First Drive: Ford Transit Custom

Date: Monday, October 8, 2012

If you’ve developed a phobia about vehicle manufacturers describing the levels of quality bestowed upon their vans as “car-like” then you’d be advised to give a wide berth to the Ford of Europe commercial vehicle team extolling the virtues of its  Transit Custom, the medium van in the brand’s new Transit model range.

  The point the brand is at pains to make is that the new generation of the medium-sized Transit now has bags of style and sophistication to go with the functionality and practicality for which it is renowned.
The Custom shares the so-called ‘Kinetic’ design philosophy employed across the manufacturer’s passenger car range, and the cutting-edge technology fitted in the cabin is at least the equal of anything to be found elsewhere in the Blue Oval’s model line-up.
We got behind the wheel of the single cab, short-wheelbase FT270 Limited with 125hp, which is likely to be the best-selling version of the 2.2-litre Duratorq TDCi engine used across the line-up. The drivetrain is also available with power outputs of 100hp and 155hp.
All Transit Custom and Custom Tourneo (the passenger version) models are front-wheel drive and have a six-speed manual. As yet there are no plans to introduce an auto gearbox to these smaller 1.0-tonne Transits, although the larger 2.0-tonne model, revealed on page 11, is expected to feature an automatic transmission.

Better quality cab

Step into the cab of the FT270 and the uplift in quality is immediately apparent. The cockpit feels as if it has been designed to make the driver feel at home, with the flow of the dashboard slanted subtly towards the person behind the wheel. The black and grey plastics blend in with the seats and are of high quality. The controls are indeed reminiscent of a car but the surprise is that they would not be out of place in one at the prestige end of the market. The difference, according to interior design manager Ulf Roentgen, is that many of the knobs and buttons on the instrument binnacle are larger and more robust so they can be operated easily by a working driver wearing gloves.
Features include a lidded compartment on the dash in front of the steering wheel that houses an iPod port, aux socket and 12-volt power plug and has room for items such as glasses, note pads, mobile phones or portable music players. A handy mobile phone holder sits on the instrument panel just above the gear lever.
The van we tested was fitted with the sophisticated ICE infotainment system and satnav that Ford also uses in the Focus and Fiesta, but more traditional commercial operators can opt for what Roentgen calls a “lower level” system with a clipboard in the middle of the dashboard and a large storage compartment on the passenger side instead of an airbag. There is an A4 folder-sized glove box on the passenger side and neatly integrated cup and bottle holders on both driver and passenger sides of the cab. The centre seat back folds down to form a table replete with cup and pen holders and capable of supporting a laptop.
In front of the bulkhead and beneath the dual passenger seat is a concealed stowage area that can hold larger items such as toolboxes. The space is accessed by flipping forward the seat cushion, or through a load-through hatch in the bulkhead, which, on the SWB model, offers an increased load length of up to 3.0m (this rises to 3.4m on LWB versions).
The lower storage compartments in the doors are designed to hold safety equipment such as first aid kits and warning triangles.

Rake and reach

The dash-mounted gear stick should ease cross-cab movement for the passengers and driver. The steering wheel, meanwhile, is positioned at a more vertical angle than on previous models and, for the first time, is adjustable by both rake and reach. Our test vehicle’s electrically controlled driver seat, including lumbar support, makes it easy to get comfortable, and Ford claims taller drivers now benefit from an additional 30mm rear travel. Overall, the cockpit is impressively laid out to enable the driver to find their most suitable position.
The test vehicle’s electrically adjustable wing mirrors with a wide-angle section provide a good rear view, which is aided by the provision of a window in the full metal bulkhead behind the cabin. A panoramic, steeply raked windscreen, together with an upright driving position, affords excellent vision to the front.
To drive, the six-speed manual transmission is smooth and crisp, getting the most out of the 125hp on tap. With a half-load of 425kg on board the ride quality is of a high standard and interior noise levels are very well suppressed, becoming only slightly intrusive even at high speeds. There is ample power for attempting sensible overtaking manoeuvres, although this may not be the case with the 100hp version, which we suspect may lack the muscle for long-haul assignments.There’s also a concern about the payload figures, which are well adrift of the class best.
The Custom handles well around town, on motorways and on winding country roads where it resists wallowing and negotiates corners with a commendable lack of fuss.

Consumption and cruise

A discreet green arrow on the instrument panel lets you know when to change gear to minimise fuel consumption, and the van is fitted with the auto stop/start system as standard. This can be switched off using the ‘eco’ button on the dashboard. Cruise control takes the strain out of long motorway journeys and the driver can also set a speed limiter to further boost economical performance and to avoid straying beyond speed restrictions. Air-conditioning comes as standard, too, and it is to Ford’s credit that you get ESP stability control without having to pay extra for it.
Our model’s front and rear parking sensors will help delivery drivers squeezing in and out of tight spaces and a rear-view camera also reduces the risk of denting the Custom’s sleek rear end.
An innovative feature is the integrated, retractable roof rack, which can be deployed when required to carry equipment but otherwise sits flush with the roof to allow the Custom to fit under 2m-high car park barriers.
Other useful features are the hatch slot in the bulkhead, which makes it possible to stash longer pipes or ladders, and the flat bulkhead design, which allows the SWB Custom to accommodate three Euro pallets loaded to at least 1m high.
The load bay floor is fitted with a rubber liner similar to the ones Ford uses in its pick-ups. This protects it against scratches and makes the area easier to clean. The liner is raised slightly against the sides and corners of the cargo bay to prevent liquids from seeping down the edges.
The manufacturer has repositioned the tie-down hooks and fixing points in the new Transit. These are now located on the sides of the body to leave the floor clear for easier loading and cleaning.

Functional too

Chief CV engineer Barry Gale says: “This may be a more stylish Transit but it’s also a more functional Transit. The additional features we have built into the load space make everyday functions more convenient so it’s easier for customers to do their job.”
The Custom is far sportier in appearance than previous Transits. With a pronounced, rising shoulder line, prominent trapezoidal grille, bold wheel lips, swept back headlamps and 16-inch alloy wheels on higher trim levels, the manufacturer claims the model projects a modern and professional image that appeals to customers who are looking for more than just a working tool.
“We have given the vehicle a stylish, modern appearance that will be appreciated by businesses of all sizes,” says Paul Campbell, chief designer, Ford of Europe.

Running costs

Ford claims the Transit Custom offers the lowest running costs in the medium van sector with longest-in-class service intervals of two years/30,000 miles and a 12-year anti-perforation warranty designed to minimise the overall cost of ownership.
With official combined cycle fuel consumption of 42.2mpg and CO2 emissions of 178g/km forecast for the UK model, Ford calculates an environmental improvement of up to 8% compared with the current model. It reckons the use of the Custom’s auto stop/start can cut fuel consumption by up to 10% in urban driving. Customers can also specify Acceleration Control, a new feature that limits acceleration when the van is unladen or part laden. The manufacturer reckons the device can reduce fuel consumption by up to 15% as well as limit wear on brakes and tyres.
A light on the instrument panel indicates if the lubricating oil needs replacing before the service interval. Likewise there is a brake pad wear indicator to flag up when the pads need replacing. Ford says such preventative measures ensure unnecessary maintenance does not take place during scheduled servicing, thus minimising downtime.
To guard against the accident repair bills that urban operators can face as a result of low-speed city impacts, Ford has placed the more expensive parts of the front bumper systems and headlights in less vulnerable positions. At the rear, a multi-piece bumper has been designed for cheaper repairs while the high-mounted rear-light assemblies have been moved out of the danger zone.
The Transit Custom is the first light commercial vehicle in Ford’s line-up to get the Sync voice- activated system that was recently introduced in the brand’s B-max passenger car. The system enables mobile phones as well as music players to be connected to the vehicle and operated by spoken instructions.
Sync also supports the Emergency Assistance feature that helps occupants contact the emergency services in the event of an accident. Using location coordinates from the GPS system, Sync alerts local emergency services of the van’s whereabouts in the correct language for the region.
An array of safety features on the Custom include Lane Keeping Alert, which warns the driver via a vibration in the steering wheel if the front view camera detects an unintentional drift out of lane without the use of indicators, and Driver Alert, which monitors the vehicle’s position in relation to the road markings and detects the sort of sideways drifting typical of a tired driver losing concentration. This triggers a two-stage warning: a message on the instrument panel accompanied with an audible chime followed by a permanent warning the driver must acknowledge by pressing the OK button if erratic driving behaviour continues. Another feature taken from the car range is Auto High Beam, which automatically switches the headlamps between full and dipped beam.

Safety in numbers

The Custom is the first Transit to feature ultra-high-strength boron steel in its structure. High strength and ultra-high strength steel account for 40% of the van’s body. The FT270 we tested comes with driver, passenger, side and curtain airbags and Ford claims the Custom is the first vehicle in its segment to have been developed with the latest Euro NCAP protocol for pedestrian protection under consideration. The front end of the vehicle and the layout of the engine compartment have been designed to reduce the risk of injury to pedestrians.
Ford has sold almost seven million Transits since the first model appeared in 1965 and with the introduction of the new one-tonne Custom it looks ready to set a new benchmark.


In successfully marrying style and functionality the Custom raises the bar for medium vans



The art of customer appeal

The Ford Transit has dominated the UK light commercial vehicle market for nigh on half a century – routinely outselling its competitors’ models by more than two to one in both the medium and heavy van segments.
The bad news for the rival manufacturers trying to emulate its popularity is that the Blue Oval brand has now spotted a way to expand its customer base even further.
With its new-generation Transit, Ford has moved to make a clear distinction between the one- and two-tonne derivatives by creating two dedicated lines.
The smaller van is the first to come to market, badged as the Transit Custom, and in its nine-seat minibus mode as the Custom Tourneo. The brand is targeting the Custom at both the Transit’s traditional load-lugging customer base but also at operators, typically owner/drivers or small businesses, who are looking for something considerably more stylish.
Ford of Europe’s marketing and sales boss Jesus Alonso describes the strategy as an attempt to attract the “expressive” customer in the medium van sector.
As well as the “cargo-carrying” operators, Alonso is confident the Transit Custom will appeal to customers “who didn’t consider Ford before”. He refers to these consumers as “artisans”.
“The product shows who this person is and talks well about the business he does,” he says.
Ford of Europe’s chief designer of commercial vehicles, Paul Campbell, puts it like this: “He wants a vehicle his wife would allow him to park on the driveway.” He claims, too, that the Custom combines function and style. “It looks smaller but can carry more,” he asserts.
Chief engineer Barry Gale is equally bullish about the Transit Custom’s credentials: “We’ve got a derivative that’s perfect for any
of our customers.”
Ford’s broadened ambitions for the Custom can be gauged by a promotional film that it has made for the Tourneo, which depicts a bride, her proud father and her bridesmaids disembarking from
the passenger-carrying version as they arrive for the wedding ceremony. If the manufacturer’s expectations for the Custom become a reality, it will be alarm bells, not wedding bells, ringing
for the competition.


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