Ford Transit Custom Review : Recycling weekender

James Ward gets his weekend recycling on with the all-new Ford Transit Custom...

The backbone of Britain. An apt description for a vehicle that has hauled more loads than you and I have had cups of Earl Grey – the Ford Transit.

Now in its fifth generation, the new Ford Transit Custom hit the Australian market in February this year. Heralded as the safest and most ‘car-like’ commercial van available, I jumped behind the wheel for a weekend of cleaning up.

The setup of the first ‘official’ CarAdvice Melbourne office occurred earlier this year, but the remnants of the move hung around for a bit longer than intended. Yes we got rid of the rubbish as we went, but with great IKEA purchases comes great amounts of cardboard – and there’s only so much you can cram into the wheelie bin each week.

While neatly stored in the garage, all the cardboard was still taking up space and I eventually cracked it. It had to go. Conveniently my ‘snap’ coincided with the new Ford Transit Custom coming in for evaluation.

For someone who doesn’t drive one regularly, there is something fun about a van.

Combine the slab-sided road presence with a high driving position and every drive has you feeling like BA Baracaus in your own episode of the A-Team.

You may recall we have driven both the previous generation Transit and the popular Hyundai iLoad over similar weekend trials. Each time the practicality and strange enjoyment of ‘vanning’ overcome the occasionally rudimentary nature of the vehicle. For mine, though, the new Ford Transit is a bit different – it really is more like driving a car.

This is no doubt helped by the Transit’s fixed bulkhead that seals off the three-seat front passenger compartment from the rear load bay. As well as making things nice and quiet up front, the new addition has also helped the Transit Custom achieve a five-star Euro-NCAP rating – normal for a car, but a generational step forward for a van.

There are front, side and curtain airbags as well as ABS and ESC stability control. This combined with a body structure that uses high-strength materials – including boron – give a feeling of driving a big station wagon rather than a box on wheels.

The modernisation of the humble one-box van continues on the outside, where cladding and angles take on a life of their own to produce a rather cool, if not futuristic, design… for a van.

In the right light the Ford Transit Custom looks to me like an extra from the set of a 1990s dystopian sci-fi movie, like the modified Land Rovers in Stallone’s Judge Dredd. Or, maybe it was still far too early on a Saturday and I hadn’t had a coffee.

With my pint-sized ‘helper’ (Miss Five) distracted by rainbow fairies (don’t ask), I set about filling the Transit with recyclable packing materials.

The Transit Custom only has a single left-hand-side sliding door, but has twin barn doors at the rear. A neat trick, these can be quickly and easily expanded from a 90-degree position to a 180-degree one, allowing unrestricted rear loading – ideal for loading in pallets with a forklift.

The load space walls have plywood panels covering its outer skin, which look neat but also help protect the sheet metal from being damaged by pointy loads shifting during transit. Don’t think this is important? Have a look at the next van you see on the road for telltale load bay ‘punch’ dents…

The single side door (which cannot be glazed, even as an option) makes adjusting the load easy, although I will say that dual side doors – as on the Hyundai iLoad – add an extra level of convenience.

The load bay is genuinely big too – able to swallow a pallet width, with 1390mm between the arches – and at over 3.0m long and 1.4m tall, one of the largest in the class. My load of cardboard (and an errant printer) barely making a dent… both literally and figuratively.

There are two big D-shackles above each rear wheel arch to use as tie-down points and a further two on the passenger compartment bulkhead. You can use holes in the bodywork to clip ocky straps and the like to, but overall I would have expected more ‘official’ fixtures to help secure loads.

Load stored and secured, we set sail for the council waste transfer station to turn our old cardboard into new cardboard.

Inside the cab of the Transit, there are more angles and plenty of cool storage bins – even one above the instrument binnacle with a USB power slot. Handy! There’s even a really conveniently sized slot to fit your mobile phone upright, which is a great help when relying on an external device for navigation.

All the other creature comforts are present: heated seats; air-conditioning; and steering wheel audio and telephony controls. The big windows make the cabin light and airy despite the drab colour scheme.

Currently available in six-speed manual only (an automatic transmission should follow next year), the 114kW/385Nm 2.2-litre turbo-diesel is pretty sprightly for a (barely) loaded 2.3-tonne vehicle. It also claims a sharp 7.1L/100km combined cycle fuel consumption average.

The gearshifts are smooth and the clutch light enough to make the manual an easy transmission to live with. Overall it’s a very simple car to drive.

It sounds like a throw away line, but the whole ‘drives like a car’ thing is legit. The Transit Custom feels solid and sure on the road – a significant improvement on its fridge-esque brethren that would catch crosswinds like a spinnaker. Even for a hobby vanner like me, it takes no time at all to become comfortable with the Transit.

Our test van is fitted with the optional ‘City Pack’ ($1500) which adds parking sensors (a sonar diagram shows on the center display), reverse camera (with image in the rear view mirror) and fog lights (to help you pretend you are driving a Subaru WRX).

The dash-mounted screen provides a monochrome display for Ford’s voice-activated SYNC system to show radio, Bluetooth and other infotainment functions. It’s no eight-inch touchscreen but it’s better than many other vans in the segment.

Arriving at the transfer station, we are simply waved through. Vans command more respect than the chap behind me in a Renault Scenic it would seem.

Unloading the cardboard is easy enough – despite the bin being on the opposite side to my sliding door… And without too much fuss, all the recyclables are separated ready to begin their new lives as the pizza boxes of tomorrow.

Miss Five says she finds the Transit easy to jump in and out of. She also, foolishly, informs me that she isn’t quite yet bored of Dad’s weekend errands, so we swing past Reece to grab some bits and pieces for a bit of DIY drainage repair. Feeling so at home in the van, we park the Transit on the footpath.

A quick run back to Richmond to dump the printer, and onto home – our hi-viz jobs done and just in time for lunch.

After a day lugging bits and pieces around, the Ford Transit Custom is a very comprehensive package and a really pleasant place to be. It’s fun too and I make a point of driving it as often as I can over the rest of the weekend. Out of BBQ gas? I’ll sort it, I have a van…

All this vanning fun and comfort does come at a cost though, with the Transit Custom starting at $37,990 – about $1500 more than a Hyundai iLoad but less than the $38,990 Mercedes-Benz Vito. Add in the city pack and some roof or interior racking accessories and you are well over $40k on the road. Given the outgoing Renault Trafic can be driven away in run-out guise for $32,990 at the moment, the safety and refinement of the Transit needs to be a key factor in your buying decision.

The Transit is easy to deal with in traffic and parking situations, although after a quick run to the supermarket on Sunday night, I will say putting unsecured shopping bags in the load bay (because van) isn’t the best idea. The unmistakable ‘shssssssh-t bang’ noise of milk, bread and bananas sliding around does make you think twice about using this for everyday duties.

As a solid workhorse though, the Transit Custom deserves its ‘backbone of Britain’ moniker, and along with its class leading safety and dynamics, provides an entertaining and rewarding drive.

Read our full multi-van technical comparison here.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by James Ward.

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