SWIFTER SHIFTER | REVIEW FORD TRANSIT-AUTOMATIC

Ford adds an automatic transmission to selected models in the Transit line-up

can be a challenging commodity, especially when long-serving employees that have a wealth of personal knowledge finally retire, taking that deep understanding of the company and its business with them to enjoy as memories and to share their superannuation.

Consequently, when Ford Australia chose to launch the latest variant of the European award-winning Transit with a six-speed automatic transmission, it erroneously highlighted the “fake news” that the latest release heralded the first time an automatic had been available in the product range.

Well, in some ways the statement could be considered correct. It is the first time an automatic transmission has been available in the Transit Custom model. But in terms of being the first Transit of any type to offer a self-shifting alternative to a manual gearbox, nothing was further from the truth.

As any Australia Post van driver will confirm, The Royal Mail was being delivered up until around 2005 in turbo-diesel Transits, and if my memory serves me well, when Transit sported the 4.1-litre petrol six-cylinder shared with the Falcon at least a decade earlier, it was also available with an automatic option.

For those that don’t care about semantics, and just want to enjoy a Transit without having to select their gears manually, here’s the deal.

It’s called the six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission, and it’s available for the Transit Custom and Transit respectively, matched to three versions of Ford’s new 2.0-litre EcoBlue diesel engine, with Auto Start-Stop as standard.

In Great Britain, despite the onset of Brexit, or maybe because of it, Ford recorded its highest ever CV sales of 118,000 in 2016, achieving 51 years of UK CV sales leadership, and continues to extend this in 2017.

It’s not the same success story in Australia, where Ford has missed out on is market penetration for Transit through not having had a suitable automatic transmission on its books.

Transit Custom is positioned at holding 5.7 percent of market share, performing better than the LDV G10, slightly ahead of the Mercedes-Benz Vito (5.5 percent), and following the Renault Trafic and VW Transporter. Total sales of these contenders are way behind the market leaders of Hyundai iLOAD and Toyota’s HiAce. That’s why the automatic transmission option is so important, as Australia is very much a self-shifting market preference.

So, for the traditional Ford lover the “focus” (no pun intended) for light commercials in the Australian market remains confined to medium-sized Transit Custom and the larger, more traditionally-sized Transit van.

Aussie Transit buyers can opt for the front-wheel-drive Transit Custom 290 SWB and 340L LWB, plus the larger Transit 350L Van, or alternatively choose the rear-wheel-drive Transit 350E Jumbo and 470E Jumbo Van to enjoy the enhanced comfort and accessibility in city driving thanks to the new option for a six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission in place of the standard manual gearbox.

This new transmission can be specified with the 96 kW and 125 kW versions of the Ford 2.0-litre, EcoBlue TDCi front-wheel-drive engine. Maximum power is produced at 3500 rpm, with peak torque of 385 Nm and 405 Nm rated at 1500-2000 rpm and 1750-2500 rpm respectively. Auto Start-Stop is included on all variants.

The transmission has been specially engineered for the Transit functionality, a new torque converter and external casing to optimise refinement has been included, and is based on a highly hard-wearing design that has proven itself with formidable front-wheel-drive vehicles in North America, with a torque capacity of more than 415 Nm. There are three final drive ratio on offer with 3.940:1 (290S SWB), 4.430:1 (340L LWB) and 3.65:1 (350L LWB).

Exclusive calibration ensures that the transmission is perfectly matched to the torque delivery of the Ford EcoBlue diesel engine, giving responsive performance together with better than might be expected fuel economy, and CO2 emissions as low as 165 g/km on Transit Custom. The transmission is also intuitive and can sense when the vehicle is on a road with a steep gradient, or transporting a heavy load, at which point it can tweak the shifting strategy for optimal efficiency.

The electronically-controlled transmission provides smooth and fast gear changes – with average shift times of less than 0.5 seconds – and the SelectShift facility offers the choice of manual shifting for enhanced control using a button mounted on the side of the gear lever. The Auto Start-Stop feature has been tuned to meet the needs of commercial vehicle customers, with an on-demand electric pump to keep transmission pressure so that the driver can pull away as soon as the engine has re-started.

The Auto Stop/Start feature only works when the driver maintains pressure on the brake pedal after coming to a halt. If the driver sets the park brake and removes their foot from the brake pedal, the engine instantly restarts.

The 2.0-litre EcoBlue diesel engine is an in-line four-cylinder mounted transversely east/west across the front of the vehicle with the new six-speed transaxle underneath.

With an aluminium cylinder head sitting atop a cast iron block, the engine sports Ford’s common-rail management system running at 2000 bar injection pressure projected through eight-hole Piezoelectric injectors and uses SCR (Selective Catalytic Reduction) with urea injection and an oxidation catalyst with a DPF (Diesel Particulate Filter) as standard, together with high-pressure EGR (Exhaust Gas Recycling), to reduce emissions level to match Euro 6 requirements.

Mention urea to a heavy-truck operator and they already know what to expect. However, SCR, Euro 6, AdBlue/DEF (Diesel Exhaust Fluid), DPF and EGR have not currently been part of the light commercial vehicle scene. But, they will be increasingly so in the very near future.

In order to reduce emissions outputs to cleaner and greener energy targets, Transit buyers will also be keeping an eye out for an AdBlue/DEF dispenser in the local fuel stop. AdBlue/DEF are the marketing names for urea, a liquid that is injected into the exhaust system downstream from the turbocharger, to start a chemical reaction that reduces the emissions and cuts NOx.

Most engines will use AdBlue/DEF on a ratio of around three percent to that of distillate, meaning that a full AdBlue tank of 21 litres will need topping up approximately every 9,000 – 11,000 km. Just like filling up a windscreen washer reservoir, the AdBlue/DEF liquid is poured into its own tank through its own filler cap that’s mounted alongside the diesel filler cap.

While congratulating yourself on you purchase of a van with such green credentials, if you don’t top up your tank when necessary, the engine management system will display a warning at 2,400km before empty, repeat the warning at 1,200km before empty, plus an additional amber warning light and a warning chime every five minutes of driving. If the tank becomes empty it will conitn ue to run until switched off. And no, you can’t fill the tank with just water or any other substitute without facing a long walk home.

The 2.0-litre EcoBlue engine has a host of technical features that contribute to low fuel consumption, such as a low-friction camshaft drive belt with a dynamic tensioner and a variable geometry turbocharger with electric actuation. Fuel consumption of the 96 kW version is shown as 6.4 l/100km.

With a kerb weight that starts around 1,905-2,013kg, Transit models boasts payloads ranging from 1,025 – 2,227kg., and you can tow a braked trailer weighing in at up to 2,800 kg. Interior load space for the different roof heights come in at 5.95 cubic metres for the low-roof and 6.83 cubic metres for the high-roof, based on an interior length of 3,533 mm or 4,256mm for the Jumbo Van. By lifting a flap in the lower left corner of the fixed bulkhead that’s accessed from the cargo area it’s possible to gain an extra 530 mm in length for stowing pipes and other long items that slide in from the rear under the passenger seat. Interior cubic capacity for the Transit Van is 11.0 cubic metres for the low roof and 15.1 cubic metres for the high roof.

The on-road ride and handling standards are more than acceptable for a mid-range light commercial, using the relatively standard set-up of independent MacPherson struts and variable-rate coil springs for the front end, and leaf springs at the rear. The steering is well weighted and uses a rack and pinion, power-assisted unit with the wheel adjustable for reach and rake.

Front and rear disc brakes are standard, and there are safety features such as trailer sway control and wind stability control along with electronic stability control and automatic hazard light actuation on full brake emergency application.

Some missing items in the previous Transit Custom spec chart have now been addressed, and buyers can opt for sliding side load doors on each side, plus a tailgate at the rear in place of standard barn doors. In typical Ford fashion there are additional interior feature packs available, such as a City Nav pack with rear-vision camera, adding to the standard spec of a 4.0-inch multifunction display colour screen.

The cabin is spacious and allows across cab access with more than usual legroom for the centre passenger when using the dual passenger seat. All occupants benefit from having lap/sash diagonal inertia reel seat belts. One noticeable detractor is the higher brake pedal position, which is above the accelerator height and can become uncomfortable when braking regularly in heavy traffic.

Service intervals are every 30,000 km or 12 months. An increase from 15,000 km periods offered on the previous models.

Choosing a precise Transit Custom or larger Transit Van or cab/chassis model requires a clear and alert mind as the brochure covers all the versions of both models. Personal choice is further complicated by the different body sizes, roof heights and engine options, plus some models are front-wheel-drive and others are rear-wheel-drive. In the cab/chassis line-up there are also single-cab and dual-cab alternatives.

BACK HOME IN EUROPE

Back home in Europe, there’s a wider selection of models than we are ever likely to see on Australian shores. The recent UK Commercial Vehicle Show displayed the latest Transit Custom Sport Van series, which is now available as a L2 van and a L1 or L2 double-cab in van variant.

It features a tricked up bulging bicep style of muscular body kit, a fully colour-coded exterior with body-side mouldings and wheel arch extensions. Two-tone silver and black 17 in wheels and twin bonnet stripes in a contrasting colour further enhance the exterior.

Add to that spec with partial leather trim and technologies as standard including rear-view camera and lane keeping aid and you start to enter the minds of the English, as they tend to like adding a bit of visual excitement to the van market, rather than staying with the basic version.

The Poms also play around with the suspension, adding a new thicker front anti-roll bar and the addition of a rear anti-roll bar, combined with softer rear springs and unique damper tuning with firmer setting on the rear, all of which improves roll control. The DCiV has different spring and damper settings, which are optimised for handling and rear-passenger comfort.

Another unit on display at the UK CV Show stand was the Transit Courier Sport Van with distinctive exterior styling including skid plates, twin body contrast stripes and black-painted power/heated door mirrors. It is available with either the 100 PS 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol engine or the 95PS 1.5-litre TDCi diesel engine.

Ford also featured the fourth-generation Intelligent AWD Transit that has been re-engineered to deliver improved capabilities in combination with the new Ford EcoBlue engine. The enhanced driveline design that combines the front differential and AWD coupling into a single, compact unit reduces weight by 10 kg and allows the driveline to be packaged more effectively around the EcoBlue engine.

Over in Germany, Deutsche Post subsidiary StreetScooter GmbH and Ford-Werke GmbH are entering a partnership for the manufacturing of battery-electric delivery vehicles.

European cities are looking seriously at EV (Electric Vehicle) alternatives for inner city operation. Deutsche Post has already left its mark in the smaller van segment by designing and producing the emission-free StreetScooter, planning to build 20,000 units per year at its factory in Aachen and another site in North Rhine-Westphalia. Meanwhile, both partners are working on a larger vehicle type and using the chassis of the Ford Transit as the technical base. It will be equipped with a battery-electric drivetrain and fitted with a special body construction based on Deutsche Post and DHL Paket specifications.

The start of production is scheduled for July 2017. Before the end of 2018, at least 2500 vehicles will support the urban delivery traffic of Deutsche Post DHL Group. With this volume, the joint project will become the largest manufacturer of battery-electric medium-duty delivery vehicles in Europe.

Both Deutsche Post DHL Group and Ford share the same objective of building future mobility by reducing emissions and creating new traffic solutions. This partnership is an important and tangible step towards achieving these goals.

For a manufacturer to make a success out of its light commercial range it needs a different type of corporate enthusiasm from those tasked with selling passenger cars.

Holden threw in the towel completely after it canned the Isuzu supplied Holden Shuttle and the car-derived smaller Holden Combo, that managed to look increasingly ugly until the final model in the series. No matter that its General Motors parent could have supplied Australian dealers with the Movano or Vivaro that the UK re-badged from Renault, not withstanding that now the Vauxhall brand has been flogged off to the French and the PSA Group.

To understand the features and benefits of LCVs the sales personnel have to work with light commercials, drive them every day, and understand how each model fits into the daily work task. It requires much higher skills than selling a car on colour or bling, but the rewards are there for those that make it a career.

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