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Big white vans may seem bland to the majority of road users on the market, but these ubiquitous boxes on wheels are the lifeblood of thousands of businesses across Australia.

Removalists, courier companies, stevedores and provedores use large vans such as these on a daily basis, so we’ve assembled four of the big players in the market to see which is our pick in terms of practicality, performance and payload.

The four vans assembled here include the recently revised Fiat Ducato, all-new Ford Transit, updated Renault Master and the best-seller (for 17 years straight in Australia!), the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.

On the topic of sales, the Sprinter is head, shoulders, knees and almost toes ahead of the rest of the group. In 2014 it accounted for about 20 per cent of market share in the Heavy Commercial LD (3501-8000kg) class according to VFACTS, where it’s not only competing against vans but small trucks, too.

The next best seller in 2014 was the Master (with 7.8 per cent share), then the Ducato (6.7 per cent) and the Transit, which only launched late in the year, garnered 3.8 per cent last year. So far, in 2015, there have been some clear gains to the Sprinter (up 23 per cent), Transit (up 80 per cent on the back of this new model) and Master (up 96 per cent), while sales of the Ducato have dipped by 27 per cent.

This test sets out to find if big van buyers should be shopping outside of what they know. As such, we assembled these four vans based foremost on their pricing, and see if you can get more for your money if you’re willing to shop around.

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The location for this test was at Power Freight, a document and freight delivery specialist in Sydney’s southeast, where Mark Power assisted us to load up and run around some of his cargo.

With a pallet packed with about 700 kilograms of marketing material and a forklift on hand, the CarAdvice team played courier for a day.

Our road loop included an array of different aspects – low-speed manoeuvring in a warehouse complex, urban driving including speed humps, traffic lights and roundabouts, and a section of highway driving to assess composure at speed as well as comfort levels inside the cabin.

Before we get to that, let’s stack up the credentials of these four.

Pricing and equipment

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While these four vans don’t quite match up perfectly on price – the Mercedes-Benz is far and away the dearest thing here – it highlights that the best-seller mightn’t necessarily be the best buy.

The most affordable van on test is the Renault Master L2H2, which starts from $45,490 plus on-road costs for the manual model. Standard equipment includes a steel bulkhead with window, 1+2 seat layout, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, as well as USB and auxiliary inputs.

The next dearest is the manual Ford Transit 350L, priced from $47,680 plus on-road costs. The vehicle we had on test also had a standard steel bulkhead, cargo bay lining, a 1+2 seat layout with outboard seat heaters, and the necessary audio and phone hook-up technology as well as DAB digital radio. Options on this vehicle included the popular city pack ($1500), which includes front and rear parking sensors, a reverse-view camera, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and fog-lights. It was also configured in high-roof specification, which adds a further $1500.

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On the next branch up the dollar tree is the Fiat Ducato XLWB MR, which starts at $52,000 plus costs. As with the others you can spend less if you want to (the Ducato starts at $38,000), but this Ducato was the longest van on our test, and as standard it comes with a semi-automatic gearbox which helps it further justify its price (and you can get a manual if you choose, which discounts the price by $500). As with its competitors it has a standard bulkhead with a 1+2 seat layout, and Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity as well as USB input.

The dearest vehicle on test was the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 316CDI MWB, which is the one of the smallest Sprinters you can buy yet comes priced from $55,390 plus on-road costs. Then there were options, such as the seven-speed automatic transmission ($2875), twin-bucket “Comfort Seat Pack with armrests” ($715), a Lane Tracking Package ($1860) and fog-lights ($310). (If budget is the key, you can get a sub-$50K model with a low-output diesel engine in two body-lengths).

Safety

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Fleet buyers may wish to note the differences between the safety equipment on offer in these big vans, and buyers may also note that some insurance premiums could be cheaper based on the level of safety on offer.

All four vans have dual front airbags as standard, as well as load-sensitive versions of the potentially life-saving technology, electronic stability control.

The Transit is the top of the pack for passive safety equipment, with a further four airbags standard in the form of driver and passenger side and head protection. Buyers can option thorax airbags in the Master, but there’s no side impact airbag protection available in either the Sprinter or the Ducato.

None have a reverse-view camera as standard, but you can option that technology in all four vans. Frankly, we think this should be standard on all of them: no matter how skilled you think you are at parking, pedestrians often don’t see or hear you coming. The Ducato and Master have standard rear parking sensors, but the other two don’t.

If you’re willing to spend a little more, Fiat offers the Ducato with a lane departure warning system as an option, while our Sprinter’s optional Lane Tracking Package includes blind-spot assistance, lane-keeping assistance and high-beam assist.

Interior

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While vans are all about the usability of the load space, it’s also important for drivers to be kept in comfort – coping with city traffic for hours on end isn’t easy, so a calming and familiar cabin that is quiet and cleverly laid out is a big plus for many van buyers.

All of these vans have clever storage options that are designed to make their cabins feel more like mobile offices, though some are more effective than others.

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Pictured above: Renault Trafic

The Renault, for example, has a lot of cheap feeling plastics, but it betters its rivals with a plethora of dash-top storage options. Its cabin layout is the tightest of the four, though, with less leg and knee space for the driver and passengers.

The passenger bench section is fixed, too, and this makes for an uncomfortable experience for those that go along for the ride. Still, there are big door pockets for stowing loose items, and the cabin was among the quietest at urban speeds.

Renault’s audio system takes some learning – the little stalks behind the steering wheel aren’t as intuitive as the steering wheel-mounted controls of others – but its phone connectivity is simple and seamless.

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Pictured above: Ford Transit

The Ford was easily the quietest van on test, both in the back streets and on the highway. It lost a few points due to having fewer storage points on the dash, but it easily has the best overhead storage for folders, laptops, tablets and the like.

There are also huge – but low – door pockets to put bottles or clipboards, and the passenger seats were the most comfortable of 1+2 configuration vans. The heated seats may be vital in Europe, but it’s arguably a bit of a novelty here.

While that tiny little media screen, confusing array of old-school buttons and the busy button design on the steering wheel makes for a steep learning curve for the uninitiated, the Ford also had quick and simple phone connectivity.

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Pictured above: Fiat Ducato

The Fiat’s interior felt the most modern, which mainly comes down to the colour touchscreen media system that sits proudly in the middle of the dash. It’s easily the most intuitive and simple system of these four, but we’re shocked that it isn’t hooked up to a reverse-view camera as standard.

Once again there is good in-cabin storage, including a centre folding seat that doubles as a desk – which could be handy if you need to electronically file some work on the road.

But the Fiat is let down somewhat by its cheap feeling controls – the air-conditioning knob, for example, felt as though it was about to fall off in your hand. The steering wheel is also too thick to be comfortable being clasped for hours on end.

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Pictured above: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

Lastly, the Mercedes-Benz, which was typical in terms of its fit and finish: that being, exemplary and easily the most solid in the class.

That said, it lacks some of the clever storage of its rivals. The overhead bin, for example, is shallower than the others, and it is also slotted, meaning loose items could drop out.

It was noisy inside, too, which mainly comes down to the fact you have to option a bulkhead, where all the other vans here have a divider between the cockpit and cargo area as standard.

Its colour media screen adds some extra flair over the Renault and Ford, but the controls for the menus are confusing (it’s a toggle button system, not a touchscreen). Still, as with the rest, the Sprinter’s connectivity proved faultless on test.

Load area

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In terms of the cargo areas, the bag was mixed, too. All four had dual barn doors at the rear, and a single kerbside sliding door, and there are myriad options that buyers can choose in terms of specifying glazed panels or solid.

We loaded in an Australian standard size (1165mm by 1165mm) Chep pallet, the most commonly used pallet in the country, with the aim of placing it in all four vans through the side door – not all succeeded (more on that soon).

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Pictured above: Renault Master

The Renault Master model was the smallest vehicle on test. It was the L2H2 variant, which measures 5548mm long and 2481mm tall, riding on a 3682mm wheelbase.

Its cargo area is 10.8 cubic metres and its Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) is 3510kg, with the payload capacity of the manual model rated at 1582kg.

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Pictured above: Renault Master

The cargo area of the L2H2 Master measures 3038mm long (from rear door to bulkhead). In terms of width, the Master spans 1765mm between the walls of the box – the narrowest of these four vans – and 1380mm between the wheel arches. There is 1894mm of vertical space in the back, but the side load-in door is narrow – we had about 25mm of clearance either side of our loaded Chep pallet.

While it is tall, skinny and a bit of a challenge to fork in to, there are 10 floor tie-down points to secure your load.

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Pictured above: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 316 CDI MWB on test looks the smallest as it’s the low-roof variant, but it measures longer than the Master at 5926mm front to rear, with a 3665mm wheelbase, and its height is 2324mm.

In the cargo hold the Sprinter has the narrowest gap between the wheel arches (1350mm) of these four vans and the second-narrowest space between the walls (1780mm).

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Pictured above: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

The cargo area measures 3265mm long, the second shortest here, and the lack of a standard bulkhead could enable long items to be loaded through (though, it seems, unsafely). Its low roof height (just 1650mm) means it is restricted in terms of what can be carried, and also means taller people will have to hunch inside.

As such, there are only 9.0 cubic metres of space, but it can cop plenty of weight with a payload of 1470kg (GVM of 3550kg). The Sprinter had the fewest floor-mounted tie-downs (eight).

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Pictured above: Fiat Ducato

At the other end of the scale, the Fiat Ducato on test was huge – it was the Extra Long Wheel Base / Medium Roof van, also attractively known as the 295-HGD-4. It measured the longest of all the vehicles here at 6363mm, and the medium roof height means it sits 2524mm tall.

It had the longest wheelbase of all the vans on test (4035mm) as well as the longest cargo area (4070mm excluding bulkhead). It’s also wider than all rivals with 1870mm between the walls and 1422mm between the wheel arches, and there’s 1932mm of height to play with.

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Pictured above: Fiat Ducato

The payload of the Ducato including a driver is 2065kg and the cargo area is capable of carrying a whopping 15 cubic metres of goods. Its GVM is 4005kg, and there are eight tie-down points on the floor.

But despite offering a lot of load space for the money, we couldn’t side-load the Fiat. The load on the pallet was about standard height, but it on a collision course with the secondary mesh bulkhead when loading in. If the mesh one weren’t fitted, though, it would have been fine.

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Pictured above: Ford Transit

The fourth (and tallest) van on test was the Ford Transit 350L High Roof, which measures 5981mm long and rides on a 3750mm wheelbase. At 2786mm tall, it’s the one you’ll need to watch on garage doors and low overpasses – you can get a lower roof version if you choose.

In terms of carrying capacity, the 350L offers the lowest payload of these four (1267kg) and a GVM of 3550kg, but the cargo hold has 12.4 cubic metres of storage before you reach the standard bulkhead. If the low payload doesn’t suit there are Jumbo versions with dual rear wheels that can cope with 1946kg, and they’re still cheaper than the entry Sprinter…

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Pictured above: Ford Transit

There are 10 tie-down points in the cargo area mounted low to the load-floor, and Ford claims the Transit can fit four Euro pallets in. It has 3494mm of floor length available, while the gap between the wheel arches is 1392mm. The height of the cargo area from floor to ceiling is 2025mm in our high-roof version.

Engine and transmission

All four of these big units come powered by turbo diesel four-cylinder engines, with drive being channelled to the front wheels for the Renault and Fiat and the rears for the Mercedes-Benz and Ford.

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Pictured above: Renault Master

The Master is powered by a new twin-turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder diesel producing 110kW of power at 3500rpm and 350Nm of torque from 1500-2750rpm. We tested the six-speed manual model, but buyers can opt for a six-speed semi-automatic if they so choose (having driven it previously, we wouldn’t!).

Claimed fuel consumption for the Master is rated at 8.3L/100km, and it has a 105L fuel tank – the biggest standard tank of these four – ensuring decent range between refills.

This was the best engine of the four in terms of outright acceleration and performance. Part of that comes down to the fact the Master was the lightest of the vans on test.

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Pictured above: Renault Master

With just under a tonne on board it pulled away from the lights with plenty of gusto, and while it isn’t as quiet as some of the others, it makes up for it with great ease of use.

The six-speed manual gearbox also proved simple and effective, with a light – but not too light – clutch action and reasonably slick shift.

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Pictured above: Fiat Ducato

The Ducato is the most powerful van here and it also has the biggest engine. Its 3.0-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder pumps out 130kW of power at 3500rpm and 400Nm at 1400rpm, and in this specification it comes with a six-speed “Comfort-Matic” robotized automatic gearbox as standard.

That transmission, unfortunately, robs the engine of its grunt. It is slow to shift or engage a gear, and while willing enough under light acceleration it felt sluggish and wheezy when you tried to take off quickly.

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Pictured above: Fiat Ducato

The transmission is eager to hunt for the right cog (and it struggles to find it) and we noted some slurred, lurchy gear changes that could be enough to rule it out for many buyers. It’s a real shame there’s no manual transmission option, because the engine feels otherwise up to the task.

Claimed fuel use for the Fiat is rated at 8.9L/100km, and it has the option of equipping it with the biggest fuel tank of these four at 125L. The standard tank is 90L.

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Pictured above: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter on test was powered by a 2.1-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel producing 120kW at 3800rpm and 360Nm from 1400-2400rpm. It comes standard with a six-speed manual, but our test vehicle had that aforementioned optional seven-speed automatic transmission.

Fuel use for the Merc is rated at 7.9L/100km (based on European figures), but it has a small fuel tank – just 75L.

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Pictured above: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

Still, with that optional auto ‘box it proved the most amenable drivetrain on test.

Where the Fiat feels robbed of power by its gearbox, the Mercedes feels ultimately willing and punchy, and the shifts offered are smooth and clever. That said, it is a loud engine, and that could be draining over a week of driving.

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Pictured above: Ford Transit

The Ford Transit is available solely with a 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine that pumps out 114kW at 3500rpm and 385Nm from 1600-2300rpm.

The Ford engine does exhibit some turbo lag down lower in the rev range, but once it hits its power band it feels strong, though perhaps not as pushy as the Renault or the Mercedes.

The engine arguably works at its best when the van is at speed – there’s enough punch to help it along on arterial roads, and it never feels short of puff on the freeway. Steep highway hills will require a shift from sixth to fifth, or even fourth with a load on board.

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Pictured above: Ford Transit

In terms of swapping cogs you need to do the work yourself, as the Transit comes with a six-speed manual gearbox only – no auto is available yet. The gearshifts are snappy, quick and with a car-like action that makes driving it simpler than you’d expect.

While it may not feel as fiery as some of other vans, it offers mindboggling claimed fuel consumption of just 6.4L/100km on the European cycle. And it has a 100L fuel tank.

Road manners

What was most surprising to us during this test was how car-like all of these 5.0-metre-plus vans were to drive.

All of them offered excellent manoeuvrability, which is pretty darn important for such big vehicles.

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Pictured above: Ford Transit

The best vehicle here in terms of comfort and control was the Ford. Easily.

The Transit’s suspension ably deals with big and small bumps, and the back end always feels well planted – something not all vans in this segment can attest to. Its ride comfort is, in short, unbeatable in this company.

It also has quick steering that is light and direct, making for simple overtaking manoeuvres on the open road and ease of parking when you’re in town. Vision from the driver’s seat is excellent, too.

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Pictured above: Fiat Ducato

At the other end of the scale was the Fiat Ducato, which was the least impressive of these vans in terms of its road manners.

The ride was firmer than all four others, though its stronger payload offsets that – and while it was harder over bumps it never felt as though the suspension was being clumsy or crashy. It had light steering with a nice amount of feel to it (despite the steering wheel being a bit overstuffed in terms of its grip-ability), and despite being the largest van here it felt small on the road.

Our biggest complaint about the Fiat, though, was the vision on offer to the driver. The door surrounds and pillars are huge, making for plenty of neck craning to see around the side of the van. No other van here was as nerve-wracking to drive when approaching roundabouts or angled intersections.

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Pictured above: Renault Master

The Renault Master showed a fine balance between comfort and body control, with a ride that was marginally firmer than the Ford, but with light and quick steering that made for simple three-point turns and easy reverse parking procedures.

What we didn’t like about the Renault was its hard plastic steering wheel and gear-knob, which are coarse in the hand.

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Pictured above: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

Whether empty or loaded the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter offered a composed ride that proved comfortable and compliant over big and small bumps.

Its steering felt lighter and less precise than the Ford, but at highway speeds it felt more resolved and trusty, without any twitchiness.

Ownership

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While passenger cars cover an average of about 15,000km per year, it’s not unusual for vans to do triple that amount annually.

As such, long warranties are important, and all four of these vans come with standard coverage of three years – but the Mercedes-Benz, Fiat and Renault come with 200,000km of distance coverage, while the Ford only comes as standard with 100,000km of coverage. At launch the brand had introduced a promotional five-year, 200,000km warranty, which is available at an extra cost.

Servicing is also vital for these big units, because the less they require maintenance, the less time off the road – and therefore away from the business of making money – is required.

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Pictured top: Renault Master; below: Ford Transit

The Master requires maintenance every 30,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first, and the price is capped at $349 per service for the first three visits. That looks pretty darn affordable on paper, and the long distance intervals could prove a selling point for businesses like Power Freight.

Ford, on the other hand, asks owners to bring their vans back for servicing every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first, so if you cover a lot of miles it could be inconvenient. The services average out at $400 per annum, but if you average 30,000km per year (as many of these big vans do), you’re looking at approximately $833 per annum, not to mention two days out of action rather than just one.

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Pictured top: Fiat Ducato; below: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

Fiat takes a slightly different tact with its servicing requirements. The Ducato requires only an oil change at 24,000km, but needs a full service every 48,000km. The Italian brand doesn’t offer a capped-price program, but over three years/144,000km, including all parts and labour, it is estimated at just over $3000.

Mercedes-Benz offers service plan options for its Sprinter van, including BestBasic (routine maintenance only), SelectPlus (maintenance and repairs) or Complete (includes replacement of wear and tear parts such as brakes). The costs for the plans are as follows: BestBasic three-year plan, $51.84 per month;

Select Plus four-year plan, $84.06 per month; Complete three-year plan, $101.48 per month. Services are required every 12 months or 30,000km (whichever occurs first).

Verdict

All of these vans manage to offer a mix of business nous and cargo-carrying cleverness, but to differing degrees of success.

The Fiat Ducato, for instance, can take a big load, and it offers decent size for the money – but with that gearbox and its less-than-lovable road manners, it finds itself in fourth position here. We’d like to drive a manual version, though…

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is a great van – but it just costs too much. There’s no doubting buyers will still fork over much more money for one because it has a strong reputation, and its almost faultless automatic transmission plays a big part in that. However, we’d suggest there are better options available if you can live with a manual gearbox.

One of those is the Renault Master. Its strong engine and good driving dynamics overcome its cheap interior finishes, and it comes second in this test not only because of its sharp price, but also due to its strong aftersales promise.

The winner, then, is the Ford Transit.

While the payload of the 350L isn’t the best, there are versions with better payload ratings for less than some rivals. That, combined with our judgement that it drives better than the other vehicles here while offering good comfort and clever driver-friendly features, means it takes out top spot in this test.

Click the Photos tab above for more images by Christian Barbeitos. 

Thanks to Mark Power from Power Docs & Freight for helping us out on this test.



FIAT DUCATO BREAKDOWN

Large van comparison: Fiat Ducato v Ford Transit v Mercedes-Benz Sprinter v Renault Master
  • 6.5
  • 6
  • 6.5
  • 7
  • 7
  • 6
  Submit an Owner Car Review

FORD TRANSIT BREAKDOWN

Large van comparison: Fiat Ducato v Ford Transit v Mercedes-Benz Sprinter v Renault Master
  • 8
  • 8
  • 9
  • 6.5
  • 8
  • 9
  Submit an Owner Car Review

MERCEDES-BENZ SPRINTER BREAKDOWN

Large van comparison: Fiat Ducato v Ford Transit v Mercedes-Benz Sprinter v Renault Master
  • 7
  • 7
  • 7
  • 7
  • 4.5
  • 8
  Submit an Owner Car Review

RENAULT MASTER BREAKDOWN

Large van comparison: Fiat Ducato v Ford Transit v Mercedes-Benz Sprinter v Renault Master
  • 7.5
  • 9
  • 7.5
  • 6.5
  • 8
  • 7
  Submit an Owner Car Review




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