Brenton O’Connor takes the wheel of the Ford Transit Custom SWB Auto.

The van market has changed dramatically in recent years. It was not that long ago that the van offerings in Australia were limited to Japanese cabover van designs (where the driver sits on top of the front axle, and the engine is underneath the drivers cabin), and, as such, there was no bonnet. Fast forward to today, and drivers are spoilt for choice with numerous manufactures now offering vehicles in this hotly contested segment, with numerous offerings from Europe, Japan, South Korea and now China.

Most of the manufactures have now moved to the semi-bonneted van design or SBV, with a short, sloped bonnet design resulting from the position of the engine now being set further forward, to enable across-cab access for the driver. This benefits the driver who gains from improved cab access and egress, higher comfort levels, better ergonomics and perhaps most importantly, increased safety protection.

Unlike Holden, Ford has maintained its participation in the light commercial market through the famous Transit Van range, which has consistently maintained its position on the forecourts of Ford dealerships across Australia. Always a popular choice, in recent years Transit sales have suffered through the lack of availability of an automatic transmission, leaving van buyers to change gears manually if they wanted a Ford oval badge on the bonnet.

Delivery recently tested the current Transit Custom model in short wheelbase (SWB) guise and fitted with the new driveline that matches a new diesel engine to a new six-speed automatic transmission.

The Transit Custom provided for evaluation was certainly distinctive, being reminiscent of the rainbow flag covered in a multitude of colours to demonstrate the wide variety of paint options available. In total, 100 custom colours are available for selection, which is likely to provide a hit with customers looking to differentiate their business from the standard white van in the high street.

It’s been many years since Ford has offered its Transit with a full automatic transmission and this unit comes complete with a torque converter – not an automated manual (AMT) as offered by other manufacturers. This automatic transmission is a six-speed offering that includes a manual mode so that the driver can make the gear changes by way of a button on the side of the dash-mounted transmission selection lever. 

At the time of its launch, Ford Australia CEO and president, Graeme Whickman, said, “The arrival of an automatic variant for Transit and Transit Custom widens our small business opportunities and expands consideration to include large fleet and government buyers.  The expansion to include an automatic transmission positions the Transit Custom to now compete in 85 percent of the medium van segment compared to 34 per cent previously”.

In a word, the new transmission is brilliant. The gear changes are seamless and it has sufficient ‘smarts’ to select the right gear at the right time.

In top gear (6th), the vehicle was doing just over 2000 rpm at speeds of 100 km/h and provided for effortless performance. The only slight annoyance was with the layout of the gear selection, with it being P-R-N-D-M. As such, when moving from Park to Drive in one swift action, I would often find myself selecting M (manual) rather than Drive.

Under the short, slopey bonnet is Ford’s new 2.0-litre EcoBlue engine, pumping out 96 kW and 350 Nm of torque. It’s good news for the buyer, as this engine is up 4 percent in power and 10 percent in torque against the Euro 5 engine it supersedes. Service intervals on the new engine range have increased a whopping 100 percent to 12 months/30,000 km (whichever occurs first).

Dependent on the model chosen, buyers can select from three final-drive ratios for the automatic transmission, with 3.940:1 for the 290S SWB, 4.430:1 for the 340L LWB and 3.65:1 for the Transit 350L LWB.

Alongside the increases in power and torque, Ford is also claiming 10 percent gains in fuel economy, lower emissions and increased service intervals. The new engines meet Euro 6 emission reduction levels with AdBlue (SCR) technology. Whilst not yet mandated in Australia by law, Ford is future-proofing its van offerings by moving to Euro 6 ahead of the government mandating its introduction. The lowest CO2 emissions level in the Transit range is now 165 g/km, and the size of the AdBlue tank is 21 litres, enabling continuous travel between topping up of 9000-11,000 km.

AdBlue should not be considered problematic by the driver and is something with which motorists will quickly become familiar.

The AdBlue warning is displayed in the instrument cluster and works in three stages. At 2400 km before empty, a warning is displayed. At 1200 km before empty, an additional amber warning is displayed on the dash, in addition to a warning chime every five minutes of driving. If the vehicle is still driven, and the tank becomes completely empty despite the dash and audible warnings, the vehicle will continue to run until switched off.

On paper, 96 kW might sound potentially lacking in power. Fortunately this was not the case at all, with the new EcoBlue engine keeping up with both stop/start city traffic and extended country freeway driving with ease. With some preparation, overtaking can be made relatively fuss-free. The engine delivers its power smoothly and without excessive noise or vibration. Only when the accelerator pedal is buried deeply into the floor does the engine become somewhat noisy as it heads for its redline of 4500 rpm.

Fuel economy proved to be quite good, with an overall consumption of 7.4 litres per 100 km recorded over a total distance of 799 km that included a mixture of both city driving and also country runs at freeway speeds of 110 km/hr. The official fuel consumption figure is stated to be 6.4 l/100 km.

Ride and handling of the Transit proved to be excellent. The van provided was empty of any cargo, and, as such, the ride from the rear of the van was a little firm.

Every Transit Custom and Transit on sale in Australia has a payload of more than one tonne. In Transit Custom Automatic, it’s 1035-1334 kg, and for Transit 350L LWB with the Automatic, payload is 1231 kg (mid-roof) and 1203 kg (high-roof). Across the entire range, payload is 1025-2227 kg.

From a ride and handling perspective, hard cornering could be achieved without any indication of instability. This impression was reinforced by the standard fit dynamic stability control and rollover mitigation technology that provided extra reassurance, as well as raising safety levels for a novice driver in the unlikely event anything should go wrong.

Access in and out of the van could be improved with the addition of grab handles on both the A and B pillars. For climbing into the driver’s seat I could use the steering wheel to help pull me in, but entering the passenger side was somewhat difficult as there isn’t the luxury of the steering wheel to be used as grab handle.

Once seated, I quickly found the travel of the seat was limited due to the standard fit bulkhead located firmly behind the driver’s bucket seat and the two-seat passenger bench seat. Furthermore, the passenger bench seat was very upright and it was not possible to tilt the seat back due to the bulkhead located hard up against the seats.

There is a case in countries such as Australia where the population tends to be taller to position the bulkhead further back to create a more comfortable experience, especially over long distances, also enabling the seats to be tilted and provide deeper adjustment rearwards.

Losing some seat adjustment due to the fitment of a bulkhead does, however, bring other benefits. Drivers of vans without bulkheads will know all too well the difficulties of both cooling and heating their vans due to the large areas and limited insulation in the cargo area. The bulkhead allows the heating and cooling system to operate with ease. Standard fit seat heating was also a nice touch.

Interior appointments of the Transit were both classy and high quality. The leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel felt nice to hang onto throughout the day and provided adjustment for both height and reach.

Storage options in the cabin were superb, with bottle holders in the door pockets and cupholders in the dash. The van tested was also fitted with the optional City Nav Pack, with a colour five-inch screen located centrally in the dash. The system provides navigation, front and rear parking sensors, reverse camera and also front fog lights. Ford’s SYNC entertainment system was also very impressive, with more than satisfactory sound quality provided through the standard fit speakers.

The availability of a fully automatic transmission will propel Ford into areas in which it could not previously compete. As a result, the Transit is now clearly on the shopping list for fleet purchase and individual buyers that stipulate an ‘automatic only’ vehicle purchasing policy. In addition, the Transit’s technology, comfort and efficiency put it up amongst the best van offerings available.

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