It’s an enviable position to be in, but one that causes its own set of problems. For example, everyone wants to take a pop at you, knock you off your pedestal and pinch your crown.
In theory, the present Transit – the fifth incarnation – should have been good for another two or three years. But 2006 sees the launch of a host of red-hot opposition models such as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Volkswagen Crafter, Citroen Relay, Peugeot Boxer and Fiat Ducato.
Ford is not renowned for sitting back and letting the opposition steal its market share and has hit back with a vengeance. Enter the sixth generation Transit, featuring a fresh look, a new set of engines and hugely improved road manners.
Ford decided to launch the vehicle to the press in Frankfurt on the second day of the CV Show, one of the busiest days of the year in the LCV journalists’ calendar. But such is the might of the Transit name that the whole bunch of us decamped from the NEC and flew, notebooks in hand, to Germany ready to drive what Ford promised to be the world’s best van.
In the words of Gary Whittam, Ford’s then director of commercial vehicles: ‘The best van by a mile just got better by a mile.’
First thing of note about the new model is its smart new front end, which takes its cue from its smaller brother, the Transit Connect. The wide grille and slash-cut headlights manage to look stylish and macho at the same time, while the blue oval on the front is the biggest you’ll find anywhere in the world (apart from on the side of Ford’s headquarters in Dagenham!).
The rear end of the Transit hasn’t changed. It’s a big square box that did the job very nicely before thankyou, so Ford decided to keep it.
In the panel van range, there will be short, medium and long wheelbases, plus the option of an extended frame and low roof, medium roof and high roof vans and minibuses. Both front and rear-wheel drive options are on offer and there will also be the usual chassis-cab variants.
In the cab, a wondrous transformation has taken place. Gone is the chunky old dash board and gone too is that old floor-mounted gearstick that resembled a furled umbrella.
A great deal of thought has gone into creature comforts, so white van man will now be treated to such delights as two-litre cola bottle bins in each side of the cab, more cup holders that you can shake a stick at, a compartment on the top of the dash featuring a 12-volt phone charger socket and a glovebox with hanging rails for A4 files.
The dash has been totally reworked with a new instrument cluster and there are a number of new paid-for options including satellite navigation, leather seats (for fleets? I don’t think so), cruise control, a visibility pack (featuring heated front windscreen, rain sensing wipers auto headlights and an auto rear wipe), Bluetooth capability and rear parking sensors.
On the security front, Transit offers two levels of alarm, a bonnet lock and cable-free doors, a waterproof rechargeable ignition key, a tamperproof odometer and guide-me-home lighting.
Safety has been improved too. A driver’s airbag and ABS brakes with EBD are standard across the range while passenger, side and thorax airbags are an option. ESP traction control also features on the options list.
There is also big news on the engine front. The old-style diesel range – the TDdi – has been consigned to the history books and now all engines are the common-rail Euro IV TDCi variety.
There are two diesel engines at 2.2 and 2.4-litres, together with a 2.3-litre petrol engine.
The 2.2-litre comes in three power formats – 85bhp@3,500rpm and 184lb-ft of torque at 1,500rpm; 109bhp@3,500rpm/210lb-ft@1,750 and 130bhp@3,500/228lb-ft@1,600rpm.
The 2.4-litre offers 100bhp@3,500rpm/210lb-ft@1,600rpm, 115bhp@3,500rpm/236lb-ft@1,750rpm and a new range-topping 140bhp@3,500rpm/276lb-ft@2,000rpm.
The petrol engine offers 145bhp@5,250rpm/154lb-ft@3,850rpm and has hardened valve seats for those who want to convert their vans for LPG or CNG use.
Front-wheel drive variants have a five-speed gearbox while the rear-wheel drive ones get an extra cog. Fuel consumption figures are impressive, ranging from 28.8mpg to 38.2mpg.
Prices range from £12,650 to £21,350.
On the road
DOESN’T time fly. It hardly seems five weeks ago that I was travelling to Spain for the launch of the last generation Transit in 2000. I wasn’t disappointed then and I’m certainly not now.
While I wouldn’t exactly put the new Transit in the ‘quantum leap forward’ category over its older brother, it is streets ahead in the ride and handling stakes.
But let’s take the exterior first. So far this year, we’ve seen the new Mercedes Sprinter, new Volkswagen Crafter and new Transit.
The Mercedes offering is stylish and neat, with lots of creased lines, curves and swirls, while the Crafter (a Sprinter with a different front end and engines) has a massive conk that gives a brash and brutal look.
The Transit seems to slot in between the two Germans and looks a treat.
Climbing aboard, the new cab was revealed in all its glory and it took a good five minutes of delving about to discover all the delightful little extras that Ford has provided.
It seems that, at last, a manufacturer has realised that van drivers might just be slick professionals rather than greasy oiks and might just require items like mobile phone charger sockets, places for laptop computers and drawers for A4 folders in the course of their businesses.
The result is a cab that is a joy to be in, although I did note that the seat from the old model is carried over – and it’s a seat I find a tad uncomfortable, with an awkward lump sticking into my upper back. I quizzed some of the other hacks on the trip and they didn’t have a problem, however, so maybe it’s just my weird shape.
Also on the gripes front, the steering column doesn’t adjust for rake or reach. I didn’t have a problem fitting in as the seat moves in all directions, but the steering wheel wasn’t really where I wanted it.
The business end of the Transit hardly needs a mention. It was A-grade in the old model and A-grade in this one.
Two versions were available for testing in Frankfurt – a front-wheel drive short wheelbase low roof with the 130bhp engine and a rear-wheel drive long wheelbase high roof with 115bhp, both containing a half load in the back.
First off I tried the small van and on firing up the powerplant it became immediately obvious that Ford’s boast of reduced noise was no idle one.
No rattling, no roaring – just a quiet thrum which appeared to emanate from somewhere a long way off. My co-pilot and I never had to raise our voices once, even at motorway speeds. Once under way, the true glory of the new Transit soon becomes apparent – with power steering weighted just right, a super slick gearchange and a nimbleness that the old model just never had.
Many heavy panel van manufacturers boast of car-like driving qualities but I believe Ford is the first to actually build a large van that truly is just like a car on the road. As we wound our way into the mountains, the rain started falling and on two occasions on sharpish bends I noticed the orange ESP light winking on.
It’s a shame Ford hasn’t followed the lead of Mercedes-Benz and made this feature a standard option.
But then again, some would argue that traction control systems simply encourage drivers to take more risks. Bear in mind also that Mercedes has raised its prices by 3% and Ford hasn’t.
The 130bhp model is no slouch. Even with a half-load on board I soon my found myself having to check my speed as the needle crept past 120kph and even carrying out an overtaking manoeuvre on a hill, I didn’t have to change down from fifth. For most fleet purposes, however, this van is probably too powerful and I looked forward to trying the 115bhp to see how it compared.
Next morning we got our chance. The rear wheel drive van seemed a tad more noisy than the one we had driven the previous day and the six-speed gearchange was a little notchier too.
But for fleets, this is likely to be the big seller. Just enough power without being too outrageous, yet with that same pin-sharp handling.
SPRINTER, Crafter and Transit vying for position along with the new Sevel-built trio – the Citroen Relay, Peugeot Boxer and Fiat Ducato – in a heavy van sector that is becoming ever more sophisticated. What a year 2006 is proving to be.
It’s a tough job separating the merits of the offerings from Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Ford and in the end it may just come down to price.
And that’s where Ford will win. While the Germans have upped their prices, equivalent models of the old and new Transit remain the same.
Model tested: Ford Transit
Gross vehicle weight (kg): 2,600-4,250
Payload (kg): 884-2,178
Load volume (cu m): 5.19-12.28
Max power (bhp): 85-145
Max torque (lb-ft): 154-276
Prices (£ ex-VAT): 12,650-21,350