Dave Whyte puts the new Transit Custom through its paces in the Melbourne traffic.
The humble delivery van has come in for a huge update over recent years, with the basic workhorse now offering comfort and features to rival some family cars.
For the long days spent in city traffic, or on country roads, the “white van man” now has all the technology to not only make life more enjoyable, but also a lot easier. From satellite navigation and in-built reversing cameras to Bluetooth hands-free connectivity and premium audio systems, the delivery van market is now just as focused on driver comforts as it is on the ability of the vehicle to work. Even with all of this technology on board, however, if the basics of the vehicle aren’t right, the on the job experience won’t be a good one.
The Ford Transit van has a long and well-documented history, with consistently good sales figures and strong customer acceptance. As a competitor in a hard fought market, it has stood up over time as a real crowd favourite, due to its reliability and versatility.
The fact that it wears a Ford badge probably doesn’t hurt sales figures either. For many years, it was the only serious European contender in the Australian light van market, surrounded by offerings from Japanese manufacturers, but that situation has now changed. With an increasing number of European and even Chinese competitors coming to our shores, Ford now has to fight harder than ever to maintain the Transit’s popularity. In a tough business environment, buyers are looking for performance, reliability, and, now more than ever, value for money.
The latest incarnation of the Ford Transit comes in the shape of the Transit Custom. Powered by a 2.2-litre, four-cylinder, turbo diesel engine, which delivers 92 kW and 350 Nm of torque, the Transit Custom comes as standard with a six-speed manual transmission and is driven through the front wheels.
The environment in the cab is very comfortable, with seating for three adults, although the centre seat is slightly narrower than the two outside ones. Access is easy, with wide opening doors and a single step to help you into the seat. The backrest of the middle seat folds forward to provide a small table surface and extra cup holders, but I found it bounces a little on rougher roads, and in my case led to a coffee spill. The other drink holders in the dash are well placed and large enough to hold the obligatory insulated cup, and are within easy reach. A compartment on top of the dash, right in front of the driver, contains a cigarette lighter type socket and a USB socket, to power your gadgets without the need to have wires running throughout the cab.
Vision out the front is excellent, with the steep bonnet barely visible from the drivers seat. Rearward vision using the centre-mounted mirror is severely limited by the small window in the rear cab wall and the large central pillars in the rear doors. In fact, it was common to discover a car behind me that I couldn’t see at all. The side mirrors provide good vision down either side, and, after a little use, become the main method of telling what is behind the van. The interior mirror is really only useful when reverse gear is selected, as it also contains the display for the reversing camera.
Vision through the steering wheel to the gauges is clear, with a central screen displaying information from the on-board computer, which is operated using controls mounted on the steering wheel. The centre of the dash is dedicated to the audio and phone controls, which can also be operated using steering-wheel-mounted controls. In fact, I think the Transit Custom steering wheel has more buttons and controls than any other steering wheel I’ve ever laid my hands on! An LCD screen displays the current audio settings or call information, and is easily readable day or night.
While Ford claims the Transit Custom is the most powerful van in its class, the power is only really useful above 1500 rpm. Now, this may sound fairly normal, but the final gearing on the Transit means that moving off from a standstill can be difficult, especially when loaded, and also leads to over-revving the engine in lower gears to allow for smooth acceleration and gear changes.
I have been driving manual cars, trucks and vans for a long time now, but it’s been a long time since I have stalled a vehicle as frequently as I did while driving the Transit. Once moving, however, this van really wants to go. I found that by driving the Transit aggressively (high revs, rapid gear changes) the van would get motivated easily. However, when I tried to drive it more fuel efficiently, it just didn’t seem interested in performing. I also found that sixth gear was reserved for speeds of over 90 kmh, and would result in the occasional over-speed if I wasn’t careful. Given that the engine was running at such low revs, the noise in the cab was minimal, and so I learned to keep a close eye on the speedometer.
Access to the load area is good, with a wide sliding door on the passenger side and double doors at the rear, which open up to the full width and height of the load space. The big omission here is the option of a sliding door on the drivers side, meaning the driver needs to walk around the van every time they want to access the load. There are plenty of tie-down points available, anchored into the frame, and the plastic floor would appear to be easily replaceable should the need arise. While the sidewalls of the load area were lined with timber, the gaps between the frame and lining at the rear were left open. This left the wiring harness for the rear lights exposed, and would be a concern for me, especially if loading “loose” freight that may cause damage.
So while the Transit Custom may offer all the latest technology and driver comfort, there are some basic areas that let it down when considering the overall picture. The decision by Ford to offer Australian customers the lowest power rating from the 2.2-litre engine does create some questions, especially given the issues with low speed driveability. Perhaps these problems could be solved with a change in final drive ratio. The other big question I have is why there is no option for a driver’s side sliding door into the load area? It is available in other markets, but the product planners at Ford’s Broadmeadows head office have chosen to ignore its advantages.
In a tight market, with plenty of competition, these few fundamental issues could be the downfall of the Transit. While it is still a strong performer, with plenty of techno gadgetry, it’s the workability that most people would consider most important. It would seem that in the quest for customer acceptance, Ford might have lost sight of practicality.