Melbourne, September 2006
What we liked
>> Willing turbodiesel engines
>> Standard equipment
>> Ride and driveability, even unladen
Not so much
>> No auto option
>> Some silly detailing
For over 40 years, Ford has been building and selling large empty boxes on wheels. During that time, over 5m Transits have streamed onto the roads of Europe and Australia (but not the plum markets of America or Japan, where they are respectively too small or too big).
Over the years there have been thousands of derivatives -- varying engines, chassis configurations and bodies have flowed out of Ford factories at Dagenham and Southampton in the UK, Ghent in Belgium, and now Turkey, where a modern, sophisticated factory churns out tens of thousands of the vehicles each month.
Some of them have now arrived Down Under and continue the Transit's tradition of putting "a man in a van" with new engines, new designs and new ergonomics. In total there are 20 variants on sale in Australia, available in 10 different colours.
Transit now comes with a choice of three different four-cylinder engines (two diesel, one petrol) and new basic architectures -- a front-wheel drive in both short and medium-length wheelbases, and a rear-wheel drive long-wheelbase, which now offers a double-cab that has an extra four seats, behind the front-row three.
In the transmission department, there is a five-speed manual and a six-speed manual but no automatic -- optional or otherwise.
This is something Ford Australia admits will hurt the Transit in the marketplace. With the smaller Toyota Hi-Ace selling automatics hand over fist, there's no doubt that firms not needing the Transit's huge load space for their stop-start, high-traffic density work will continue to be welcomed at Toyota dealerships. To make matters worse, Transit-sized rivals from VW, Mercedes, Renault and now Fiat are all working hard to claim a slice of Australia's 21,000 units per year van market.
The new Transit engines are now Euro IV emissions-compliant and have 15,000km service intervals. The Duratorq high-pressure common-rail turbodiesels feature twin overhead cams, four-valves per cylinder with centralised injectors and are intercooled.
The 2.2-litre 81kW base turbodiesel delivers 285Nm and slips into the short wheelbase, driving the front wheels through a five-cog gearbox. Fuel consumption figures of 8.2lt/100km are claimed. At 2.4-litre, the next one up makes 104kW and a generous 375Nm thanks to variable-vane turbine geometry. It gets a six-speed ‘box and goes under the nose of the long-wheelbase models, returning 9.4lt/100km.
An LPG-compatible 2.3-litre petrol engine will become available in early 2007. It is also designated for long-wheelbase applications, makes available 104kW and 206Nm and gets five forward gears. It can go 20,000 or a full 12 months between services.
The Transit's under-the-skin revisions are matched by a new face, new features and new ideas, although there are many carry-over components.
The new models are given more modern looks with revised head and tail-light clusters, and with features like steps built into the front grille, so that the top of windscreen can be reached for cleaning.
Interestingly, at 10.8m the smallest Transit boasts a tighter turning circle than the Falcon-based Ford Territory.
Inside, the cabin is made very much more car-like. Details like the Focus-sized steering wheel, dash-mounted gearlever, airbags, four-wheel disc ABS brakes and air-conditioning are now all standard. So are an in-dash CD player and electric windows and doors.
Dash and stalk controls are now unashamedly from Ford's passenger car division, and much work has gone into making the steering, throttle, brakes and gearshift all as car-like as possible.
The dashboard of the new Transit features a plethora of storage areas -- space enough for a two-litre drinks bottle on each side, two cupholders (three if you remove the ashtray), a hanging A4 folder in the glovebox, plus dash-top slots -- the centre one of which flips over to form a desk or table top.
There's a 12-volt socket in a concealed compartment on the dash, and another in the D-pillar, right at the back of the vehicle.
Options include Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Traction Control, Dynamic Stability Control, reverse-parking sensors, a passenger-side airbag, curtain airbags and cruise control.
Unlike in the car world, where ticking a few options boxes can drive the on-the-road price through the ceiling, Ford says it has worked hard to contain prices. Once the market's demands have been clarified, it has committed to launch an optional Safety-pack which includes the more popular features at an even keener price.
On the road, the Transit rides and drives like a big and slightly ungainly sedan. Virtually unladen on the launch (which took us through mid-morning Melbourne and out to the Sandown racetrack) all the models got off the line smartly, the smooth-shifting gearchange making the driver's job easier still. The diesels are smooth, quiet, odourless and fuss-free, with no obvious indication that it's an oil-burner doing the work.
Thanks to compliant Michelin tyres, the ride is fairly civilised and quiet. Braking is confidence-inspiringly stress-less and cornering surefooted.
However, things aren't quite so rosy for the front-row passengers. For a start, there's no helping grabrail on the A-pillar, and the very narrow double seat will irk hefty Aussie tradies with a non-adjustable squab, short under-thigh support and the odd feeling that the seat was slightly off-centre and facing the left front corner of the vehicle.
There are no map-reading lamps -- just a pair of basic cental dome lights, one in front of the other and about a foot apart. Ford Australia is experimenting with an optional satellite navigation system, although there's a feeling that it will get limited use the on routine rounds that are the Transit's stock in trade.
Build-quality on the launch vehicles was varied -- none of them had the same level of misalignment on dashtop storage bins, and a visible wiring loom in the roof crevice was probably proof of their pre-production status as much as anything.
Some features demonstrated more fundamental quirks -- such as the central dash-top 'desk' which could hold a slimline laptop, but which would also put it in the sun and in plain sight… Or the two other storage trays whose lids would not stay up... Or the neatly rounded bottoms to the wide-angle section of the dual-zone exterior mirrors -- which deprived the driver of a clear view of the lower rear edge of the vehicle on both sides. A square edge to the mirrors would have been more functional.
Ford recognises that in the six years since the current Transit was launched its customers have evolved -- there are more owner-operators driving their own vans who are looking for a more pleasant and presentable place to be. Competition and productivity requires low maintenance, while rising fuel prices require environmentally friendly and abstemious consumption.
Increasingly, the van is becoming more than a tool of transport -- with modern electronic technology, it has also become a mobile office.
Ford have addressed all these issues admirably in the latest range of Transit vans which starts at $32,990 (front-wheel drive, short wheelbase) and goes to $40,490 (RWD, LWB), Cab-chassis which start at $36,790 (LWB single cab) to $40,490 (LWB crew-cab) and a bus at $49,990.
If only there was an automatic transmission option, Transits could continue to rule the world.