There’s a seismic shift occurring in Australia’s mid-size (2.5-3.5-tonne GVM) van segment, and the cause of this disruption is Ford’s Transit Custom.
For many years, Europe’s most popular commercial van struggled to make a dent in a local scene dominated by Toyota’s HiAce and Hyundai’s iLoad, largely due to the lack of an automatic transmission.
However, since significant upgrades in 2017 - headlined by a new six-speed torque converter automatic and Euro 6-compliant 2.0-litre EcoBlue turbodiesel - the Transit Custom has generated staggering year-on-year sales growth of almost 60 per cent.
It’s now a firm third on the sales charts and nipping at the heels of Hyundai’s iLoad, which has dropped a whopping 29 per cent. Toyota’s comparatively archaic HiAce market leader has slid almost 7.0 per cent. So, if some (all?) of those declines are due to Ford stealing sales from ‘the big two’ then Toyota and Hyundai should be worried, because the Blue Oval is clearly not easing off the accelerator pedal.
Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?
Our test vehicle is the 300S (or 300cm Short wheelbase) with six-speed auto for $43,790. It’s one model in an expanded 2018.5 Transit Custom range which also includes a new ‘high roof’ option that increases load volume in both the 300S and 340L (340cm Long wheelbase) variants. A new manual option for the 300S boosts the total choice of models to eight.
There’s also bold new front styling and a new, even more car-like cabin (see Design). Previously optional rear-view camera and front and rear parking sensors are now standard, and it’s also backed by a new five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty.
Our test vehicle is the 300S with six-speed auto for $43,790.
Our test vehicle, fitted with the optional single lift-gate rear door ($550), was equipped with two new options, including glazed dual side-loading doors ($1700) and 16-inch alloys with 215/65R16 tyres ($1000) to go with the full-size steel spare. There’s also a new Technology Pack for $1600 (as fitted to our test vehicle), with a total of 10 active safety features headlined by AEB with pedestrian detection (see Safety).
The most noticeable change is the new look front-end which shares the same design DNA as Ford’s passenger cars, with a high-mounted trapezoidal grille and slender swept-back headlights. Daytime running lights and front fog lamps are now standard and the recessed upper side door tracks add to the more tailored appearance of arguably the best looking mid-sizer on the market.
There’s also a new three-seat interior. It’s an attractive and practical layout with new foam seat cushioning, extra storage options and the latest connectivity including Ford’s SYNC 3 voice activation (tailored to suit Aussie accents), Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and DAB+ digital radio. The big 8.0-inch central touchscreen is easy and intuitive to operate, with sat nav (normally a $600 option) now standard.
There’s a new three-seat interior with foam seat cushioning.
Fortunately, Ford has retained the fully sealed steel bulkhead which insulates the cabin from cargo bay noise and doubles as a robust cargo barrier, reducing driver fatigue and increasing safety in these days of increasingly stringent OH&S requirements.
It also retains its compact front-wheel-drive 2933mm wheelbase, MacPherson strut front suspension, rugged and simple leaf spring beam axle rear suspension, power-assisted rack and pinion steering and powerful four-wheel disc brakes. The turning circle is an impressively tight 10.9 metres (11.6 metres with 16-inch alloys).
What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?
The drivetrain is also unchanged, which is fine by us, because it’s arguably still the best in the business. The 2.0-litre EcoBlue is from the latest generation of Ford’s Euro 6 emissions-compliant turbodiesels, using AdBlue with SCR (Selective Catalytic Reduction). This impressively quiet and refined engine produces 96kW at 3500rpm and 385Nm of torque between 1500-2000rpm.
The six-speed torque converter automatic is also a Ford unit designed and built in the USA with smooth shifts and long service life as top priorities. There are also ‘intelligent’ features like shift protocols which adapt to suit different driving styles, automatic load and gradient detection and the option of sequential manual shifting controlled by a small toggle switch on the side of the gearshift.
This impressively quiet and refined engine produces 96kW at 3500rpm.
We disabled the auto-stop function for the duration of our test this time, yet we managed to better the figures achieved in the 2017 model with auto-stop active! Ford’s official combined figure is 7.2L/100km, and the dash display was showing 8.5 when we stopped to refuel the 72-litre tank at the end of our 647km test.
However, our figures based on fuel bowser and trip meter readings came in at a surprising 8.2L/100km, which easily undercut the 9.8 figure achieved with the previous model. At that rate you could expect an excellent driving range of around 880km.
The redesigned cabin interior shows an even smarter use of space. Each front door now has three levels of storage pockets (previously two) to go with a big bottle holder. There’s also a new fold-out cup holder below the gearshift, to add to the existing upper and lower bottle holders on both sides of the dashboard. Three new open storage bins set into the top of the dash-pad (one with 12-volt power and USB plugs), plus a fourth smaller bin behind the control screen, add another 25 litres of cabin storage.
Each front door now has three levels of storage pockets.
Also carried over are an A4-sized glove box, central overhead storage cubby for smaller items and the centre seat’s backrest which folds down to provide a handy work desk containing two cup holders, a pen holder and an elastic strap to hold documents in place. Beneath the passenger seats there’s a huge storage area when the cargo bay’s load-through hatch is closed, which can be easily accessed from above by raising the base cushions.
The kerb weight of 2042kg and 3000kg GVM results in a 958kg payload (a 77kg drop from the previous model). In this context, another excellent feature carried over is the trio of roof racks which lie flat against the roof when not in use but can be quickly rotated through 90 degrees and locked into vertical positions, offering a handy 130kg combined load capacity.
The trio of roof racks lie flat against the roof when not in use.
The Transit is also rated to tow up to 1800kg of braked trailer, but as usual, the devil is in the detail. With a 4000kg GCM, the Transit’s maximum payload would have to be reduced by a whopping 800kg to legally tow that weight. And that would only leave a piddling 160kg - enough for two small adults maybe, with the cargo bay empty.
In the real world, you’d be better off capping your braked trailer weight at, say, 1000kg to reclaim 800kg of legal payload and provide a much better and safer weight balance between trailer and tow vehicle. However, we suspect most Transit owners are unlikely to tow often, if at all, so this is unlikely to be a deal breaker.
The standard or ‘low roof’ Transit Custom like ours has a HiAce-matching 6.0 cubic metres of cargo volume and can easily swallow two 1160mm-square standard Aussie pallets, thanks to its 2555mm load floor length and 1390mm between the wheel arches.
The floor length can be extended by opening a hatch at the base of the cabin’s steel bulkhead, which accesses the vacant space beneath the front passenger seats for carrying extra-long items like lengths of timber or PVC pipe. The sliding side doors also provide an ample 1324mm opening width for easy forklift access.
The standard or ‘low roof’ Transit Custom has 6.0 cubic metres of cargo volume.
The cargo bay is typically well thought-out for work duties, with internal lighting, a 12 volt outlet, protective wire mesh to protect the cabin bulkhead’s rear-view window, hardboard-lined walls, thick vinyl floor protection and eight robust tie-down points, all located at or near floor level where they should be.
The Transit Custom is almost car-like to drive, with the kind of handling, steering, braking, seating comfort and (thanks largely to the bulkhead) minimal cabin noise you wouldn’t normally associate with a commercial van.
Adding to driving ease is the optional rear lift-gate door, which eliminates the blind spot in the rearview mirror created by the central pillars of the standard-issue barn doors. The optional windows in the sliding side doors also remove more bad blind spots (particularly the left side) shared by all vans with solid doors.
The truck-sized door mirrors, with wide-view lenses set into their lower sections, provide excellent vision along both sides. Combined with the standard rear-view camera, the driver now has almost 360-degrees of visual coverage.
We put the maximum payload rating of 958kg to the test by forklifting two 325kg weight blocks through the side doors and hand-loading another six 30kg weights through the rear door. With a 100kg driver, our combined 930kg payload just snuck in under the GVM limit. Even so, the front suspension only compressed 27mm and the rear suspension a mere 18mm, instilling confidence in its load-carrying ability.
We put the maximum payload rating of 958kg to the test.
On the road, the suspension maintained its composure, particularly the rear which soaked up bumps without a hint of bottoming-out. The engine also barely noticed this big weight increase, with its variable vane turbocharger providing excellent throttle response, particularly in the peak torque zone between 1500-2000rpm where an abundant surge of pulling power is always on tap. The slick-shifting six-speed auto is a delight to use and at its best when left alone, because it’s been well calibrated to get the best out of this engine.
What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?
Driver and passenger front, side-curtain and seat airbags, electronic brake-force distribution, emergency brake assist, hill-launch assist, roll-over mitigation, load adaptive control, trailer-sway control, traction control and side-wind stabilisation helped earn the Transit Custom the maximum five-star ANCAP rating
The Transit Custom’s new Technology Pack option adds AEB with pedestrian detection, blind spot information with rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning with driver alert, tyre-pressure monitoring, auto high beam/headlights/wipers, high series 4.2-inch colour instrument cluster, heated windshield and Ford's MyKey.
What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?
The Transit Custom is covered by a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, with service intervals of 30,000km or 12 months, whichever occurs first. Ford’s Service Price Promise allows for a total capped cost of $2210 over five years, with an average of $442 per scheduled service. Loan cars during servicing are available on request.
The latest Transit Custom has clearly been designed to make long days on the road as safe and comfortable as possible for a hard-working driver, unlike the HiAce which is almost sadistic by comparison.
Great to finally see AEB on the menu, but it should be standard issue across the range and not part of an option pack you have to pay extra for. Even so, the 2018.5 upgrades have made an already excellent van even better, and apart from its impractical tow rating, it is now the stand-out performer in this segment.
No wonder it’s selling up a storm.
Is Ford's Transit Custom the best mid-sized van on the market?