First Drive: Ford Transit

Date: Tuesday, April 01, 2014   |   Author: James Dallas

Ford’s mission to renew its entire light commercial vehicle line-up within an 18-month time span has now seen the launch of the new generation of its most famous van of all – the full-size Transit.
A dominating presence in the market since 1965, there is some debate as to whether the new model is the sixth or seventh all-new generation product.
What the brand knows for sure is that it has produced seven million Transits in the past 48 years and now has a van, that, as Alan Gibbons, Ford of Britain’s commercial vehicle specialist says, is “fit to take it to the big ‘five-O’”. Of those seven million units, Ford has shifted 2.2 million in the UK, and claims 700,000 of these are still on the road.
The impressive stats keep on coming: UK boss Mark Ovenden points out that the Transit is Ford’s third best-selling vehicle overall behind the Fiesta, the UK’s most popular car, and the Focus, and is the UK’s sixth biggest seller altogether, ahead of such luminaries as the BMW 3-series.
He claims a quarter of vans registered in the UK bear the Transit nameplate, which also covers the Custom and the new Connect light van and will soon extend to the Courier city van when it arrives shortly after the two-tonne model in the summer to complete the product renewal cycle. In the UK, Ford’s CV operation outsells the combined volume of its two nearest competitors – Volkswagen and Vauxhall.
“The Transit is a British institution,” Ovenden says. “We had a difficult decision with Southampton [the Transit plant Ford closed last year when it moved all production of the vehicle to Turkey] but it is designed and engineered in Britain.”
All the new vans are products of the ‘One Ford’ global platform that aims to assemble LCVs that can slot easily into markets worldwide while, for the first time, Ford has moved to make a clear distinction between its medium and heavy Transit vans. The former, the well-received Custom, has already been on sale for more than a year and is a very different looking van to its big brother. This is largely because the manufacturer has designed the two-tonne model with an eye on the North American market, where it will make its debut this year with models built in Kansas City being phased in to take over from the current E-series range.
The new Transit is offered with front-, rear- or all-wheel drive and uses the same three 2.2-litre diesel powertrains as the Custom. These come with outputs of 100, 125 and 155hp. Ford has also added two Euro 6-compliant engines, which it says require AdBlue top-ups for approximately every 20 tanks of fuel used. Branded HDT6, they have outputs of 125hp and 155hp.
The frugal 125hp TDCi-based Econetic range has expanded to six models, and a six-speed manual gearbox is standard across the full Transit range, which offers a choice of two wheelbases, two roof heights, and three body lengths. Gross vehicle weights range from 3.1 to 4.7 tonnes, load space spans from 9.6m³ to 15.1m³ on the Jumbo derivative, a 10% improvement across the line-up over the current van, according to Ford, and payloads start at 940kg, rising to 2281kg.
Ford says about 85% of Transit panel vans going to large fleets will be specced in Base trim, but as these were not available on the international launch event we got behind the wheel of a RWD L3 H3 Trend van with power coming from the 2.2L 125hp drivetrain.
The two-tonne Transit is a brute of a beast compared  with its far prettier little brother, the Custom, and its prominent, snouty grille gives it an aggressive appearance that is something of an acquired taste. On the other hand, its rugged exterior gives it a strong presence on the road, which should stand it in good stead when it makes its debut in the US.
Once out on the road the Transit immediately impresses. With a half-load in the back the ride is commendably smooth, and very little road noise encroaches into the cabin, even at motorway speeds, with the 125hp version of the Dagenham-built engine providing more than enough power to keep the big van gliding comfortably along the fastest permitted lane.
The six-speed manual transmission’s shift is exceptionally slick and precise for a commercial vehicle and ranks with the best in the sector. It is equally at home when combining with the outstandingly crisp steering on winding hillside roads or when helping the bulky van pick its way delicately through busy city streets.
The quality of the interior fittings and the cabin layout would be a revelation were it not a mirror image, albeit in larger scale, of the arrangement already serving the Transit Custom so well. The gear lever is positioned on the dash and is comfortably reachable for the driver while also enabling occupants to move easily across the three-person seat.
The Trend specification includes leather trimming for both gearstick and the pleasingly chunky and compact steering wheel, which is adjustable for both rake and reach – a distinct help to the driver and still something of a rarity in light commercial vehicles. This comes as standard on all models, and the Trend gets a 10-way adjustable driver’s seat (Base gets eight), which further facilitates finding the ideal driving position.
There is ample head and shoulder space for driver and passengers, and the large, steeply raked windscreen affords good vision ahead while generous wing mirrors with wide angle sections mean you can keep an eye on what’s happening behind.
It does get a little cosy in the cabin, however, when travelling with two average-sized blokes in the passenger seats, which are fixed upright to the bulkhead and may not be too comfortable on long journeys.
The interior contains decent stowage, including a full-width, compartmentalised, overhead shelf with strut-like features connecting it to the ceiling next to the doors, although it’s tempting to use the ‘struts’ as grab handles when getting into the cab. There is a large hidden space under the dual passenger seat for a tool box, jackets or to hide valuable equipment.
A 230V power socket can be used to charge tools or laptops without the need for special adaptors, and there are two 12V power points. The middle seat holds a fold-out work surface with two cup holders.
The instrument panel is pleasantly easy to fathom and stylishly designed, having been adopted from the Ford car range, and the steering wheel incorporates cruise control, which is standard on Trend models, and media system operations. Surprisingly on such a sophisticated vehicle, DAB radio is not included, but can be specified in option packs priced from £50.
In addition to Base trim, Trend van cabins also get the Ford Sync connectivity system with Emergency Assistance, a heated windscreen, front and rear parking sensors and a lockable glove box. Exterior extras include power heated folding mirrors, auto headlights and wipers, and projector-style headlights with static cornering lights.
With the Sprinter identified as the Transit’s main rival in the heavy van sector, Ford could not afford to stint on safety features bearing in mind Merc’s sterling reputation in the field. ESC comes as standard across the range and brings with it load adaptive control, roll stability control, trailer sway control and hill-start assist. Curve Control is also included, a Ford-developed programme designed to slow the vehicle in a stable fashion if it enters a sharp bend, like a motorway exit ramp, too quickly.
The van tested here also got the excellent rear-view camera, which is installed in the rear-view mirror, for £250, and switchable Lane Keeping Alert, which warns the driver through a vibration in the steering wheel if they stray across lanes without indicating. Manual air-conditioning, a £600 option, was also included.
The L3 H3’s load space is accessed through twin rear doors, which on our van were glazed for an extra £100 (the window in the full-steel bulkhead costs £60).  The doors open to 180°, but for an added £250 will swing through to 270°.
A 525mm rear bumper step eases entry into the cargo box by providing a 205mm improvement over the previous model. According to Ford this “best-in-class” feature compares favourably with the Sprinter (720mm) and the Renault Master (705mm). The van also has side-loading sliding doors with an opening width of 1300mm.
An easy-clean load floor lining is standard on Trend vans but otherwise costs £150.
Ford is supporting its new model line-up with the roll-out of 110 specialist Transit Centres across the UK, the first of which is up and running at Hartwell, Ford’s dealership in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Coinciding with the introduction of its Transit24 aftercare initiative that promises extended opening hours, the manufacturer says the full network will be operational by the end of 2014. Each centre is staffed by a CV sales team and Ford-trained technicians who can manage all service, maintenance and warranty work. Ford claims Transit24 offers while-you-wait servicing, including late-night appointments where required. It vows to respond to online service booking requests made through the Epyx 1Link tool within 20 minutes. What’s more, Ford says it has cut the time required for scheduled maintenance over 90,000 miles from 5.4 to 4.2 hours compared with the outgoing model.
When it comes to non-scheduled work, the company claims an analysis of 23 repair items puts the new model at the head of its class. For example, the labour time required for a rear brake disc repair has been cut in half to 80 minutes. Ford explains that the layout of the components under the bonnet in the engine bay has been designed to provide easier access to its technicians, thus minimising repair times by ensuring parts are easy to get at.
Other features designed to cut down workshop time and costs include multi-piece bumpers to enable technicians to replace individual sections rather than the whole component, high-mounted front and rear lights to reduce the chance of damage, and all-round rubbing strips to protect body panels against everyday scrapes and knocks.
Ford also had to match the Mercedes Sprinter’s renowned build quality.
To this end, Ford says it put the Transit through a series of stringent durability tests, including covering the equivalent of nearly seven million miles testing in Europe and North America, with 310,000 miles of that total undertaken by existing Transit customers. One test carried out to ensure the vehicle would behave in a safe and predictable manner if involved in a real-life impact involved hitting a 150mm kerb at 30mph.
The Transit’s body is constructed of high-strength and ultra-high-strength boron steels and comes with a 12-year anti-perforation warranty.
Unlike the one-tonne Transit Custom, the full-size van does not offer a load-through hatch beneath the passenger seat to facilitate the transport of long items, such as pipes. But with even the smallest L2 (MWB) version providing a 3m load length, a spokesman says this was considered an unnecessary option.
Likewise, the two-tonne van does not come with roof rails because “it couldn’t get under a 2m car park barrier anyway”, so retracting the rails would not enable it to do so, as is possible with the Custom.
Instead, he stresses, the brand concentrated on improving payload and load-volume capacities.
With sales expected to balance between front- and rear-wheel drive, Ford product guru David Petts expects operators who need to use their vans for towing to go for RWD models with most others opting for FWD.
Although vans that direct power to the rear wheels are generally considered more durable, the FWD Transits are at least £800 cheaper than their RWD equivalents and offer a slightly higher payload and lower loading height.
They also deliver better fuel consumption and lower CO2 emission figures.
All the Econetic low-emission versions of the big Transit link FWD to the 125hp engine.
The 350 L2 H2 van with a fixed 70mph speed limiter has official CO2 emissions of 169g/km and a combined cycle fuel consumption of 44.1mpg.
Without the speed limiter the figures are 177g/km and 41.5mpg. The 350 L2 H2 RWD Transit equipped with stop/start turns in 201g/km CO2 and 37.2mpg. Stop/start is available as a £200 option on non-Econetic vans.
The speed limiter can be switched on and off unless operators choose to have it fixed at 56, 62 or 70mph (the most popular option) for a cost of £45. This can be specified at the point of order or as an after-fit by a dealership, where, Petts says, it is a half-hour job.
On the outgoing Transit, the 100hp drivetrain took the most volume, but Ford reckons this could shift to the 125hp on the new model.
The price step-up on the new model is half of what it was on the old vehicle, with the  L2 H2 Base 290 2.2L 125hp, for example, costing £22,120 – just £500 more than the 100hp equivalent.
Andrew Platt, Ford vehicle engineering supervisor, says: “It’s the sweetest combination of economy and performance.”
Add in its first-rate credentials as a workhorse and those sentiments could apply to the Transit range as a whole.

Verdict
All-round excellence of the sophisticated Transit two-tonne should see it continue to dominate the market.



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