The excellent Transit Custom is once more our Van of the Year and Ford also won a hat-trick of other awards. But, as James Dallas discovers, there’s no room for complacency at the market-dominating brand
Ford is the big winner in the 2014 What Van? Awards, with the medium-sized Transit Custom becoming the first model to scoop the overall Van of the Year prize for the second year in a row.
The blue oval brand also tops three other categories, with the Custom named top medium van, the Ranger taking the Pick-up prize and the Fiesta Van winning the Small Van section. In addition, Ford is Highly Commended in the Safety category – once more for the Transit Custom, which gained a maximum five-star crash test rating from Euro NCAP, matching the achievement of the Ranger 12 months earlier.
Anthony Ireson, Ford’s UK marketing boss, told What Van? the brand’s success in the prestigious awards was recognition of its achievement in developing a range of commercial vehicles that have aesthetic appeal for customers as well as meeting their practical, working requirements.
He credits French brands, particularly Renault, for originally developing vans that look as good as cars and says this is what customers now demand, and in addition they are no longer content to drive a vehicle that handles like a truck. “We trust the durability of the Transit brand but it’s also got style,” he says.
Ford carried out exhaustive market research in developing the Transit Custom and Ireson claims that, while customers invariably list features such as payload and load capacities as their chief concerns, they end up choosing the van that combines these with the best looks.
“We have hit the sweet spot of what they want,” he says.
This was not easy because, as Ireson points out, the design cues that attract buyers to passenger cars tend to compromise space – not an option for commercial vehicles. But by continuing the style lines from the front over the length of the vehicle, he claims the Custom’s cargo bay is “not just a box on the back”.
The sophistication of the interiors that characterise Ford’s new commercial vehicle line-up is indicated by the inclusion of Bluetooth communication technology across the Transit range. Ireson says it is important to owner/drivers running their businesses while on the road but also to major fleets concerned with duty of care obligations because of the new laws prohibiting the use of hand-held phones.
“Traditionally, the service, maintenance and repair numbers were more important to these customers,” he says.
Ireson dubs Ford’s ongoing CV product onslaught as the “Big Bang”. The Transit Connect light van follows the Ranger and Transit Custom to market and the new line-up will be completed by the end of the first quarter of 2014 with the arrivals of the Transit Courier small van and the two-tonne Transit – now deliberately styled and marketed as a distinctly different model to the one-tonne Transit Custom.
Ireson says: “The previous Transit was dominant but it needed a shake-up.”
The Transit Custom, in particular, is expected to attract retail as well as fleet buyers, although, according to Ford, the load-lugging larger van will continue to take more sales overall due to its strength in the corporate sector.
Ireson drew attention to the potential of the passenger carrying Tourneo Custom to attract new business, from hotel shuttles to camper van conversions.
Due to the historical dominance of the Mercedes Vito and VW Transporter in these sectors, he admits: “We did nothing in people carriers before.”
He reckons the smaller Tourneo Connect will interest taxi operators. “We are attacking these sectors now,” he says.
All for one
Ford of Britain no longer runs separate management teams for cars and LCVs. Ireson explains this is to avoid vans becoming marginalised.
“Everyone is responsible for cars and CVs. The market has fragmented and cars and vans are more similar,” he asserts.
The brand wants to escape from the perception that “cars are sexier” and also to banish the perception that LCVs form a niche segment - the Transit, Ireson points out, was the third biggest selling vehicle in the UK in August.
“We must acknowledge how big the Transit is to us,” he says.
Know your enemy
With Ford the clear and longstanding market leader in the UK’s light commercial vehicle sector there is a danger complacency could creep in. To guard against it the brand identifies a key competitor in each segment of the market.
“Internally we pick an enemy,” says Ireson and adds that “stay paranoid” is a popular maxim in the corridors of Ford’s Brentwood HQ.
Ford considers the Mercedes Sprinter as the two-tonne Transit’s chief rival in heavy vans.
“We know it (the Transit) is the best in class,” says Ireson, “so we must convince the customers we’re better than the Sprinter.”
Ford has another German brand’s model in its sights when it comes to the Transit Custom.
“The (VW) Transporter is the main rival. If we beat it on every level – that is success,” Ireson states.
At the other end of the scale in the small van sector, the Fiesta Van thrives on the back of the fine reputation of its passenger car twin – the UK’s best-selling vehicle.
As Ireson puts it: “It’s the best car that happens to be a van.”
With 55% of buyers opting for the flagship Sport Van, Ireson names the upmarket Mini Clubvan as the main rival rather than the Fiesta Van’s traditional competitor, the Vauxhall Corsa Van.
For this reason he says: “We’re delighted with the What Van? Award, now it (Fiesta Van) can be seen as the number one van in the segment.”
Ireson admits the arrival of the Transit Courier may attract some operators away from the Fiesta Van, but in response he borrows a line from former Ford of Europe boss Lewis Booth, “you may as well cannibalise yourself”.
Ireson argues that the best policy is to “just build what the customer wants – if we don’t build it someone else will”.
He describes the Courier, with its bigger load space and payload, as far more van-like than the Fiesta Van, which “is about carrying a person and some tools”.
He expects the Courier to find a market with blue chip fleets, and cites the recently-privatised Royal Mail, which currently uses the Peugeot Bipper, as an example.
The Courier will introduce the 1.0-litre petrol Ecoboost to the light commercial vehicle line-up, and with the impending introduction of Euro6 emissions standards placing pressure on diesel technology, the brand expects the Ecoboost to attract interest from low-mileage customers. The award-winning Ecoboost technology uses turbocharging to achieve the same power as larger engines for the economy of a smaller one.
Calm after the storm
Ireson claims the new Ranger has finally restored Ford’s share of the UK pick-up market to almost 20% after supplies were decimated when severe flooding in Thailand hit the components factory two years ago.
This led to an “unfortunate launch”, with top of the range Wildtrak customers in particular having a lengthy wait for deliveries.
Car-like driving characteristics mean Rangers are increasingly popular as dual use vehicles, according to Ford, and Ireson argues that, because of the growth in the 4x4/SUV market, pick-up owners are no longer viewed as being politically incorrect.
Rangers also find favour with “hardware customers who evaluate them to death”, such as utility firms, and Ford claims sales were up 50% in the first 10 months of the year to 3700 as supply was finally able to meet demand.
Due to its solid brand credibility, Ireson names the Toyota Hilux as the Ranger’s key competitor.
As well as aspiring to lead the field in product terms Ford is aiming to set the pace when it comes to customer service and aftersales. Its 100 Transit Centres strive to meet commercial as well as mechanical requirements.
The network tries to ensure customers end up with the right van depending on what they need to carry and what fits their funding preferences.
The Transit 24 package, while not offering around the clock servicing, endeavours to keep downtime to a minimum.
“Mercedes is the enemy here,” says Ireson, “they can utilise their truck network, but in our network van users are everything, they are not second class to trucks.”
Ford’s CV sales team has grown up with the brand and Ireson says the company took on 50 apprentices in 2013 and will recruit 50 more in 2014 to make sure their wealth of knowledge and expertise is passed on to a new generation. The competition has been warned – the market leader is in no mood to be pushed off its perch.