New car review

Ford Transit Custom review

How has Ford made a van that dominates the market even better?

Summary

The very many customers who have seen little point in looking beyond a Transit Custom now have even less reason to do so.

Review overview

Design
9
Comfort
8
Driving experience
9
Value for money
8
Safety
7

Summary

The very many customers who have seen little point in looking beyond a Transit Custom now have even less reason to do so.

60-second summary

What is it?
The new Ford Transit Custom is a major facelifted version of the one-tonne van launched in 2012.

Key features
Bolder styling, completely new interior, more technology

Our view
The Ford Transit Custom is so dominant some would argue it did not need a facelift. But the bolder styling, greatly improved interior and more efficient engines have simply placed it further ahead of the competition, and cemented the model as the van that everyone else has to beat.

Similar vans
Vauxhall Vivaro/Renault Trafic, Mercedes-Benz Vito, Peugeot Expert/Citroën Dispatch.

Ford Transit Custom 2018 Sport and Limited models
Ford Transit Custom Sport and Limited models

Full review

Introduction

It is not easy being a competitor to the Ford Transit, and particularly its Custom version. Ford has led the commercial vehicle market for 53 years, and when the decision was taken in 2012 to separate the one and two-tonne versions of the Transit into separate models, they were between them selling 58,000 each year in the UK.

Fast forward six years, and that figure is 93,000, an increase of some 63%, while the smaller model, dubbed the Custom, has been a revelation. In 2017 it shifted 52,277 examples on its own, to make it the sixth most popular vehicle in the UK – that’s any sort of vehicle, ahead of the vast majority of the car market.

What will depress rivals even more is that the facelift now applied to the Custom is no tinkering at the edges – apparently 2,200 components have been changed, and the newcomer will be instantly recognisable by a much bolder exterior treatment.

Ford’s chief designer Chris Hamilton, who created the new Custom in the brand’s studios at Dunton, Essex, says that it was vital not to remove any of the more dynamic styling treatment that marked out the original Custom of 2012. “We had specific goals in mind, and one was to raise the exterior quality, utilising what we had learnt on our passenger cars,” he says.

So the new Custom gains a much bolder grille treatment with a three-spindle design that will now be its signature, and differing headlamp treatments depending on which of the trim levels one goes for.

There is even a specific Sport model, with such niceties as two-tone striping, designed to attract the user that needs commercial vehicle practicality but also wants to park his van on his driveway.

All of this extra image comes without sacrificing any of the practicality that has made the Custom such a success, in fact improving it. For example, the old Custom used to scratch the base of its front fascia when it grounded descending steep slopes – so now that lower section is no longer part of the shell but a durable part easily removed and replaced if it gets too damaged.

Buying and owning a Ford Transit Custom

The new Transit Custom goes on sale with plenty of choice – two load lengths, two roof heights and in six-seat double-cab and nine-seat combi variants alongside the three-seat panel van. Unusually, a plain chassis cab isn’t available.

Options are greatly increased by the possibilities offered by a range of Qualified Vehicle Modifiers – effectively specialist convertors officially sanctioned by Ford. There are some 14 of these, and they can produce anything from a refrigerated vehicle to a van with three custody cells in it.

With the new Custom range comes a new diesel engine. Out goes the 2.2-litre unit of the previous model, replaced by a 2.0-litre built at Dagenham in Essex and offered with six-speed manual or auto transmissions. Available in 105, 130 or 170 hp outputs, it promises performance gains, particularly in low-end torque, but also fuel efficiency improvements of up to 13%.

There is more to come – in May an Econetic model will join the range, with another 6% of fuel economy improvements and a CO2 emissions figure cut to 148g/km.

Perhaps attracting the most attention, however, is the plug-in hybrid version of the Custom. Currently being trialled by city centre fleet users including Transport For London, its electric motor offers a 31-mile range, while a 1.0-litre petrol engine bumps this up to 310 miles. It’s likely to go on sale in 2019.

Four trim levels are available on the Custom, from the base van through Trend, Limited and the new Sport grades. It’s worth going straight to Trend as it comes with significantly more equipment over the base model including, notably, an infotainment system based on a four-inch screen with DAB digital radio. It also gets such niceties as electric folding mirrors, eight-way adjustable driver’s seat, cruise control, parking sensors and halogen projector headlamps.

The design of the infotainment changes with the models, with the top Limited and Sport versions including eight-inch touchscreens and Ford’s latest Sync3 connectivity system, which allows control of audio, navigation and connected smartphones using simple voice commands.

There’s plenty of safety technology available too, much of it evolving from the car market but much of it also on the options list. This includes the Pre-Collision Assist system which initiates autonomous braking if the driver does not react fast enough in an emergency.

Lane-keeping alert is standard on the Sport but an option on other versions, while perhaps the most useful feature for a commercial vehicle, a rear cross-traffic alert, is also an option as part of the Blind Spot alert system.

Inside the Ford Transit Custom

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Ford has made a great deal of effort on the Custom’s interior and it shows. Effectively the cabin is completely new, right down (we are told) to the grommets that hold the roof lining in place. Again the car market has inspired the treatment – this is a design first seen in the latest Ford Fiesta.

The basic premise uses the full width of the cabin, rather than focusing around the centre console as on the previous model. As mentioned, the design of said console varies depending on the trim level and therefore the infotainment system, but it is all well designed and user-friendly, with fit and finish to a standard that Ford is doing so much better these days.

Where the Custom interior differs from its car siblings is in its storage space. This, after all, needs to be a mobile office, and so the cabin is peppered with storage areas. Big lidded boxes across the base of the windscreen help to offer 25 litres of storage in the instrument panel alone, while there are various compartments, document holders, cup and bottle holders on either side – it is very easy to lose a lot of stuff in this van.

One aspect little changed is the cargo load space, but that was efficiently laid out already. Just how much one can get in a Transit Custom depends on the wheelbase and roof height chosen, with two available of each, but common to all is a well-designed load compartment, with a low loading height, the option of pallet-sized side doors, and rear doors that swing right out of the way.

Driving the Ford Transit Custom

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All versions of the currently available Custom vans were available at the launch test, combining all three engine outputs, manual and auto transmissions, and both body heights and lengths. The Van Expert tried several versions.

Common to all, however, is efficient performance without any loss of refinement. The days of vans being utilitarian vehicles are long gone, all three engines producing smooth, refined progress that is very car like.

While Ford expects 60% of Custom buyers to choose the mid-level 130 unit, if one’s business justifies only the smaller engine, or the extra power of the largest unit, neither will disappoint.

The car-like analogy very much applies when considering the Custom’s on-road performance. Quite simply, this is an easy vehicle to drive; even if taking the wheel of a long wheelbase, high-roofed variant for the first time, one will soon become familiar with it and confident behind the wheel.

Summary

The Ford Transit Custom sells well over twice as many examples each year as its nearest direct rival, so perhaps the only hope for competitors was that in facelifting the model, a complacent Ford would trip up.

The bad news for those rivals is that Ford has certainly not tripped up. Faced with improving a model that most customers were pretty satisfied with anyway, the designers have given the vehicle a more dynamic visual presence, endowed it with a more efficient and more attractive cabin, and added a host of minor, oh-so-useful detail upgrades.

All this has been done without sacrificing any of the appeal that makes the Custom so popular, in particular, its load practicality and oh-so-easy road manners. The very many customers who have seen little point in looking beyond a Transit Custom now have even less reason to do so.

Good points
More dynamic visual appearance
More attractive interior with increased storage
Excellent on-the-road performance 

Bad points
No chassis cab or 4WD option
Too many safety features require options spending

Specifications

Make & model Ford Transit Custom Vauxhall Vivaro Mercedes-Benz Vito
Specification Base 280 L1 H1 panel van 2700 1.6CDTI BT (125) S/S L1H 114CDI Compact
Price (Base) £22,745 £22,680 £22,220
Engine 2.0-litre diesel 1.6-litre diesel 2.2-litre diesel
Power 130 hp @ 3500rpm 125 hp @ 3500rpm 136 hp @ 3800rpm
Torque 385 Nm @ 1500rpm 320 Nm @ 1500rpm 330 Nm @ 1200rpm
Fuel economy (combined) TBA 47.1 mpg 44.1 mpg
CO2 157 g/km 155 g/km 169 g/km
Payload 799-885 kg 1,077 kg 779 kg
Load volume 6,000 litres 5,200 litres 5,800 litres
Euro NCAP rating Not yet tested 3 Star – 2015 Not yet tested

 

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is the News and Road Test Editor for The Van Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars and vans for more than 20 years, and attends many new model launches each year.

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