Ford has entered one of the busiest and crucial years in its commercial vehicle history with the springboard of the What Van? Van of the Year prize behind it.
The 1.0-tonne Transit Custom has raised the bar in terms of refinement, performance and practical innovation not just in the medium van sector but for LCVs across the board. It was nailed on to scoop the top gong.
Ford Britain’s sales director Andy Barratt (pictured) welcomes the award as an “external recognition of our quality and performance”.
“It’s an endorsement of what our engineers set out to create,” he adds.
Barratt says the What Van? award can also be used productively by the Blue Oval’s dealers to give extra kudos to sales presentations.
Barratt claims Ford is the premium player in the CV market and says the Transit is the van all other manufacturers aspire to match, with a brand name its rivals can only envy.
“Van drivers drive a Transit,” he says, “not a Ford.”
He insists commercial vehicles run through the DNA of everyone who works at Ford Motor Company in the UK, and sheds light on the manufacturer’s current overhaul of its product line-up by declaring: “You don’t stay market leader for 47 years by standing still.”
The Transit Custom is a good deal sleeker than the current medium- sized Transit, and Barratt says: “It presents a challenge visually – you think it’s smaller than it is. It’s stylish, economical and has car-like dynamics.” He also admits the Custom’s sophisticated cabin, which is modelled on passenger cars such as the Focus, will present something of a culture shock to some CV operators.
Having delivered the UK’s first Custom to the owner of a Lincoln window-cleaning firm, Barratt says Ford is currently launching the van to fleets, having built up a good level of stock in dealerships, which will continue to offer the previous generation mid-sized Transit.
Despite the economic pressure that pushed down sales last year (Ford finished 2012 11% down year-on-year with 62,000 LCVs sold), Barratt is looking on the bright side. He observes: “Housebuilding is up a bit – we will start to see growth.”
The Custom wasn’t the Blue Oval’s only winner in the What Van? Awards as the much-garlanded new Ranger took the honour in the pick-up category.
Ford is set to strengthen its position further by increasing the truck’s towing weight limit from 3.35 to 3.5 tonnes. While the new Ranger is considerably more refined than its predecessor, with a view to making its mark in the lifestyle sector, the increase in its already class-leading towing capacity will go down well with customers in industries such as farming, Barratt says, adding: “If I could get more of them I could sell more of them.”
Ford’s recent commercial vehicle launches show the brand has recognised that customers are becoming more style-conscious, but Barratt points out they are still also concerned with “durability and whole-life costs”.
Under the global One Ford product strategy, the manufacturer has invested £3bn in its CV portfolio. New models are now developed to be suitable for sale in Europe, North America and other markets worldwide. As a result, the 2.0-tonne Transit, a vastly different looking beast to its smaller sibling, the Custom (more utilitarian, Barratt says), will be available in the US for the first time where it will replace the current E-series.
The new Transit Connect will also be sold in the US. It is based on the C-segment platform that produces passenger cars such as the Focus and Kuga and will feature the 1.0-litre Ecoboost petrol engine as well as the 1.6-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel powertrain with power outputs of 75, 95 and 115hp.?It will come in short- and long-wheelbase body styles.
Barratt baulks at the suggestion that the Custom’s advanced levels of performance and refinement now make it a natural rival for the sector’s more polished performers like the VW Transporter and Mercedes Vito.
“We think the van occupies a clear white space,” he says. “We like to believe we’re ahead on quality, durability, fit and finish.”
He admits dealers had previously lost customers to more stylish but less durable vans but claims: “They couldn’t wait to come back to the Transit.”
Sales between the little and large Transits will split roughly 50/50 and Barratt promises chassis cab versions of the 2.0-tonner will push Ford further into niche markets.
He says the new minibus version has up to 18 seats with improved access, which he reckons will make it popular with the NHS. He also anticipates greater demand for motorhome conversions.
Barratt claims Ford’s current commercial vehicle product onslaught is unprecedented.
“Never in our history have we had so many new CVs,” he says, which is an endorsement of the brand’s “investment and confidence” in its customers.
The facelifted Fiesta van went on sale in January followed by the Transit Custom in February. The 2.0-tonne Transit will arrive in early 2014 together with the second- generation Transit Connect, and hot on the heels of these two will be the small Transit Courier van, which will give Ford a presence in the expanding city van segment.
Barratt expects growth in the light and small van sectors as operators, such as the Post Office, look to downsize as they no longer require such large payload and load volume capacities.
Ford unveiled the Transit Custom at the 2012 Commercial Vehicle Show and at this year’s event it will display the flagship Sport Van derivative of the van. It is powered by a Dagenham-built 155hp version of Ford’s 2.2-litre Duratorq diesel engine.
Barratt is adamant that Ford’s decision to close down its Southampton plant, which made 28,000 Transits annually – about 20% of the total number – would not adversely affect the nation’s goodwill towards the company. He points out the factory is housed within a listed building and therefore cannot be significantly altered to increase its capacity. He also claims Ford has put in place a “robust social plan” to support its employees and no compulsory redundancies will be made at Southampton. From July 2013 all Transits will be produced in Ford’s factory in Kocaeli, Turkey.
“Most vans come in from abroad anyway,” Barratt says. He adds that 80% of all vehicles built in the UK are exported whereas 70% of UK vehicle sales are imports.
He also says that although vehicle assembly may gravitate towards the most economical locations, Ford’s Dunton Technical Centre in Essex, which houses 300 designers and engineers, remains the manufacturer’s intellectual hub.
Having led the UK market for half a century Ford is adept at moving with the times and it has put together a new product line-up that looks capable of continuing its dominance.
Like other manufacturers, Ford has recognised that commercial vehicle operators are increasingly demanding more flexible servicing packages to minimise the amount of time during working hours when vans are off the road and thus not making money for the business.
As a consequence it has introduced Transit 24, an around-the-clock servicing provision for its van customers operated from up to 100 dealerships.
In the event of a breakdown the service includes a ‘Load Continuation’ feature, which the brand claims is unique in the industry. Before taking the van in for repair the manufacturer guarantees that it will ensure its load reaches its destination.