Ford Transit Custom - First Drive

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Ford has worked the very latest in-car technology and creature comforts into the Transit Custom from the beginning

Ford Transit Custom Tourneo Limited (Long Wheel Base)
Engine: 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel
Transmission: six-speed manual
Power: 155 PS at 3,400rpm
Torque: 385 Nm at 1,600rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 43.4 mpg
CO2 emissions: 172g/km (average)
Top speed: N/A
Acceleration (0-60 mph): N/A
Price: £33,495 inc VAT on the road, Custom Tourneos from £28,285 inc VAT on the road (short wheelbase), Transit Custom vans from £18,316 ex VAT on the road.

Ever since the Ford Transit van first went on sale in the UK in 1965, British buyers have taken it to their hearts. A market leader from the start, it still out-sells its nearest four rivals combined and accounts for roughly a third of all van sales in its size bracket. Of the 6.8 million Transits sold so far, 2.1 million found a home in the UK.

But the Transit has never been quite as British as it looks. Ford’s UK and German operations each used to have their own separate ranges of vehicles which shared little in terms of components or looks but the 1965 Transit was the first jointly-developed trans-European model designed to break down the inefficiency and duplication involved, marking the first step in the long process of consolidation that saw our own distinctive British Fords – Anglias, Corsairs, Zephyrs and the rest – consigned to history. In fact, in one respect, the Germans have a bigger claim on the Transit than we do; our first Transit is their second-generation model because they had their own domestic market van of the same name before the pan-European version came along. And while the UK has always made lots of Transits – it’s the only vehicle Ford still assembles in Britain – most are now manufactured in Turkey.

It goes without saying, of course, that the arrival of a new Transit is an event of enormous importance for Ford, both in the UK and elsewhere – and new Transits don’t come along very often. In fact, if you look beyond all the facelifts and other tweaks that have taken place over the years, there have only really been three all-new models since 1965. The last one arrived in 2000, although it got a big update in 2006, and now it’s time for a full model change again. This time, though, there will be two new Transits rather than one; the mainstream model will get bigger, and the smaller versions are being replaced by a vehicle with a new badge, the Transit Custom.

The next “big” Transit will be unveiled for the first time at Hannover’s commercial vehicle show next month, but the Custom, is already here, and it should be of greater interest to mainstream car buyers than previous models because Ford is pitching the passenger-carrying Tourneo version as a serious alternative to mainstream people-carriers. There have always been mini-bus versions of the Transit and other vans, of course, but in the past, the seats and windows have sometimes been a bit of an afterthought, making for a less than thrilling passenger experience. Now, though, the passenger versions are developed in step with their load-carrying counterparts from the very beginning and the results are a lot better.

“Car-like” is an over-used term employed by motoring journalists to describe any old van or 4x4 that has had a few of its rough edges rounded off but the Transit Custom is one of the few models with roots in the world of commercial vehicles that truly merits the description. That starts with the driving position and the dashboard; if you’ve ever driven a Focus or any other modern Ford, you’ll immediately feel right at home behind the wheel of the Transit Custom. The general dash layout and many of the instruments and minor controls seem to be carried over from Ford’s car range, although there is a slightly chunkier feel to some of the switchgear, as if it has been designed to be operated by gloved fingers, and some of the plastics look as if they have been designed to withstand scuffs and hard wear, rather than to delight at the first touch - but these are minor concessions to van-style use. More impressive is the fact that Ford has worked the very latest in the way of in-car technology and creature comforts into the Transit Custom from the beginning, most notably its voice-activated SYNC technology, which has only just started appearing in the company’s European passenger cars in the last few weeks.

Three main body styles are being offered to start off with; a standard panel van, a “kombi” double-cab-in-van version with two rows of seats and a van-style rear, and finally the Tourneo, which has a fully windowed body and three rows of seats. All three body styles are available in either short or long wheelbase forms. The Transit Custom is unmistakably a Ford – no other manufacturer except for Audi has done more to establish a uniform across-the-range look – although its large wheel-arch mouldings recall those of one rival, the Hyundai i800. For the rest, the stylish curves and creases of Ford’s “Kinetic Design” philosophy do a good job of disguising the Transit Custom’s bulk.

I drove the top-of-the-range Tourneo passenger model with the long wheelbase and the most powerful 155 horsepower version of Ford’s 2.2-litre Duratorq engine (less powerful variants provide 100 or 125 horsepower). The base engine is a carry-over from previous Transits but has been honed over the years to provide improved power and refinement, and does a good job here – although I drove the Tourneo in an empty, rather than fully-loaded state. Apart from what felt like a slightly longer travel and heavier clutch, the Transit Custom is really just like a car to drive, an achievement that is all the more impressive when you consider that like most vehicles designed to carry a big load, it has old-style single-leaf springs at the rear.

If drivers have no need to feel short-changed when they switch from a car or car-based MPV to a Transit Custom Tourneo, it’s really passengers and their possessions that get the best deal. The seats are comfortable and even with the third row in place, there’s plenty of luggage space. That’s especially true of the enormous long-wheelbase version but even the shorter Tourneo does quite well here too. Ride comfort is very good indeed – or at least it was on the smooth Bavarian roads on which I drive the Transit Custom at its launch event yesterday.

Any drawbacks? Well if you’re expecting bargain basement pricing just because the Tourneo has van roots, think again. The long wheelbase version with top-of-the-range Limited trim tops out at a slightly giddy £33,495, which is pricey compared with the less polished Ssangyong Rodius and Hyundai i800 from Korea, but not bad at all compared with the expensive Volkswagen Caravelle and the surprisingly rough and ready Mercedes Viano. And the Custom should hold its value much better than previous Transits – at least according to estimates from residual value experts CAP.

The new Transits, large and small, are expected to sell more widely than previous versions. If the 1965 van broke down the barriers between the British and German Ford subsidiaries, the 2012 models will help to dissolve the dividing lines between Ford’s operations in Western Europe on the one hand and Eastern Europe and North America on the other as the company tries to sell the same products around the world under its “One Ford” programme. The Custom is good enough to win friends wherever it is sold or made, but British Ford fans can still claim a special link to the new model; it was designed in the UK, where the company maintains its main centre for the development of light commercial vehicles.

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