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A growing majority of tradies and delivery drivers are choosing automatic transmissions for their vans, in a bid to give their left feet a rest in the daily grind of gridlock.

The majority of these vans sold are the fleet-favoured (but ordinary to drive) Toyota HiAce and the evergreen Hyundai iLoad, but here we’re looking at the next rung down.

The latest van to get a self-shifter is the Ford Transit Custom, which we test here in short-wheelbase (SWB) 290S guise against one of its closest rivals – the Volkswagen Transporter TDI340 SWB.

This pair have entrenched themselves as staples of the mid-sized van class alongside the aforementioned Toyota and Hyundai, plus the (manual-only) Renault Trafic, $45,975 Mercedes-Benz Vito 114 BlueTEC auto and bargain-basement $33K LDV G10.

Often, this pair of slightly premium vans are purchased by single operators who want something comfortable for their mobile office, or those drawn to the lure of a Euro workhorse.

But which is best, and why?


Price and specs

The Volkswagen is priced at $41,390 before on-road costs with a DSG automatic transmission, compared to $42,440 for the Ford with auto.

For comparison, the MSRP of a HiAce diesel auto is $40,080, while an iLoad with this drivetrain type is $41,790. The Chinese LDV G10 diesel auto targets budget buyers at $31,490, undercutting even the base Transporter Runner.

Of course, all of these are regularly retailed at dealer level for less than this – often contingent on you providing your ABN.

Pictured: Ford (top) and Volkswagen 

Neither is loaded with equipment but offer solid basics, such as front and side airbag protection, stability control fettled to handle loads, cruise control, keyless entry, hill-hold control, air conditioning, Bluetooth phone and audio and USB inputs, and a single (left) side sliding door.

The Transit Custom also has a standard steel bulkhead with window to insulate the cabin from cargo space noise and offer protection, plus a speed-limiter alongside the cruise, driver’s armrest, digital radio, nifty folding roof racks and even heated seats.

The Transporter doesn’t have these things, but does have a multi-collision brake system that stops you automatically after a rear-ender, a driver fatigue prompter, rear parking sensors, daytime running lights and a 5.0-inch touchscreen compared to the Ford’s static 4.0-inch unit.

Pictured: Ford (top) and Volkswagen 

Vans being vans, each comes with a list of options.

The Ford can be had with a package that adds a 5.0-inch screen with satellite navigation and a reversing camera, plus all-round parking sensors, for $2100. A RHS sliding door is $1000, while a liftgate instead of the standard twin barn doors is $550. Finally, metallic paint is $550, but for $1150 you can factory-order more than 100 different colours.

Volkswagen has a much longer list of options. You can ramp up to a 6.3-inch touchscreen as you see on our tester for $850, plus you can add factory sat-nav for another $850, and App-Connect (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) for $410. A reversing camera/display is $610. The RHS sliding door is $1220 and rear barn doors are $510.

Other features are metallic paint ($1220, eight colour options), rear-side windows for $410 a pop (double that if you want them to slide), lane assist for $1110, a rubber load floor for $470, cargo area air-conditioning for $1120, and heavy-duty suspension for $410. You can also get a fixed loading partition with window for $610 or a solid cargo crash barrier as an accessory.

We’d say having rear sensors and a camera is vital given the lack of visibility outwards otherwise. We’d prefer you didn’t have to pay extra for something so basic, especially with the Ford that demands you get it as part of a $2100 package. Poor form…


Interiors

The battle for cabin supremacy is a tightly fought one, with one van’s signature move countered by the other’s.

The Volkswagen’s interior is less fussy, more resolved and car-like. The 6.3-inch touchscreen fitted is great, with simple interfacing and App-Connect to mirror your phone, be it Apple or Android. Pay for the optional reversing camera, please. Do other road users a favour.

The plastics are hard and easy to clean, and everything is screwed together with German efficiency. There are also handy open storage areas in the doors, atop the dash and in the roof – more so than the Ford’s cabin.

Pictured: Volkswagen 

Ergonomically, you get a driver’s seat with ample height adjustment, and even different degrees of lumbar support (subtle ones), plus both rake and reach adjustment for the leather steering wheel. There’s also a digital speedo.

The optional two-person bench seat folds down and also reclines slightly, though there’s no fold-down work table integrated into the middle seat as offered on the Ford. There’s also less legroom for the passenger than the Ford.

The Ford’s fascia is a mess of buttons topped by a small screen, though if I’m coming off a work site with filthy hands, I might just prefer this over smudging up a touchscreen.

Pictured: Ford 

Like the Volkswagen, the Bluetooth paired easily and had clear audio quality. The sat-nav and reversing camera displays may be stuck on a small screen located miles away, but at least they’re there!

There are fewer storage nooks, but the little cupholders by your knees and the closing cubby on the instrument cowl that contains your USB input are nice touches.

The driver’s seat and the steering wheel have ample adjustment like the VW, and the Ford one-ups the German with its deeper side windows and two-section side mirrors that improve outboard visibility. On the downside, the plastic trim isn’t as reassuringly consistent as the VW’s.

But the Ford’s big winning point is the solid metal bulkhead that protects the cabin occupants from the cargo area, and also keeps out booming noises and the cold – though the small through-window and the barn doors with a big middle pillar hurt rear vision.

Granted, many people would prefer a basic crash barrier, and the VW leaves that choice to you. But for the average city tradie, having a solid Ford-style protector has so many attributes. There are also nifty coat hooks attached…

There’s stuff-all in it when it comes to length, with the 4972mm Ford 82mm longer than the Volkswagen, though the latter’s 3000mm wheelbase is 67mm bigger.

Pictured: Ford (top) and Volkswagen 

Both have loading lengths little over 2.55 metres, though the Ford has cool shallow bits under the seats to house longer items such as piping. The Ford also has an extra 146mm of width to spare between the wheel arches, though both are wider than a standard pallet at their narrowest point.

You can have the Volkswagen with higher roofs, but our standard-roof tester fits anything 1.4m tall, same as the Ford.

Both come standard with a single sliding side-door mounted on the passenger side. The VW’s standard tailgate is a roof-hinged unit with the Ford’s a forklift-friendly twin-door setup with side-mounted hinges and 180-degree openings. Both vans also had floor protection and tie-down loops on the floor (eight for the Ford, six for the Volkswagen).


Drivetrains

Both the Transit Custom and Transporter use 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engines with an emphasis on low-down torque, and a relaxed tune conducive to longevity.

The Ford’s (recently upgraded) unit has 96kW of power at 3500rpm and 385Nm of torque between 1500 and 2000rpm, while the Volkswagen’s engine makes 103kW at 3500pm and 340Nm between 1750 and 2500rpm. Side note, the iLoad makes 441Nm.

Ford recently ditched the old 2.2, with this new unit tested here using AdBlue to reduce NOx emissions.

Unlike the rear-wheel drive (RWD) HiAce and iLoad – where the driven wheels underpin any loaded weight – this pair are front-wheel drive (FWD) and so have to ‘pull’ loads rather than ‘push’ them.

The Ford uses a new six-speed automatic transmission with a torque converter and a manual mode operated by a fiddly button on the shifter. The VW has a seven-speed DSG (dual-clutch gearbox) with manual and ‘sports’ modes – the latter of which just holds onto low ratios at higher engine speeds to maximise response.

Both these vans come with six-speed manual gearbox options for a few grand less, too.

The Volkswagen has a maximum braked-trailer towing capacity of 2500kg, compared to a meagre 1800kg for the Ford – though the manual Transit Custom can lug 2500kg too.

Despite the Ford offering 45Nm more torque earlier in the rev band, it was actually the Volkswagen that made it to 80km/h with a 700kg load aboard, a full second faster (10.4sec).

Both engines are great, though, relatively quiet and not prone to send too many vibrations through the steering wheel. Both are at their happiest sitting around 2000rpm, coasting along merrily, and neither struggled lugging that load up a 20-degree hill.

Pictured: Ford (top) and Volkswagen 

The Ford jumps off the line quicker than the VW, because the latter’s DSG has the typical moment of hesitancy from idle unless you moderate your throttle inputs. But it’s much better once rolling, with decisive changes and an extra, tall top-ratio for cruising.

That said, if you’re the sort of person that drives around town with a ‘point-and-shoot’ style using heavy throttle, you’ll probably prefer the Ford. This tester is used to DCTs of all variety (of which the DSG is one) and rather likes the way it feels a little like a manual.

There’ll be some people reluctant to put a DSG through the wringer in a work vehicle, though we found the driving experience on our tester (which had only 440km on the odo) to be pretty smooth. There are plenty of T5 Transporters with DSGs out there with north of 200,000km too. Ditto the Transit Custom, on that note.

Pictured: Ford (top) and Volkswagen 

The Ford’s engine has a combined-cycle fuel economy claim of 7.2L/100km – 0.5L/100km superior to Volkswagen’s claim. The respective tanks are 72L and 80L.

On our mixed cycle once unladen, we actually found the Volkswagen to be slightly more frugal, though, undercutting its claim and managing an impressive 7.5L/100km compared to 8.1L/100km for the Ford. This is a very minor difference, and both are certainly more efficient than the HiAce’s reliable but coarse 3.0.

To be honest, it’s pretty hard to separate the pair, though the Ford wins on paper. Yet, the VW takes it by a nose, post-acknowledging that the DSG isn’t for everyone.


Ride and handling

Vans are great to drive because you sit up really high, there’s a small distance to the front of the car, and big side windows. Only the outward visibility hurts.

The Transit Custom has unusually quick steering that lends it a car-like feel. It turns into corners well and stays unusually flat through them. The VW’s steering has more resistance and a slower ratio.

On the other side, the Volkswagen’s unladen ride quality is clearly superior, with springs that absorb and round off sharp hits better and a body that settles afterward quicker than the unsettled and pogo-like Ford.

That said, both settle right down with weight aboard, as you’d expect.

Where the Ford really takes the edge is refinement, thanks to that bulkhead, which cocoons you from anything that’s happening in the back. As a result it’s a little quieter – though the VW isn’t overly boomy – and the heater/AC works quicker.

If I were driving around with a light load, the Volkswagen’s clearly superior ride would give it the edge. On the other hand, if I carried 500kg-plus, the Ford with its bulkhead edges ahead.


Running costs

The Ford has long servicing intervals of 12 months or 30,000km (whichever comes first) priced at $425, $565 and $425 for reach of the first three visits. There’s also a three-year/100,000km warranty and free roadside assist.

Volkswagen’s intervals are 12 months and 15,000km, with the first three visits priced at $459, $675 and $533. The Transporter also has a three-year/unlimited distance warranty and free roadside assist.


VERDICT

Both of these vans make for great alternatives to the biggest-sellers in class – the fuss-free iLoad and dated HiAce – offer a self-shifter whereas the Trafic doesn’t, and undercut the outstanding RWD Mercedes-Benz Vito with its seven-speed auto by a few grand.

The Ford has that bulkhead as standard, a more intuitive ’box around town and should be a touch cheaper to operate. The VW is more comfortable over bad roads and has a classier interior. In terms of load-carrying, there’s stuff-all in it.

It really comes down to the price you negotiate, then. 

MORE: Ford Transit news, reviews, comparisons and videos
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MORE: Volkswagen Transporter news, reviews, comparisons and videos
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Make/model Ford Transit Volkswagen Transporter
Variant 290S SWB TDI340 SWB
Price $42,440 $41,390
Engine 2.0 turbo diesel 2.0 turbo diesel
Power 96kW @ 3500rpm 103kW @ 3500rpm
Torque 385Nm @ 1500–2000rpm 340Nm @ 1750–2500rpm
Drive FWD FWD
Transmission Six-speed auto Seven-speed DSG
Claimed fuel econ 7.2L/100km 7.7L/100km
CA fuel econ 8.1L/100km 7.5L/100km
Fuel tank 72L 80L
Towing capacity 1800kg (2500kg manual) 2500kg
Payload 1035kg 1216kg
GVM 2940kg 3000kg
GCM 3940kg (4840kg manual) 5300kg
Length 4972mm 4890mm
Width 2290mm 2297mm
Height 2007mm 1990mm
Wheelbase 2933mm 3000mm
Turning circle 10.9m 11.9m
Brake discs front/rear 288mm/288mm 308mm/294mm
Load length 2555mm 2572mm
Between arches 1390mm 1244mm
Load height 1406mm 1410mm
Cargo volume 5400–6000L 5800L
Side door dimensions 1030mm x 1320mm 1017mm x 1282mm


FORD TRANSIT CUSTOM BREAKDOWN

2017 Ford Transit Custom 290S auto v Volkswagen Transporter TDI340 auto comparison
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VOLKSWAGEN TRANSPORTER BREAKDOWN

2017 Ford Transit Custom 290S auto v Volkswagen Transporter TDI340 auto comparison
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