Fleet News

Road test: Ford Transit 260 SWB TDCi

THE trouble with being king of the castle is that everyone keeps throwing rocks at you trying to knock your crown off.

The king in this particular case is the Ford Transit, the castle is the British panel van market and the rocks come in the rather large forms of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Vauxhall Movano, Renault Master, Volkwagen LT and several others.

Over the past few years, those rocks have been getting bigger as the rivals all fight for a larger share of this fast-rising market.

Mercedes-Benz upped the stakes in 1995 by launching the first panel van with a common rail diesel engine. There followed super speedy versions of both Sprinter, Volkswagen LT and Renault Master, ABS brakes as standard on LT and finally Mercedes-Benz's ESP traction control system, not to mention of host of special deals that rained from the skies from the likes of Citroen, Vauxhall, Peugeot and Fiat.

Suddenly, the mighty Transit was beginning to look a bit vulnerable.

But anyone who thinks Ford would sit back and watch the opposition rob it of sales is a foolish person indeed.

A raft of improvements in the past couple of years have put Transit in the lead again in terms of flexibility, driveability and, above all, safety.

While most of the other manufacturers offer separate light and heavy panel vans, Ford has used the legendary Transit name for all panel vans from 2,455kg to 3,500kg gvw. The vans look the same but underneath, the smaller models feature front- wheel drive while the larger ones have rear-wheel drive. That way, fleet buyers simply ask for Transit and will be offered a dazzling array of alternatives.

Ford didn't have a common rail diesel engine, but its TDCi unit was introduced in last year and soon put the van back among the leaders in terms of smoothness and power.

The difference between TDi and TDCi may be one letter, but the technology is one world apart.

But what finally put the icing on the LCV cake for Transit was the introduction of a driver's airbag and ABS brakes as standard across the range. Amazingly, in the heavy panel van sector, Transit is the only mainstream model with an airbag as standard and only Volkswagen offers standard ABS brakes on the LT. It seems that the king has retained his crown.

On test here is the front wheel drive, short wheelbase Transit 260, offering 125bhp from its common rail powerplant and 210lb-ft of torque. It comes head-to-head with the light panel vans such as Vauxhall Vivaro, Renault Trafic and Mercedes-Benz Vito. Cost ex-VAT and delivery is £13,050.

Outside

Whatever plus points the Transit may have going for it, style and beauty are not among them. It is squat, square and ugly to be brutally honest, especially when matched against the graceful lines of the Renault Trafic/Vauxhall Vivaro and new Mercedes-Benz Vito.

But Ford isn't out to impress the local hairdresser. Instead it prefers to set out its stall to woo hard-nosed operators who don't give a damn about style, concentrating instead on durability and cost-effectiveness. On that basis I can hardly deduct any points on the looks front.

What is impressive is the large amount of plastic at front and rear which should keep the Transit blissfully free of annoying knocks and dents, although it doesn't have any side-rubbing strips.

##Transit260--none##

In the front

Entry to the cab is by remote plip locking, which can open front and back doors separately.

Climbing aboard you find a comfortable figure-hugging driver's seat, although there wasn't enough support in the lumbar area for my liking. The seat adjusts for rake and tilt but not for height and the steering column didn't adjust for height.

##Transit260 int--none##

The result was that I couldn't find the ideal driving position, although it must be admitted that after a high speed blast from Peterborough to Reading, I did not suffer any back twinges.

A great deal of thought seems to have gone into the cab, even if the slabby dash gives the area as ugly an appearance as the outside.

There is, for example, a large slot for a sheaf of A4 paper on the dash, a mobile phone holder, two can holders on the central dash area and large bins in both door pockets.

Our test model featured a radio/cassette player with a detachable anti-theft front (does anyone bother stealing cassette players these days?) and although drivers will sulk because they can't play their favourite CDs, at least the unit produces a good quality sound.

Meanwhile, the passenger seats are separately moulded and feature two three-point seatbelts and with two passengers aboard on my trip to Berkshire, neither had any complaints on the comfort front.

Fleet managers who want to cosset their drivers can select a long list of options. The ones I would consider necessary personally are the Quickclear windscreen at £75 (a great safety aid in winter), anti-theft perimeter alarm system at £150, passenger airbag at £150, full steel bulkhead at £150 and rear parking sensor at £200 (all prices ex-VAT). Air conditioning might also be deemed desirable in these days of increased awareness of health and safety at work and will cost £800, together with tinted glass.

In the back

Our test model had the usual arrangement in the rear of sliding side door and twin rear doors, but these items only opened to 180 degrees. You have to pay an extra £250 ex-VAT for the full-out variety. There is also a towing hitch at the rear.

The flat floor features six large load-lashing points but they poke up from the floor and could interfere with loads. The new Mercedes-Benz Vito has counter-sunk items which work much better.

However, there are plenty of holes in the strengthening struts in walls and ceiling for loads to be lashed in securely and three roof lights give plenty of illumination at nights.

Comparing this model with the rivals throws up a few surprises. With a gross vehicle weight of 2,455kg, it is lighter than the Renault Trafic/ Vauxhall Vivaro SWB and the current Mercedes-Benz Vito which all weigh in at 2,700kg. On payload, it carries 843kg compared to 1,023kg for the Trafic/Vivaro and 1,090 for the Vito. But Transit blasts ahead on load volume, offering 6.6 cubic metres to the Vivaro/Trafic's 5.0 cu m and the Vito's comparatively paltry 4.8 cubic metres.

On the road

Fire up the 2.0-litre common rail diesel powerplant for the first time and you'll wonder what happened. It is quiet, smooth and totally lacking in the old diesel death rattle of the TDi unit. In short, it is a very different driving experience and a quantum leap forward.

With 125bhp on tap (to the TDi's maximum 100bhp) and this model the smallest and lightest of all Transits, it fairly flies along and will hit 100mph without too much of a problem – a point worth bearing in mind if your company logo happens to be on the side of the van. Lower-powered models offering 88bhp and 100bhp are available and would be more suitable for fleet purposes.

Unlike most of the rivals which now offer a dash-mounted gearstick, the Transit sticks to the old 'umbrella' on the floor. Mind you it seems to be a lot slicker and smoother than the old Transits I remember so maybe the Ford engineers have worked some magic on the gearbox.

The steering wheel is small and car-like and cornering can be undertaken with gusto – this Transit takes the bends like a car. In fact at motorway speeds, you could, for all the world, be wafting along in an oversized Mondeo.

Verdict

The Ford Transit has taken its fair share of knocks over the years and looked at one stage as though it could be seriously challenged. But the new engines and standard airbag and ABS brakes have put Transit firmly back in the driving seat.

Fact file

Engine: 4/1,998
Bhp@rpm: 125/3,800
Lb/ft@rpm: 210/15-2,200
Loading height (mm): 516
Load height (mm): 1,430
Load length (mm): 2,582
Max load width(mm): 1,762
Load volume (cubic metres): 6.6
Payload (Kg): 843
Gross vehicle weight (kg): 2,455
Price (ex VAT): £13,050

  • Visit the Fleet Van Roadtest Archive by clicking here

  • Subscribe to Fleet News.
  • Get the news delivered to your desktop
  • Leave a comment for your chance to win £20 of John Lewis vouchers.

    Every issue of Fleet News the editor picks his favourite comment from the past two weeks – get involved for your chance to appear in print and win!

    Login to comment

    Comments

    No comments have been made yet.

    Compare costs of your company cars

    Looking to acquire new vehicles? Check how much they'll cost to run with our Car Running Cost calculator.

    What is your BIK car tax liability?

    The Fleet News car tax calculator lets you work out tax costs for both employer and employee