Ford Transit & Fiesta — March 2007

Date: Sunday, April 01, 2007

Anybody who doubts that Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) is the biggest aid to van safety since the arrival of ABS should have accompanied What Van? on its recent trip to the Prodrive test complex a few miles from Warwick.

 

ESP in Action

We took to the circuit in a selection of Ford Transits with ESP — a standard feature — in action and with it switched off. We were impressed with it already, but we were frankly astounded by its abilities as we slalomed around obstacles set up to simulate what happens if a child runs out into the road.

Developed by Bosch, Transit's ESP system is designed to stop the vehicle rolling over if the driver has to swerve violently in an emergency.

If it senses that the steering wheel is being yanked strongly in one direction or the other and the van is going way off course, then it starts to reduce engine power. If that doesn't solve the problem, then it brakes individual wheels as and when appropriate, gradually bringing the vehicle back under control. All this happens in fractions of a second.

The only problem with installing this sort of system in a light commercial is that it doesn't fully take into account the height, weight, and position of any cargo being carried. Realising this limitation, Bosch is now providing Transit with an updated version of ESP with load-adaptive control.

It calculates the gross weight of the vehicle by monitoring how it reacts when accelerating or braking. It also keeps an eye on how it behaves when it is being steered and the way in which this behaviour is affected by speed and the position of its centre of gravity.

With all this information on board it reacts in the same way as standard ESP, but earlier and with enhanced precision thanks to a better understanding of the van's exact situation. It's such a good package that it won What Van?'s Safety Award in 2006.

At Prodrive we started by going around a figure of eight course in a Transit with ESP in action. The whole exercise was drama free.

Then a Bosch engineer switched the ESP off and the van's mood instantly altered. The driver had far less control over the vehicle and at times had to fight to keep control.

After that we hammered down a long straight at high speed towards a row of cones, the aim being to swerve hard right, as if a toddler had wandered into the middle of the carriageway in front of us, without turning the Transit over. We did so without applying the service brakes — not easy when your right foot is aching to stamp on the pedal — and let the ESP take charge.

     
A laptop mounted on the van's dashboard and plumbed into the ESP system showed just how much work it was doing as the driver swung the wheel violently and the van began to lean. We stayed in control, however, missing the imaginary kiddie.

We repeated the exercise with the ESP switch in the off position. This time the Transit was all over the place and a novice driver would undoubtedly have lost it completely.

Would the toddler have died? Very probably, and almost definitely if we'd been driving a van of comparable size from some of the competition. That's because of the sheer quality of Transit's chassis design. Even without ESP, it ensures that Ford's best-seller handles a lot better than most of its rivals.

The whole exercise nonetheless served to confirm our view that ESP should be mandatory on all light commercials, along with ABS. Given that ABS is not yet a legal requirement, we're still a long way from that scenario; and that's a pity. OK, ESP is likely to add to the cost of a vehicle. But what price your neck?

Transit Connect   

Even without ESP light commercials do of course handle considerably better than the vans that were around 20 years ago. That's something we had underlined to us as we punted the latest Ford Transit Connect around Prodrive's demanding handling course.

We were driving the long wheelbase T230 LX powered by the new 110 bhp version of the 1.8-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel — the most powerful model in the Connect range — that debuted last year. Throwing it through bends and wrenching the wheel from lock to lock we were amazed by its ability to cling on to the road surface.

If you want a Connect with plenty of torque on tap, then this is the one to pick. It pumps out 206 lb/ft.

Fiesta Sportvan

Our favourite light commercial of the day, however, was the cute and quite quick Fiesta Sportvan. It comes with a 90 bhp 1.6-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel that's only available in this version of Fiesta Van. The package includes 16in 12-spoke alloy wheels, a colour-coded body kit which includes a high intake front grille and a tailgate spoiler, and comfortable seats that ensure you don't roll around as you steam into corners.

Not having driven a Fiesta for a while, we were immediately reminded of just how well it handles, and how precise the gear change is. With so much torque on tap —150 lb/ft — given its size, the little load lugger accelerates strongly and the gearshift is one of the most precise you're likely to encounter.

It's a good-looking package too, both inside and out, and at £9,995 not especially expensive given that ABS, driver and passenger airbags, electric windows, a CD player and a leather-covered steering wheel and gear knob are all included in the deal.

Any drawbacks? Too much wind noise and road roar from the rear. That aside, it's one of the best little vans we've ever come across.

Transit Shuttle Bus

On a different tack, Ford has also unveiled a nine-seater Transit Shuttle Bus designed for hotels and taxi companies with a need to shift luggage as well as people, not to mention a high roof 17-seater Transit minibus.

Its One Stop Shop range now additionally boasts a Transit 350M medium-wheelbase double cab tipper and a tipper version of the latest Ranger 4x4.

Transit XXL

Two daft vehicles present at Prodrive were the Connect XPress and the Transit XXL.

Complete with a power unit and brakes borrowed from the Focus RS, the former can hit 60mph from a standing start in under seven seconds and is good for 130mph. Under the bonnet you'll find a 2.0-litre petrol lump generating 215 bhp.

Transit XXL is probably the longest Transit in the world. It's a stretched seven-seater limousine created out of two short-wheelbase Transit Tourneos and with four full sliding doors; two on each side.

Yet maybe these conveyances aren't quite as daft as they appear to be at first glance.

While X-Press is a one-off, it demonstrates just how versatile and strong a vehicle Connect is. And while XXL is apparently a one-off too, there's no reason why it shouldn't be put into production, if not by Ford, then by an authorised coach builder.

After all, there's a small but useful market for stretched limousines in the UK; how do you think all those hen parties arrive in your local town centre to get drunk on a Saturday night? And there's a lot more room in a stretched Transit than there is in some Yank tank shipped over from Las Vegas.

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