Jonathan Hawley takes the French option to check out the new Transit Custom from Ford

Paris is the city of light, a place for romantics and romance, of long walks through the Tuileries garden, a coffee by the Seine, an evening at a bistro followed perhaps by a nightclub and home to a snug apartment. We all know the score: it’s probably the world’s most beautiful city and that’s why everyone wants to visit.

But on a cold winter’s morning in the outer suburbs with the rain pelting down there’s nothing particularly different about Paris apart from the fact I’m fresh off the plane, have just picked up a new Transit Custom from Ford’s French headquarters and am sitting on the side of the road trying to change the in-built navigation’s command screen to a language I can understand. There’s still a 300 km drive to negotiate, French drivers are acting like they’re late for lunch and I’m in their way, and rear vision in dense traffic is naturally limited. It’s all looking about as romantic as a plumber’s hairy bum-crack.

Ford-Custom_1It’s still pretty exciting, and not just because this is my first crack at the Transit Custom – a smaller, more convenient and supposedly car-like version of the new Transit due out in Australia in a couple of months. My destination is the Loire Valley southwest of Paris, and a rather large house that looks like being called home for the foreseeable future. Actually, it’s a real live French chateau: an enormous, rambling building built mainly in the 17th century, which, after a year of negotiations, has my name, and those of a bunch of friends, imprinted on the title documents.

The Chateau de Jalesnes is a renovation project, one that has stretched the finances but will hopefully fulfil a long-held dream to live and work in rural France in a style to which I’m certainly not accustomed. The idea is to provide apartment space for owners and paying guests. With around 2000 square metres of floor space, and who-knows how many rooms, all in need of a total interior refit, it’s not an easy lifestyle option. But then, who said life was meant to be easy?

But, back to the van. This early on in the project, and armed only with a half-baked idea that a commercial vehicle would be handy for carting stuff around – a new fridge, furniture, a barrel of the local red when dawning reality finally comes a-knocking – a couple of weeks with the Transit Custom seemed like a good idea.

Ford Australia has brought forward the local launch of the Custom prior to the entire Transit range arriving before June. Instead of the usual full-sized box, the Custom is less than five metres long, has been styled to look nice while maintaining a high level of practicality thanks to more than 2.5 metres of load length, and a reasonable 871 kg payload.

Mechanically, it is driven by its front wheels (the full-size Transit is rear-driven) and comes with Ford’s 2.2-litre diesel tuned with the middle-range of outputs available in Europe, meaning there’s 92 kW of power at 3500 rpm and 350 Nm of torque at just 1450 rpm.

Yet it’s designed to give a more car-like ownership experience than the average van, so comes with an interior that won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s driven one of Ford’s European car offerings, such as the Focus, Fiesta or Mondeo. Stuff like voice recognition for command prompts (and yes, I did find the English version), Bluetooth connectivity, rain sensing wipers and a lane-keeping alert are all part of its repertoire.Ford-Custom_9

Despite all this, things get off to a shaky start between the Custom and me when we finally hit the freeway. I try cranking speed up to the 130 km/h limit and it levels out at an even 115km/h with some kind of speed limiter obviously retarding forward progress. Initially thinking it was some kind of weird French transport safety initiative, I sat back in the slow lane to enjoy the view.

Then, realising every second car in the overtaking lanes was a van of some description, I decided to hit Google and find out what was happening. The culprit was the “Economy” button next to the instrument binnacle that limits speed and therefore fuel consumption, but opting for the alternative we continued southwards at a faster clip.

There’s no doubting the Transit Custom is a comfortable cruiser, with extremely tall gearing meaning the engine is right on its torque peak in sixth gear at about 100 km/h. It’s also reasonably quiet – apart, in this particular instance, for a bevy of suitcases sliding about on the vinyl-lined floor given I’d nothing to anchor them to the eight handy tie-down points.

At the chateau there was plenty of work for the Transit to do, none of it particularly what was originally envisaged. Because the building has extensive grounds, there’s plenty of grass, all of which was let run wild by the previous owner, and it looked a mess. In stepped our neighbour from the farm next door with his tractor and slasher to tidy it up, which, together with piles of debris from previous gardening expeditions, meant piles of branches and grass needed moving to a potential bonfire site.

And no, we didn’t fill the Transit with piles of mouldering crap, but managed to borrow a tandem trailer to do the job. Not only did the Transit have a towbar, but it quickly became obvious the reversing camera mounted just above the tow ball was extremely handy for hooking it up accurately. With the camera’s display projected on the interior rear-view mirror, it’s also useful for reversing up to potential load items and avoiding otherwise invisible objects and pedestrians.

Things got more serious when it came to putting a real load in the back. We needed a ride-on lawnmower, and, after tracking down a second-hand unit about 50 km away, set out to pick it up. With a lifting tailgate opening to bumper level and a couple of planks to drive the mower on board, there were no dramas at all, and the 1775 mm load width meant it fitted with room to spare. Tied down to protect the interior from the moving load it travelled safely home with the cruise control set on 130 km/h and Cold Chisel belting out of the Bluetooth-enabled iPhone connection. Something about a working class van, I think.

Ford-Custom_2Over the following week, the Transit Custom started to reveal some of the smaller features that made it so appealing. There’s a load-through facility from the rear via a hatch between the front seats in case extra long objects need to be fitted in. Cabin storage is excellent, especially for the mountains of coins needed when your Australian credit card doesn’t work on French toll roads. There’s an upright smartphone holder on the centre console, deep door pockets and even more bins for pens, receipts and note pads.

The Transit Custom’s relatively compact dimensions were also a bonus, given that French parking spots are not designed for large cars. It will fit into anything that something the size of (say) a Commodore can manage, and, at 1975 mm high, can just squeeze into multistorey car parks with a 2.0-metre height limit. Aiding that is a clever modular roof rack system that can be added, subtracted and stored within the vehicle as needed.

Given that the bigger Transit can, in any of its wheelbase or roof-size variations, be a little too large for some potential customers who don’t need a heavy-duty haulage van, it’s easy to see the attraction of the Custom’s size, its civilised features and even the pleasant styling if that’s important. Time spent with it in an unfamiliar country, taking part in a renovation project that is barely underway, certainly showed it has the cargo-carrying credentials to be a serious commercial vehicle at the same time.

The chateau has plenty more work left in it before opening to the public in a year or so; with the Transit Custom, Ford has already hit a sweet spot in the world of mid-size vans.

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