The 2017 Ford Transit Custom should be a game-changer for the Blue Oval brand.
Not because of the slightly improved infotainment option. Not because of the 100-plus colours that it can be painted under the brand’s Special Vehicle Options plan. Not even because you can get it with different doors than before. Heck, it’s not even down to the new engine under the bonnet!
It’s all about the transmission for the updated Ford Transit Custom, which, for the first time ever, is available with a six-speed automatic.
Van drivers: rejoice! That left leg of yours can rest once more – no more clutch depressions for you!
It’s not about that, of course, it’s more to do with the statistics around buyer preferences in the van segment – Ford reckons that 60 per cent of purchasers, often major fleet operators, are looking for an automatic transmission when buying a parcel shuttle, and that should help it see a big jump in sales for the new Transit Custom auto.
There’s no question that it makes for a far more effortless experience behind the wheel, too, with the transmission offering smooth and quick shifts that are decisive enough to ensure smooth or rapid progress, depending on the level of throttle input being fed in.
The six-speed auto is an optional extra that pushes the entry-level auto price to $42,240 for the 290S short-wheelbase and $44,440 for the longer-wheelbase Transit Custom. You can still get the regular six-speed manual, at $39,690 for the SWB and $41,690 for the 340L LWB – all prices before on-road costs.
No matter which transmission you choose, it is paired to a new 2.0-litre four-cylinder EcoBlue engine, and as you may be able to tell by the name of the power unit, it features Euro 6-friendly AdBlue treatment.
It’s a good step up on the existing 2.2-litre, being quieter and more refined (from memory) under throttle. And with a little bit more power – now 96kW at 3500rpm, up from 92kW – and some extra torque – now 385Nm from 1500-2000rpm was 350Nm from 1450-2000rpm – it’s not short on poke, either, building pace rapidly if required.
There’s a well of pulling power to call upon from nice and low in the rev range, and during our few hours in the van at its Australian launch in Melbourne earlier this week we found it was up to the task with either nothing in the cargo area, or about 400 kilograms of crated Ford engines. The stop-start system of the engine appeared to work quite well, too, though there was a little bit of low-rev vibration in stop-start traffic.
It’s also the most efficient diesel engine offered in the brand’s commercial vehicle ranks, with claimed consumption of just 6.4 litres per 100 kilometres for the SWB and 6.6L for the LWB (previously 7.2L and 7.4L). We saw 8.4L/100km over an at-times enthusiastic drive through the outskirts of the Victorian capital.
It goes well, and stops convincingly, too: but we reckon the brake pedal is set a little too high to be comfortable if you’re a purely right-footed automatic driver. If you two-foot it, it’s not too bad.
No changes have been made to the suspension or steering, and the Transit Custom remains quite involving and enjoyable to drive – which may be important to you, if you’re going to spend most of your working day in the driver’s seat.
The steering is very direct, but it can be chatty over bumpy sections of road, with the wheel jostling in the driver’s hands. The turning circle is very good, at 10.9 metres for the SWB and 12.2m for the LWB.
And the suspension –MacPherson independent up front and leaf spring in the rear – is a bit hit-and-miss, if you'll pardon the pun. When unladen, we found it to be a little busy over nasty Aussie back road surfaces, and also pitchy and floaty at lower speeds. For outright unladen ride comfort, a Mercedes-Benz Vito or Renault Trafic is a touch more convincing, though it should be stated that we only drove the SWB models at launch.
Ford’s commercial vehicles guys reckoned the changes have been “substantial”, and to a degree they’re correct, but there’s an argument to be had over the infotainment/safety package on offer.
That’s because, despite most other models in the Ford range getting the brand’s commendable Sync 3 media system with the latest smartphone mirroring (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), the Transit Custom misses out on the tech. And it’s not even an option you can choose: instead, buyers who are interested can get an optional navigation system that is bundled into the City Nav pack.
That pack – in this writer’s opinion – really should be a standard-fit item in the updated Transit Custom, as it has a rear-view camera and front and rear parking sensors included. If you don’t option it, you don’t get any of that convenience/safety tech. It’s an old system, and not as good as you’ll find in the Hyundai iLoad or Renault Trafic, but is an improvement on what came before it. Just. But, $2100? Come on, Ford Australia - the van is $1700 more expensive this time around, and the potential fuel savings for consumers from the new 2.0-litre will take a fair while to recoup.
But you do get six airbags (dual front, front side and curtain) and a carryover five-star ANCAP crash test score from when the vehicle was tested back in 2014. You don’t get any of the active safety tech you can have in a Mercedes van, like blind-spot monitoring, forward collision alert or autonomous emergency braking, but the stability control system has been updated to include cross-wind assist.
The interior has seen little in the way of other changes, but it remains cleverly kitted out for commercial vehicle operators, with lots of loose-item storage like cup holders up high on the dash sides, bottle holders down near the outboard occupants’ shins, and a dash-top cubby with a USB port and auxiliary jack, not to mention one of two 12-volt outlets in the cabin.
The seat layout is a 1+2 configuration, with good adjustment and comfort for the driver, and decent sculpted seats for both middle occupants. There’s tilt-and-reach adjustment for the steering wheel, too, but just watch your fingers when you’re adjusting it – it can be grabby.
There are steering-wheel mounted audio controls, a voice-control system that will leave you frustrated, and a digital speedo with a very small readout (better than not having your speed purely in analogue dial mode, though).
What about the load space, then?
As mentioned earlier, there are improvements to the available door options, including the addition of a tailgate option for $550 (great for hand-loading couriers, particularly if it happens to be a rainy day! – the barn doors remain the standard-fit), and the addition of a driver’s side sliding door option (expensive, at $1000), bringing the Ford up to standard. There’s a standard-fit insulated bulkhead with a small cabin window, but rearward vision from the mirror isn’t excellent (the Trafic’s big rear glass is much better in that regard).
There are still plenty of clever features, like the standard pop-up roof racks with ladder clamps that are integrated into the roof (they’re ultra handy but with the racks up they can be noisy at highway speed). There are eight tie-down points in the back, and the floor and walls are lined for protection.
Ford has also stepped up its commercial focus with its servicing plan, with maintenance on the new 2.0-litre engine due every 12 months or 30,000 kilometres, rather than every 15,000km as used to be the case. The warranty is now better for distance drivers, too, with three-years/200,000km of cover, and the same for the brand’s roadside assist.
On the whole, there are plenty of improvements to the 2017 Ford Transit Custom, and yes, you did read it right – there are more than 100 colours to choose from in Ford’s Special Vehicle Options Paint Range for a set cost of $1150 – solid or metallic. The standard palette consists of white (no cost), as well as blue, two silvers and black ($550).
We’re sure the updated model will extend the appeal of the Transit Custom, and deservedly so, but there are still some shortfalls in safety and tech that we reckon would have made it an even better thing than it already is. Is it a game-changer, then? Not quite.