The Ford Transit may not be a top-seller in Australia, but its name is nevertheless synonymous with the commercial van sector.
The Blue Oval brand rolled out a series of updates to its load-carrying staple last last year, a few months after it launched a revised version of the smaller – and increasingly popular – Transit Custom.
Reflecting growing demand from fleets with OH&S policies (and presumably tradies and logistics workers fed up with being given short shrift), the updates include more safety features to be mentioned a little further down.
The version we’re looking at here is called 350L, and it’s the entry point to a range that comprises the 350E and 470E Jumbo Vans and 470 cab-chassis. Ford Australia charges $53,190 before on-road costs for the version tested here, with the automatic transmission favoured by most buyers.
It’s far from the only large van to get a touch-up in recent times. It lines up against new or recently updated competitors such as the Volkswagen Crafter 35 TDI 340 ($52,290), Toyota HiAce Super LWB ($52,140), Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 311 CDI MWB ($54,930), and Renault Master Pro MWB/LWB ($49,990/$51,990).
The Transit's cabin is for the most part a good workspace, with some ergonomic quirks. The cloth-trimmed driver's seat has ample adjustment including a tilting base and a flip-down armrest, and the steering wheel has both height and reach adjustments. Both outboard seats are even heated for cold mornings.
Our test van had three seats, but the two-person passenger-side bench isn't much chop, since the gearstick protrudes into the space so much. Middle-seat leg room is minimal, and you might be inclined to option your Transit as a two-seater – which you can.
There's lots of storage, as well: to its credit there's a big bin under that two-person bench, plus bottle holders in the doors and next to front occupants' knees, cupholders next to the outer vents, open cubbies atop the dash, and an open glovebox alongside a lidded one.
The driver's instruments are simple to configure and include a digital speedo and distance-to-empty readout, and the various audio and phone shortcuts on the wheel take little time to familiarise with. Infotainment is improved. The old 6.5-inch screen is replaced by an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Bluetooth, USB, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, digital radio, and the option of satellite navigation for $600.
This screen works really well. Ford's SYNC 3 software is a cinch to figure out, and offers further functions such as Australian-tuned voice recognition and a system that can call 000 and send your coordinates when the airbags go off or the fuel pump switches off, provided you're paired up by Bluetooth.
However, I don't like the way the hardware is installed: the screen is propped up vertically, and its positioning means you sort of have to move your head to see it properly. I'd prefer it angled back slightly and tilted to the driver. I do wonder if it's a sore neck waiting to happen.
Other features include six airbags, reversing camera, automatic high-beam lights that dip when the sensors detect oncoming traffic, dusk-sensing low-beam, rain-sensing wipers, a 230V powerpoint, and a configurable ‘MyKey’ system that restricts vehicle speed and audio volume, and forces safety features into their ‘on’ position, when used.
The cargo area, separated from the passenger area by a rigid bulkhead fitted as standard, is accessed by a single kerbside sliding door with a 1700mm tall and 1300mm wide opening. Also, glazed rear barn doors open up to 270 degrees for forklift access and combined reveal an opening 1748mm tall and 1565mm wide.
This area is lit, has 10 tie-down points on the sealed and protected loading floor, and full-height hardboard lining.
The cargo area measures 3494mm in length along the floor (this figure is cut by 150mm halfway up because of the bulkhead), 1794mm wide, 1392mm wide between the wheel arches at floor level, and 1886mm tall (the manual RWD has a higher floor on account of the driveshaft). Ford claims a storage area of 10.8 cubic-metres (VDA).
You can option a higher roof with 2125mm in cargo area height for $1500 and a second sliding side door for $1000.
The exterior dimensions of the 350L are 5981mm long, 2112mm wide (with the mirrors folded in), 2541mm tall, on a 3750mm wheelbase. The Transit 350L weighs 2255kg and has a payload of 1295kg, which is 150kg less than a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter's and 99kg less than a Volkswagen Crafter's.
The maximum tow rating for this auto model is 1700kg, whereas manual/RWD versions are rated at 2750kg! For context, a Sprinter is rated to tow 2000kg, and both the Crafter and Renault Master are rated at 2500kg with autos. It does beat the 1500kg claimed by the HiAce SLWB, though.
Additionally, the Ford's gross combination mass (GCM) figure is 4250kg, so you can't legally be at maximum payload and tow the maximum trailer weight simultaneously. By contrast, a Sprinter MWB is legally rated to tow 2000kg while at payload, since its GVM is 3550kg and its GCM is 5550kg.
The Transit has disc brakes at both ends, strut suspension at the front and leaf springs at the rear, and electric-assisted power steering. It rolls on 16-inch wheels and 235/65 tyres, and has a full-sized spare.
Its ride quality even unladen is really quite good. The Transit Custom is a touch stiff and firm, but this longer model acquits itself well. Naturally, a few hundred kilos in the rear settles those leaves down. The steering is super light and allows a smallish 13.3m turning circle. The other strong point is cabin refinement, which is helped by the partition.
The driving position is nice and high, with big side windows and dual-pane mirrors (the lower wide-angle portion in particular is helpful when towing or parking) making outer visibility quite good. That bulkhead viewing window does impinge on rearward vision slightly, though the trade-off is a warmer, quieter and more protected cabin.
Perhaps it's a right-hand-drive thing, but the pedal area is a bit small for anyone in work boots like my size 13 Blundstones. Sit in the van and check for yourself before buying.
All Transits come with autonomous emergency braking (AEB) that also detects errant pedestrians, adaptive radar-guided cruise control that is of great relief on highways, lane-keeping aid and departure-warning systems that help tired drivers stay in the lane, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alerts which, alongside the wide-view camera, greatly assist backing out of driveways, and a traffic-sign-recognition camera.
The stability-control system also has inbuilt crosswind assistance and trailer-sway control, for when you get a stiff side wind.
The engine is a strong point. It's a 2.0-litre turbo diesel with direct injection and stop/start as per class norms, making 125kW at 3500rpm and 390Nm from 1600–2300rpm. It's mated with a six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. The manual versions are rear-wheel drive. It has a 21L AdBlue tank and meets Euro 6.2 emissions compliance.
It's a very good unit, with a heap of low-end surge just off idle and enough pep while rolling to make lane changes and overtakes simple. It may look like a small-displacement engine, but it rarely struggles.
To give its outputs some context, an equivalently priced Sprinter 311 CDI's 2.0-litre diesel makes 84kW/300Nm, while even the nearly $60K Sprinter 314 CDI's engine only has 105kW/330Nm. The Crafter's 2.0-litre makes 103kW/340Nm, and the Master's 2.3-litre has 110kW/350Nm.
To say the Ford's engine bests most Euro competitors is clear, although the HiAce's 2.8-litre unit lifted from the HiLux making 130kW and 450Nm mated to a 6AT and RWD outguns the Ford's figures.
I managed to keep fuel economy around the 9.5L/100km figure, though never while close to maximum payload. One other quirk is the fact that while the manual model with RWD has a 95L fuel tank, the Transit auto's with FWD is only 72L. That's a couple of hundred kilometres less range...
What about ownership costs? The Transit is covered by a five-year factory warranty with no distance cap, and roadside assistance.
Service intervals are a long 30,000km or 12 months (a HiAce's are every six months or 10,000km). The first visit costs $445, the second $705 factoring in extra for new brake fluid, and the third $445.
For context, a Crafter's intervals are 12 months/20,000km and the first three visits cost $516, $807, and $595. A Master has 12-month/30,000km intervals with each visit capped at $599, plus $209 extra for new coolant and brake fluid at the 60,000km mark.
So, the Transit 350L proves to be competitively priced to buy, and acceptably affordable to run given its long servicing intervals. It also has a strong engine that outguns those in most competitors, a very long list of active and passive safety functions, and all the infotainment needs covered on paper.
There's not a whole lot to dislike, provided you don't notice the same ergonomic quirks as I did, and don't plan on towing while at payload. It's a shame the auto takes away some of the upper-limit capabilities, but for most logistics operators and tradies it's likely to be a highly commendable work companion. Now more than ever.