The Ford Transit is not, by any stretch, an enthusiast vehicle. But it still has many potential uses by enthusiasts. You can tow your race car to the track or the rally with all of your tools and spare gear inside. You can bring a motorcycle, or two, to the track or the rally, and still have room to sleep inside. So it’s still quite relevant to enthusiast’s interests. Also, I have quite a bit of seat time in the earlier Ford Econoline vans thanks to my past life as a delivery driver, so I was curious to see how the new Transit compared.
(Full disclosure: Ford wanted me to drive the Transit so badly that they emailed me an offer for a $50 Amazon gift card if I test drove one at a local dealer. Jack Crory at Townsend Ford was kind enough to hook me up.)
In short, there is absolutely no comparison at all. The Transit might as well have been made by a different manufacturer, it’s so different from the old Econoline. The angular outside looks more like the old Dodge/Mercedes/Freightliner Sprinter than the box on wheels styling of the Econoline. The Transit is available in three lengths (220″, 236″, and 264″) rather than two. It’s also available in three heights (82″, 99″, and 108″) rather than one. I test drove a medium length, medium height cargo van. Those aftermarket raised roofs I’ve seen on conversion and public transit vans won’t be necessary with passenger versions of the Transit thanks to these. They’re also tall enough that you could easily load a motorcycle with a windshield or fairing into the back.
The interior was unremarkable, but that’s normal for a cargo van. Vast expanses of hard plastic are cheap to build and easy to clean. There was no touchscreen, just a simple AM/FM radio (upgraded units with navigation are available). But the standard unit includes an auxiliary input, eliminating the need for the cassette adapters and FM transmitters I used to bring my own tunes with me. Good music is absolutely critical for long hours on the road, and I covered so much territory that I’d go in and out of range of radio stations all the time. The seat was basic cloth, but had enough manual adjustments for me to find a position I could be comfortable in all day (a power seat is also available). The steering wheel was tilted a bit more upward than I prefer, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the nearly horizontal wheel in the Sprinter.
But my favorite interior feature was the storage. Delivery drivers need space for their stuff – clipboards, paperwork, coffee cups, coolers – and there’s lots of it. The floor between the front bucket seats is flat, so you can put a small cooler there for your drinks. There are plenty of cupholders and bins on the dashboard. There’s even an overhead storage compartment where I’d put my ham radio and extra paperwork. Whoever designed this van knew what delivery drivers want and need.
I drove the 3.2 five cylinder turbo diesel – an engine you never would’ve found in the Econoline. With the salesman next to me I didn’t push it very hard, but the beauty of diesel is that the two and a half ton van didn’t feel like it was powered by a 185hp motor. It’s the 350lb-ft of torque that makes the big difference, both with acceleration, and with weight capacity. I doubt this van would accelerate much worse fully loaded. And unlike some of the German alternatives, no one has even accused Ford of fudging diesel emissions testing.
Even the handling feels European. Not BMW handling, by any means, but quite firm without crossing the line into becoming too stiff. We drove through one of my favorite twisty sections in the area, and though I didn’t even try to tackle it as quickly as I did in the VW Golf R, I was amazed how well the Transit handled compared to what I’m used to in a van. Of the two Econolines I used to drive regularly, the E-150 had a soft, cushy suspension with a fair bit of body roll, while the E-250 was so stiff it would rattle all of my cargo as it bounced across Maine’s uneven roads. Neither gave me very much confidence in their handling capability. I’m not about to go autocross a Transit, but it was quite competent on the curvy back roads. Once again, it felt more like a Sprinter than the previous Ford vans I’ve driven.
I’ve compared the Transit to the Sprinter a lot. The Sprinter was the first of the European style vans to come to America, thanks to the former DaimlerChrysler company. On the surface, it may look like Ford is ripping off the Mercedes design. But the problem with the Sprinter was that you got Mercedes complexity and expense combined with traditional Chrysler reliability – which is to say, a lack thereof. When Dodge built the Sprinter, they didn’t do it well. Complex parts designed in Germany but built in America would fail frequently, and when they did they were expensive to repair or replace.
The Transit, on the other hand, is everything the Sprinter should have been. The suspension tuning is better, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to get blown off the road by a stiff cross wind. The steering wheel, while not quite at the angle I prefer, still doesn’t make you feel like you’re driving a bus. I need to keep in mind that the Transit I drove had a total of 33 miles on it, as opposed to the Sprinters I drove which had run all day every day for years, but I feel like the Transit will hold up to that kind of heavy use better than the Sprinter did.
I don’t run a business, and I don’t have a race car or bike, so at the moment I have no need for a full size van. But if I did, the Transit would be at the top of my list. It would make a great toy box.