A van. A bloody van. I spent a week in a Ford Transit Custom and started thinking to myself: ‘I could really see myself in one of these.’
Darn right it does. In fact, spend some time with a Transit Custom and it becomes clear Australia’s love of dual cab utes is misguided. They may be essential to some, but they’re a fashion accessory for many.
What makes the TransCon such a good little unit then? Well, a little context probably helps here.
Go back in time a little, to the earlier days of my working career at a rural Toyota dealership in South Australia, where – naturally – HiAces ruled supreme. I’m not talking about the outgoing fifth-gen HiAce either. Rather, the one before it.
Above: Fleet managers, stay calm! It's a prehistoric HiAce with a factory-prepped LPG compatible engine.
A stalwart that had graced Australian showrooms since 1990 and was still driving out of the showroom in solid numbers in the early 2000s, that ‘100 Series’ HiAce was nothing short of a pile of garbage. Not for the blokes who depended on them day in and day out, but alongside Corollas, Camrys and even LandCruisers, the HiAce felt archaic.
Then the fifth gen 200 Series HiAce arrived like a breath of fresh air. It was more powerful, more refined, more efficient... and still fairly uninspiring. It didn’t match the standards set by Toyota’s passenger car range at all, and even some of those were considered low rent and uninspiring by many.
That model is now in the last of its runout before the all new model arrives in a few weeks. Delivery drivers and tradies around the country will be watching on eagerly, to see what the new HiAce is like. There’s every chance it’ll be a marked improvement over the outgoing version.
However, they needn’t bother.
Euro vans have been leading the game for ages. Not just the Transit but vans like the Mercedes-Benz Vito, which is deemed good enough by Benz to wear full leather and woodgrain trim (and V-Class badges) for use as executive class limo transport.
Above: When good vans get fancy. Or should that be 'vancy'?
The Renault Trafic is refreshingly good too. The Volkswagen Transporter is a class act. Then there are bigger vans and smaller vans, vans to go off road in, vans capable of carrying huge volumes. You name it there’s a van for it.
They’re better at keeping your things secure, easier to load, able to keep your equipment dry, or long enough to sleep in the back of – all things a ute can’t match without the aid of accessories. They also all drive like, well, vans.
Except the Transit Custom. You won’t quite mistake it for a passenger car, but then again, you might. There’s so many familiar Ford family bits inside it feels like you’re sitting in a taller Escape.
It should have a noisy uninspiring diesel engine, wooden brakes, flaccid steering, and the world’s most witless transmission. It only needs to serve poor working class schlubs and keep fleet managers happy after all.
Ford sees things differently though. The Transit Custom (the mid-sizer of three Transit models available globally, of which only two come to Australia) is actually an esteemed and integral part of life in the UK and Europe, and because of this Ford has long given the TransCon more attention than many other van makers.
That includes things like sporty models with racing stripes, body kits and alloy wheels. Very unvanlike. You’ll even be able to buy the Transit Custom Sport in Australia for the first time from later this year.
Above: Coming soon,
Ford's take on the Sandman a sporty-ish van, proving everything old is new again.
It’s highly unlikely anything will ever occupy space in the hearts and minds of Aussie enthusiasts the same way Holden Sandman panel vans did during the 1970s. There’s no thumping V8 in a Transit like there was in the Sandman, and the front wheels are driven instead of the rears.
There’s also massive packaging advantages to a van that’s conceptualised from the beginning as a van, rather than a passenger car with a cargo box behind a long-nosed cabin, which only further helps cement how good a Transit is.
I mean, if popular portrayals are to be believed, everyone in Australia goes camping and fishing as part of their daily routine, spends weekends surfing at Bondi and crosses open stretches of desert highway with almost fortnightly regularity. The Transit Custom could do any of those things with one hand tied behind its tailgate.
That’s all practical stuff though. Practical things don’t tug at heart strings.
After a week in the Transit Custom, I flinched when I handed the keys back. I’ve driven lots of vans before but I’ve never had that reaction.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It wasn’t the same kind of twinge that comes with getting out of an MX-5, but it was close. Uncomfortably close.
After driving on highways, rural roads and city streets the closest parallel I could draw was that of a billycart: Something about sitting so far forward, clear view ahead, and streaming along at speed in something that doesn’t look terribly capable yet, surprisingly, is.
It's by no means a performance machine, and often some of the most fun to drive cars aren’t. There’s a more grunty 125kW/390Nm version on the way, along with the 136kW/405Nm Sport mentioned earlier but even in outgoing MY18.75 form (yes, that’s really what Ford calls it) its 96kW/385Nm oiler does a decent job before being loaded up.
It fits into the category of cars you can enjoy within the confines of the speed limit and long before hitting the handling limits. It’s firm enough (with a view to hauling loads) to feel light on its feet yet leans through bends generously (thanks to its high body) to amplify the effects of cornering.
A sports car it is not, nor does it pretend to be. A smile-inducing car is something different though, they entertain in different ways for different reasons. Performance is easy to pigeonhole, entertainment isn’t.
Most of the Transit Customs you see on Australian roads will end up stuffed full of PVC pipes, power tools, copper wire and other working essentials, but imagine for a moment wheeling your dirt bike into the back, stuffing it full of mattress and setting up the ultimate glamping wagon, or creating spaces for wetsuits, surfboards and a BBQ zone in the back.
Above: Look at all that potential and let your imagination run wild.
Go a step further and put one of those leisure activities of your choice into a van that your other half wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen in. One with CarPlay, AEB, lane keeping, radar cruise control and the kind of peace-of-mind safety tech to ease the effort of long days behind the wheel.
A car they might even willingly borrow the keys for everything from a trip to the shops to a weekend away. One that’s not drafty and rattly but is spacious and versatile. One you don’t need rock climbing abilities to get in and out of but still comes with the frugal promise of sub-8.0 L/100km fuel consumption.
A car that is far from suited to all owners or all applications. A car considered, by its very design, far from perfect and you don’t mess with imperfection.