The Ford Transit Custom mid-sized van now has an automatic transmission to broaden its appeal. It remains a premium contender against rivals, but its market positioning is still flawed.
In many countries, the Ford Transit is something of a byword for van. Australia might well be one of these, though its sales do not reflect as much.
Despite consistent critical acclaim, Australian sales of the Transit Custom sit below the Renault Trafic and Volkswagen Transporter in 2017, and are barely superior to the little-known LDV G10 from China. The Hyundai iLoad and Toyota HiAce outsell it more than 5:1.
Much of this is down to the Ford’s premium market positioning and weaker relationships with big-scale fleet buyers. But it’s mainly been the gearbox. Until recently the Ford Transit Custom could – just like the Renault – only be had with a manual.
Sure, Europeans like shifting their own gears, but Australians generally don’t. Not even van buyers, who – when you think about it – are stuck in gridlock more than any of us. Around 60 per cent of purchasers, often major fleet operators, are looking for an automatic transmission.
No wonder Ford Australia is so now keen to tell us it has finally scored access to the Transit Custom in front-wheel drive (not RWD like the iLoad and HiAce) with an optional automatic transmission to widen its net and catch more buyers, be they single-operator tradies or big fleet purchasers.
Maybe that’s why the press evaluation vehicle it loaned us for a few days wore a rainbow wrap that could be seen from space (though the actual rationale is to promote the fact you can order your Transit Custom in more than 100 factory colours, including Mr Whippy pink, for $1150 if you’re willing to wait for it to arrive). There are only five ‘regular’ colours available.
The six-speed auto is an optional extra that pushes the entry price to $42,240 before on-road costs for the 290S short-wheelbase (SWB) tested here, and $44,440 for the 340L long-wheelbase. You can still opt for the six-speed manual, at $39,690 (SWB) and $41,690 (LWB).
Ergo the Transit still isn’t cheap, shading key diesel-auto rivals like the Hyundai iLoad ($41,790), Volkswagen Transporter TDI340 SWB ($41,390) and the rough-but-reliable Toyota HiAce LWB ($40,080). The manual Trafic SWB 103 costs $37,990. Naturally, ABN holders will do better than this on all vans.
But it’s not just the transmission that’s new. Updated front-wheel drive Transits also get a 2.0-litre ‘EcoBlue’ turbo-diesel engine in place of the old 2.2, with more power and torque but lower fuel use and emissions – sufficient to meet stringent Euro 6 standards.
The revised unit makes 96kW of power at 3500rpm and 385Nm between 1500 and 2000rpm, up 4kW/35Nm over the outgoing Euro 5-compliant 2.2-litre. Fuel use is also down a claimed 11 per cent to 7.2L/100km – still 0.8L/100km more than the manual version.
The engine comes fitted with an opt-out stop/start system that’s relatively refined as far as these systems go, and which creates pleasant silence in gridlock. It also requires AdBlue fluid to convert NOx into nitrogen and water. Get used to these features – they’ll be on all vans soon.
Ford reckons it ran test vehicles at maximum speed for two months, took them from -40°C to towing fully-laden trailers in 50°C heat, then opened and closed the doors and bonnet more than 250,000 times. In other words, Ford reckons the Transit will take the fight to the ever-reliable Toyota.
Ford’s 2.0-litre engine outputs of 96kW/385Nm sit behind the diesel iLoad (2.5-litre turbo with 125kW/441Nm), but offer more torque than other diesel rivals such as the HiAce (3.0-litre turbo with 100kW/300Nm ), Trafic (1.6-litre twin-turbo with 103kW/340Nm), and Transporter (2.0-litre turbo with 103kW/340Nm).
That torque figure is the key to the Ford’s performance, which is generally very good. Our short-wheelbase tester pulled along eagerly under heavy throttle, punching into gaps and away from traffic lights quickly. It also has a strong mid-range complementing the well of bottom-end torque, giving you good rolling response and pulling power when loaded up.
The six-speed torque-converter auto transmission is pretty decisive when downshifting, and smooth in the way it rows through the ratios. It’s a smoother experience under heavy throttle inputs than the DSG-equipped VW Transporter.
Ford has also done a solid job isolating the cabin from noise, vibration and harshness from the diesel engine. The interior is far quieter than the iLoad or HiAce, in large part because it has a standard steel-and-glass bulkhead like the Renault.
No changes have been made to the suspension or steering. In short, the Transit Custom remains comparatively involving and enjoyable to drive, with direct steering, a tight 10.9m turning circle, typical dominant driving position, and an eagerness to turn-in that belies its body shape. If there’s any van that’s somewhat fun to drive, it’s this one.
On the other hand, the suspension – MacPherson struts up front and leaf springs in the rear – can be a little unsettled when unladen over corrugations compared to the cushier Renault, for instance. Yet it settles down when loaded up and in any guise kills the HiAce for comfort. But then, literally everything does…
Capacity-wise, the Transit Custom is 4972mm long, 2290mm wide including the big side mirrors and 2007mm tall with the standard 130kg roof racks retracted. Kerb weight is 1905kg and the GVM is 2940kg, giving the auto a 1035kg payload (the lighter manual has a 1088kg payload).
The auto also has an appreciably lower towing capacity than the manual, at 1800kg braked with a Ford tow pack, compared to 2500kg. This gives the Transit Custom 290S auto a gross combined mass of 3940kg – not great by class standards compared to the aforementioned rivals. Be careful to research your loads before you buy.
The Transit Custom comes with rear barn doors that can open 180 degrees (a rear liftgate can be optioned for $500), and a single passenger-side sliding door. Our tester came with twin sliding doors for load-through access – an option for which Ford will charge you $1000 unless the dealer does you a deal – which reduces cargo volume from 6 cubic-metres VDA to 5.4.
The protected cargo area has 1390mm of room between the arches (Australian standard pallets are 1165mm x 1165mm), and is 1775mm wide at maximum, 1406mm high and has a floor length of 2555mmm (the LWB has 2922mm).
The load compartment comes lit, has eight tie-down loops and is shielded from the cabin by that bulkhead.
Standard equipment includes 16-inch steel wheels wrapped in 215/65 tyres with a steel spare, cruise control with a speed limiter, a leather steering wheel, manual air con, USB/Bluetooth connections, digital radio, three 12V sockets, cloth trim, a driver seat with armrest and lumbar adjustment, and a little 4.0-inch screen.
Our tester came with the $2100 City Nav Pack that adds a rear-view camera, front/rear parking sensors, a 5.0-inch screen and satellite navigation. You simply shouldn’t have to pay extra for this tech given the Transit Custom is already expensive for the class. When it comes to infotainment, the iLoad wins convincingly, though we’d note that VW stings you extra too.
The Transit Custom’s cabin looks a little dated, but workers with dirty hands will prefer hitting the mass of buttons instead of a touchscreen. There’s ample wheel and seat adjustment, good rear visibility and a feeling of solidity. Plenty of storage holes as well…
Occupants also 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 like blind-spot monitoring, forward collision alert or autonomous emergency braking, but the updated stability control system includes cross-wind assist.
The excellent NVH suppression inside the cabin means phone calls on the Bluetooth system are easier to engage in than most rivals. Indeed, for a busy sparkie/plumber et cetera with racking but no need to haul huge loads, and who’s on the go all day, the quiet and simple-to-drive Transit Custom has real appeal.
From a running-cost perspective, Ford has also stepped up its commercial focus with its servicing plan. Maintenance on the new 2.0-litre engine is now due every 12 months or 30,000 kilometres, rather than every 15,000km as used to be the case. That’s a lot of kays without oil and filter changes…
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. There’s also a five-year warranty covering body perforation corrosion.
All told, the Ford Transit Custom is a van with a clear plan. On the downside, the price isn’t quite right, especially once you start ticking options, and it’s disappointing the automatic lowers the car’s towing and carrying capability.
That said, it’s a quiet, fun-to-drive, very safe and an otherwise amenable daily van that’ll justify a premium price tag for certain users. We’d imagine Ford’s network knows it needs to offer keen deals against the iLoad, Transporter and Trafic (and others), and as such would recommend tradies take a look and see what they can conjure.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Joel Strickland and Tom Fraser.