Times have been ultra-tough for minibus operators recently, with social distancing mandated by the coronavirus severely restricting the number of passengers they can carry. With Covid-19 vaccines about to be rolled out at the time of writing, the prospects for 2021 look a lot rosier, and Ford’s Transit – our Minibus of the Year – is in pole position to take advantage of any upswing in minibus sales.

All Transit minibuses are rear-wheel drive with the choice of either single or twin rear wheels, while the big news is the arrival of a 10-speed automatic gearbox. Undoubtedly one of the best transmissions of its type on the market, it delivers power smoothly, with no discernible jerking or hesitation as it slides from one gear to another – just what is required if you are carrying a lot of people. It is available solely with the 170hp version of the 2.0-litre EcoBlue diesel. The same engine – the only one offered on the Transit minibus – can also be ordered with a six-speed manual gearbox. An alternative is the 130hp 2.0-litre EcoBlue, with the six-speed manual as standard.

There is as yet no indication as to whether the battery-electric E-Transit scheduled to debut in the UK in spring 2022 will be marketed in minibus guise.

Drivers presented with the manual rather than the automatic version should not feel miffed. The change is precise and user-friendly, and the Transit’s safe, predictable handling is worthy of praise, while if you opt for the 170hp diesel you will not be short of performance.

The Transit minibus can transport up to 18 people depending on which variant you choose. Safety has to be accorded top priority when you are moving that many individuals, and Ford has stepped up to the plate. The Transit minibus comes with ABS and electronic stability programme, but that’s by no means the end of the story. The range of onboard safety devices fitted includes lane keeping aid along with pre-collision assistance with pedestrian detection.

Also installed are emergency brake warning, electronic dynamic cornering control, and hill-start assist, not to mention adaptive cruise control.

Three different trim levels are on offer, starting with Leader. Step up to Trend and you get front and rear parking sensors, air conditioning throughout the vehicle, reclining rear seats with armrests, and front fog lights, another handy safety measure. 

Opt for Limited spec and you benefit from side park assist, which makes parallel parking a breeze. Indeed, it can be invaluable if you are delivering passengers to a busy, city centre venue where parking space is at a premium.

Onboard Wi-Fi is viewed as a necessity by passengers these days rather than a luxury. Fortunately, the Transit’s built-in FordPass Connect modem means travellers can make use of 4G. 

The options list includes a power-operated sliding side door for the passenger saloon. A powered access step comes as standard on all models, which makes stepping in and out much easier for older travellers and those with restricted mobility.

Residual values are unlikely to be an issue because a Ford badge on the bonnet almost always boosts second-hand prices.

Highly Commended: Renault Trucks Master Z.E.

Pressure is mounting on all vehicle operators to cut or eliminate exhaust emissions for the good of the planet. This applies to minibus owners in the same way as it applies to everybody else – and Renault Trucks stands ready to help.

It has developed an electric wheelchair-accessible passenger-carrying Master Z.E. in conjunction with specialist converter Minibus Options. Such a praiseworthy vehicle deserves to receive our Highly Commended accolade.

Power comes courtesy of a 33kWh lithium-ion battery, which drives a 57kW electric motor. The range between recharges is approximately 100 miles, with a recharge time of around six hours.

A nine-passenger model is available with demountable seats, allowing the passenger saloon to be laid out in a variety of different ways. It can accommodate two wheelchair users plus three seated passengers, for instance, and the wheelchairs and their occupants can be fully secured.

The absence of exhaust emissions is not the vehicle’s only environmental advantage: noise levels are low too, which makes journeys in it that much pleasanter.