but mainly on new vehicles whose high price point has kept adoption low. Echo aims to change the game. "The market is saying, 'We want this, but it's got to be cheaper,' " says John Formisano, a former fleet manager for FedEx Express, where he maintained 100,000 vehicles. "If you want to get a couple more years out of your vans and save fuel, this is a retrofit solution."

The hybrid system, which can be built with or without a plug, weighs about 500 lb and contains an electric motor, an inverter and battery modules with ratings of up to 9.2 kWh. Most any fleet shop can perform the installation in hours, Echo executives say. Non-plug units promise 25% fuel-economy gains. Plug-in units get 50%, which translates into 20 mpg on a truck that usually gets just 13 mpg.

Available initially for Ford E-Series vans, the unit takes advantage of regenerative braking without replacing the existing powertrain. Echo says users can see a payback in as little as two years.