The Transit may have been the biggest selling van in the UK by a mile since its launch in 1965, but of late the bosses at Ford have been increasingly concerned that there is a serious problem with the brand.
While all the other manufacturers have two separate panel van offerings in the 2.5-4.5 tonne sector (Vauxhall Vivaro/Movano, Mercedes-Benz Vito/Sprinter etc), the Transit straddles both weights.
And as the demands and expectations of fleet buyers become ever more complex, the Transit has begun struggling against an opposition that is ever-more customer-focused.
This problem is about to be solved with the launch of the sixth generation Transit. In an extended roll-out that will last until late next year, Ford is putting a new lightweight Transit on sale this year and calling it the Transit Custom, while new heavier models will be revealed late this year, to be labelled Transit.
Explaining the logic behind this major new direction at the Transit Custom launch in Munich, Transit product manager David Petts told Fleet Van: “Our new Transit, which will go on sale mid-2013, will be mainly aimed at fleet buyers while the Transit Custom launched here is more for owner-drivers, although of course some fleets will still buy it.
“We are aiming to put more distinction between these two models. We need two different products to focus more keenly on each of these sectors and each model will have completely different brochures and a different dealer focus.
“Trying to sell everything under one umbrella just doesn’t work any more. The two sets of customers have very different needs.”
The Transit Custom revealed here looks entirely different from its predecessor. Gone are the rather chunky pedestrian looks of the Mk5, to be replaced by stylish curves and a truly car-like ride and handling package. In fact, everything but the engine, transmission and suspension has been replaced with new parts – and even those items carried over have been heavily modified.
Also at the launch was Ford of Britain managing director Mark Ovenden, who has taken over as the head of light commercial vehicles following Steve Clary’s promotion to managing director of Ford Component Sales.
Ovenden said: “We are proud that the new Transit has been designed and engineered in Britain, using the global might of Ford.
“This launch is the first instalment of two years of new product for us and the entire LCV range will be replaced by 2014.”
Ovenden said Transit sales volume beats the next four competitors combined and he believes the new model will turn the van into a global superbrand.
“This new Transit has superb noise, vibration and harshness qualities and a car-like interior – it also retains the strength, durability and low cost of ownership that is expected of the Transit name,” he said. “We’ve taken the best bits of the Transit and added to them.”
The residual value experts at CAP obviously agree. They have already assessed the new vehicle and have awarded it a predicted value at three years/60,000 miles of 36% for the 270 version, 11 percentage points higher than the outgoing equivalent 260 model.
So what’s new apart from the stylish exterior?
The Transit Custom weighs in at between 2.7 and 3.3 tonnes gvw and comes in long and short-wheelbase format.
There will also be Tourneo minibus version (eight or nine seats) and, later, a high- roof version.
It’s powered by Ford’s tried and trusted 2.2-litre common rail diesel powerplant and will be available in three outputs – 100bhp, 125bhp and 155bhp. Three trim levels will be on offer: base, Trend and Limited. Prices will range from £17,450 to £25,545 ex-VAT.
The new model features a class-leading 6.0 cubic metres of loadspace (the Volkswagen Transporter offers 5.8 cu m) while the long-wheelbase version hikes this up to 6.8 cu m. The SWB version is the only van in its class able to carry three Euro pallets with a one-metre height and 8x4 sheets horizontally and vertically.
Also class-leading is the width between wheelarches at 1,390mm and the side door opening at 1,320mm x 1,030mm. In addition there’s a standard bulkhead but with a hinged opening that allows loads to be poked through into a secure space under the cab floor, which means that items up to 3.4 metres long can be carried in the LWB version.
One improvement that drivers will find useful is the new ultra-bright LED loadspace lighting in the rear – most panel lighting is less than adequate at present.
There’s also an ingenious optional roof rack system that folds away flat when not being used.
Although the new Transit Custom was designed by Brits, it is being built at Kocaeli in Turkey, although some larger Transit versions next year are due to be built in Southampton. But the engines are designed and built at Dagenham, so there is still British input.
The three units have been tweaked so that more power is on offer than in the old Transit – and class-leading fuel consumption is now available at 42.8mpg.
These tweaks included a punishing test regime equivalent to three million miles, including 250,000 on the road with actual fleet customers.
Exact specification for each variant is still sketchy but all models will, as in the old version, feature ESP as standard and a stop-start system.
Behind the wheel
While the Transit’s qualities may be many and varied, it has generally been acknowledged among experts that in its lighter format, some of its rivals are a fair bit ahead, especially in the ride and handling department.
The current Transit is pretty noisy in the cab, for example, and doesn’t hold the road as well as the rival Volkswagen Transporter which is generally held to be the leader in the sector.
But the guys at Ford are well-known for their rabbit-and-hat routine both in the car and van sectors and, having driven this vehicle for the first time, I can vouch that this is a van which will finally give the Volkswagen a good run for its money.
All the 30 or so journalists at the launch event came back full of glowing praise for this Transit Custom’s car-like driveability and its good looks.
All the test vans were in Limited spec, which means that they were specced with extras that most fleet drivers won’t have. But the basics won’t change and these items are hard to find fault with.
Gone is the old Transit driver’s seat which I always complained about as having no lumbar support and with a hard ridge that stuck into my shoulder blades. In its place is a wonderfully supportive seat that hugs the figure from the back of the knees to the neck.
Gone is the chunky old dash, to be replaced with something that is stylish and functional and which draws its design cues from the Focus. There’s a large cup holder on each side just in the right places (not all vans have this) and a bottle bin for driver and passenger.
On our test vans, the back of the middle seat folded down to reveal a handy desk with two more cup holders, while there’s a pop-up cover in front of the driver which reveals another storage space complete with 12-volt socket and USB port.
This means you don’t have wires trailing all over the place if you want to plug in a sat-nav unit or mobile phone.
There’s even a sunglasses holder in the roof near the driver and two coat hooks at the back of the cab – nice touch.
On the outside, while I admired the Transit’s svelte lines, our test models had virtually no black plastic padding round the edges to prevent them from annoying knocks and scrapes. I took this up with the Ford designers and apparently the base model – which will be the big fleet seller – will thankfully contain such workaday bumpers. That should save a few pounds at the bodyshop.
The fold-down roof rack system works a treat, although of course this will be a paid-for item.
In the back, it is amazing how the designers have managed to squeeze in six cubic metres of cargo space.
Full marks to Ford for making the plastic load liner a standard fitment and I was also interested to note that the load-lashing eyes have migrated from the floor to the sides of the van, where they are much more useful. I’ve often queried the positioning of these items in the past and now most manufacturers are seeing sense in having them higher up.
But it was on firing up the 2.2-litre powerplant that the Transit Custom revealed itself in its true glory. I can’t believe how much smoother, quieter and more refined it is than the old model.
We tested both short and long-wheelbase models, both with a half-load on board and both featuring the 125bhp engine, and even on the hilly sections of our test route, the van never felt short of power.
My co-pilot and I never had to raise our voices to be heard (unlike in the old Transit) and with power steering weighted just how I like it (a little on the firm side so you can feel what’s going on between the tyres and the road) and with the slickest of slick gearchanges, we could for all the world have been driving a car that had been pumped up with steroids.