Tough times have not deterred Ford from adding extra models to the Transit line-up and making a number of detailed specification changes across the Transit range.
So far as new models are concerned, the most important addition is the Transit Utility four-door chassis double cab. Introduced as a Special Vehicle Option, it’s minus a back seat and comes with unglazed rear side doors. Get your Transit dealer to fit a £247 bulkhead and you’ve got yourself a reasonably secure place to keep expensive tools. The alternative is a lockable box in the cargo area that will steal space, add weight and reduce payload.
The drawback of the Utility is that losing the back seat means that you can’t transport as big a work crew as you can with the standard double-cab model. If you can live with this limitation, however, and you’re really worried about the risk of tools going missing, then the Utility is worth further investigation. Prices start at £21,876.
If you need to transport five or six people plus their tools from one site to another then it’s worth noting that an additional derivative has been added to the Transit Double Cab-in-Van range.
The range encompasses models with a second row of seats and a cargo area right at the back. A front-wheel drive medium-wheelbase low roof 2.8-tonner, the latest addition can handle a payload of from 903kg to 915kg. A 2.2-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel engine up for grabs at 85hp, 115hp or 140hp is fitted and prices start at £17,420.
All Transit chassis double cabs can now be ordered with a Thatcham-approved Category 1 alarm as a £175 option and all diesel Transits now feature a green Shift Indicator Light (SIL) in the instrument cluster. It lights up at the optimum time to change to a higher gear with an eye to cutting fuel usage, CO2 emissions and component wear. It does not illuminate during braking, heavy acceleration or when the clutch pedal is depressed.
We took to the highways of Hertfordshire in a Transit 350 Heavy Duty EL Jumbo 3.5 tonne high roof van powered by a 140hp 2.4-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel married to a six-speed manual gearbox for our first experience of SIL.
The good news is that it works. Seeing that light come on does make you think about which gear you are in and on several occasions prompted us to move to a higher gear when we probably wouldn’t have done so otherwise. The drawback is that if you spent all your time watching for the SIL little green arrow to illuminate, then you won’t be keeping a proper eye on the traffic around you; with potentially disastrous consequences. Make use of it by all means, but don’t allow it to distract you.
Venturing forth in the Transit Jumbo — it has a 14.3m3 cargo area — reminded us of just how good Transit is these days. Blessed with remarkably responsive steering, it handles well, it rides well too and noise levels weren’t a problem so far as we were concerned.
The fit and finish of the dashboard left something to be desired, however. Cheap-looking plastic creates a bad impression and Ford should think about upgrading the materials it uses. It should also try creating in-cab storage spaces with lids that shut properly; none of the lids in any of the Transits we sampled during our test session did.
While 140hp is ample in even the biggest of Transits if you spend most of your working day trundling around a traffic-clogged city centre, you may need a few more horses if you’re continually travelling long distances fully laden. Ford can help, because Transit is available with a 3.2-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel that pumps out a whopping 200hp; rather more horses than most operators are likely to require if we’re honest about it.
We sampled it in a 460 EL Jumbo high roof van. It’s a 4.6-tonner — these days Transit is available at gross weights of significantly more than 3.5 tonnes — fitted with a six-speed gearbox. The 460 was unladen and took off like a rocket when we accelerated away from rest. It pulled strongly right the way through the gears only to run out of puff when we started to exceed 55mph. That’s because it’s equipped with a mandatory speed limiter that restricts its road speed to 56mph.
Nothing daunted, we went on to sample the same engine in a 350M chassis cab fitted with a three-way Scattolini tipper body. All that power is unnecessary in a 3.5-tonne tipper — tippers tend not to be employed on long-distance high-speed motorway work — but it’s huge fun nevertheless. Liberated from the constraints imposed by a speed limiter — not compulsory at 3.5 tonnes — the 3.2-litre lump offers phenomenal performance right the way across the rev range and would allow you to cruise at highly-illegal speeds on the motorway if you’d a mind to.
One thing that really impressed us about this vehicle was the complete absence of any rattling from the body, even though there was no weight in it. Unladen tippers are notorious for generating lots of irritating noise, but this one didn’t. The tipper body was fitted under Ford’s One-stop programme which embraces a variety of special conversions. The line-up includes a standard one-way tipper as well as a three-way, a dropside, a curtainsider and a box van.
Even the blackest and most threatening cloud is supposed to have a silver lining and the recession means that there has never been a better time to buy a van if you can afford one.
Dealers nationwide — not just Ford dealers, but outlets representing other franchises too — have a fair few unsold light commercials on their hands. As a consequence you can pick up a real bargain if you’re not too picky about specifications or colour.
So says Steve Kimber, director, commercial vehicles at Ford, who admits that registrations of new vans are at a low. He predicts that this year’s total light commercial market will shrink by around 30 per cent compared with 2008’s figure, with the worst of the pain likely to be felt in the first six months.
“Most people I talk to around the industry tell me that demand should start to improve a little late in the third or early in the fourth quarter,” he says. Some parts of the light commercial business have been hammered more severely by the economic downturn than others. “Pick-up sales have been hit especially hard,” says Kimber. “In fact that sector of the market is in truly dire straits. The lifestyle element of the pick-up business has collapsed and I don’t see it returning to where it was for a very long time to come.”
Unlike certain other vehicle plants around the country, the Transit factory at Southampton has not suspended production. “It is, however, down to a single shift,” Kimber says. Some days following the interview with Kimber Ford announced that between 450 and 500 jobs were to go at the Transit factory.
Ford is doing its best to boost business. In one initiative to stimulate the market it’s now offering state education facilities such as schools and colleges a preferential discount of up to 14 per cent when they buy a Transit minibus.
Kimber also points out that in real terms today’s Transit van is significantly cheaper than its counterpart of 14 years ago and includes a host of features that would have been extra cost options back when John Major was prime minister. The 1995 base model short-wheelbase Transit with a 900kg payload capacity started out at £12,270, he says, equivalent to £17,002 today using the most recent retail price index figures. However a similar 2009 Transit actually costs £14,920.
What’s more, to specify the 1995 vehicle to the same level as today’s standard model you would have had to spend a further £3,860 on extras. “With vans, customer expectations in terms of driver comfort and safety have risen considerably since 1995,” says Kimber. “But the price hasn’t.”
Ford has not abandoned the continued development of its light commercial line-up. As well as implementing detailed changes to Transit, it’s launching the new Fiesta Van in the UK during the second quarter of the year. If it’s as well-received as the car on which it has based has been, then the Big Blue Oval could have a little winner on its hands.
Useful additions, albeit niche, to the ever-expanding Transit line-up.