Still UK van market leader by a huge margin, Ford remains determined to keep ahead of the competition. To help it do so it's busy filling in a few of the niches in its light commercial range in the run-up to the launch of a number of mainstream new models in 2009.
The niche players include a 4x4 Transit chassis cab which made its debut at the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management Show at Paignton in Devon. Powered by a 140hp 2.4-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel married to a six-speed manual gearbox, it's based on a rear-wheel drive model. Drive is progressively fed to all four wheels automatically when the 4x4 system senses that the vehicle is starting to lose grip.
With modest ground clearance, the newcomer is designed to keep going when conventional road surfaces are covered in ice and snow rather than for arduous off-road work in deeply-rutted terrain. “It will become available in the UK towards the end of the year and we're taking orders now,” says Andrew Merryweather, commercial vehicle marketing and business planning manager.
Also at Paignton was a neat variation on an existing theme; a four-door double cab Transit with no rear seats, unglazed rear doors and a bulkhead separating the rear compartment from the cab. The idea is to create a reasonably secure area for users to store power tools and other items at risk of being stolen, and one that can be racked out if necessary. “A lot of councils are interested in this vehicle,” Merryweather says.
Although its environmental credentials have taken a battering in recent times, councils and other operators are also interested in biodiesel. “Our vehicles can run on five per cent biodiesel and we've got a 30 per cent mix on trial with a couple of fleets,” he says.
Something else that will doubtless attract local authorities and customers such as construction companies is a Transit Connect Crew Van with a sliding bulkhead.
If the five-seater Crew Van's rear seats are not being used, then they can be folded up and the £214-plus-fitting (excl VAT) bulkhead can be slid forward and locked into place to create more cargo space. If the seats are to be occupied, then the bulkhead can be slid backwards along its roof-mounted rails. The system is on offer on both the short- and the long-wheelbase derivatives.
And the newcomers destined for next year? Watch out for a new Fiesta Van, a facelifted Transit Connect and changes to the Ranger pick-up.
Don't forget either that Transit is now on offer with a stonking 3.2-litre diesel engine that's good for 200hp. We'll be putting a van fitted with it through its paces in a future issue.
The credit crunch may be biting, some major retailers may be feeling the pinch and the construction industry may be struggling, but the van market has yet to be caught in the backwash. Light commercial registrations remained buoyant at the time of writing, with many buyers ordering their vehicles with lots of extras.
“Customers are still after a high level of specification,” says Ford of Britain commercial vehicles director, Steve Kimber. “They want air-conditioning, satellite navigation and electric windows. It makes life easier for the driver and enhances the van's appeal when it comes time to sell it second-hand.”?
Order a vehicle from the factory that's tailored to your precise requirements, however, and you're going to have to wait. Ford is still quoting delivery times of up to 12 to 16 weeks. It can get you a van more quickly than that if you're not too fussy about equipment levels because it has plenty of stock in its network; more stock in fact than it has held for sometime. “As a consequence we should be able to deliver something to you in little more than a fortnight,” Kimber states.
Rising raw material bills are forcing prices upwards, a problem that plagues other manufacturers as well as Ford. “We aim to stay competitive in the marketplace, but we're under huge cost pressure,” he says.
The previous Transit was offered with a semi-auto 'box as an option under the DuraShift banner, but the current one isn't, and Kimber has no plans to introduce one. “We're looking at offering a full automatic, but I'm not convinced that the semi-auto route is the way to go,” he says. “When we had one our customers didn't want it because they didn't like the shift characteristics.” He doubts they've changed their minds.
What with the launch of Citroën's new Berlingo, Peugeot's new Partner and the new Volkswagen Caddy Maxi, Ford's long-wheelbase Transit Connect is starting to face some stiff competition.
So how does it stack up against its rivals now it is six years old? We took to the roads of Oxfordshire to find out; and the good news from Ford's viewpoint is that it's still a marketplace contender. Our £13,000 T230 demonstrator — all prices quoted here exclude VAT — had a 110bhp 1.8-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel lurking under the bonnet and it turns the sturdily-built load lugger into a real winner. Dab the throttle and the van hurtles away from rest, pulls strongly through all the gears, and requires some reining in to stop it exceeding the motorway speed limit.
For your money you get a smooth, seamless gearchange from the five-speed 'box and the handling has yet to be bettered by any of Ford's rivals in the sector. There's ample feedback through the steering and the ride's pretty competent too.
It is beginning to show its age in some areas, however. Excessive engine noise — certainly when compared with Berlingo/Partner — and the cab's interior, though practical, needs bringing up to date. There's plenty of head and shoulder room, however, and the driver's seat remains comfortable.
Standard features include ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, a sliding nearside load area door, a driver's airbag and a radio/CD player. The passenger seat folds flat should you need to transport long items and our test van was additionally equipped with a £150 full-width folding bulkhead. It swivels to stop items ending up in the driver's lap should you elect to flatten the passenger perch and make use of the extra cargo space thus created.
With the passenger seat down total load cube is 4.4m3, falling to 3.7m3 should you decide to return it to the upright position. Those figures have been arrived at by the honest approach of packing the cargo box with standard-sized wooden blocks rather than the more common method of filling it with sand or a similar loose material. The latter approach gives you a more impressive figure, but the former tells you how much of the load space is truly useable; many of the nooks and crannies that sand trickles into aren't. Gross payload capacity is 900kg, while gross weight is 3,140kg.
Our next step was to get to grips with a Transit Connect in a different suit of clothes. Enter the Connect SportVan, on sale in September with a £15,325 price tag.
Based on the short-wheelbase T200, and again with the 110bhp 1.8-litre diesel, it stands out from the pack with its blue paint finish and distinctive white stripes. Goodies include a body-coloured roof spoiler, 18in seven-spoke alloy wheels, air-conditioning, leather seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob. It's even more of a hoot to drive than the long-wheelbase Connect referred to earlier and attracts a lot more attention. If you want one, get your order in quick. Only 300 are being produced.
The SportVan version of the classic Transit caught some flak in What Van? recently when a number of readers complained about its unhealthy appetite for front tyres. Ford says it is investigating the matter, and adds that the same problem is unlikely to afflict Connect SportVan.
The big Transit is relatively new and holding up very well in the market, but Ford is aware of a rising tide of brand new competition for its smaller brother, the Connect. Expect a mid-term refresh early next year.