We were still a bit nostalgic about Econoline vans going away until going directly from the Transit first drive in Kansas City to an E-350 airport shuttle. Climb up through the Econoline's tiny double doors and bang your head on the opening, crouch all the way to your seat then enjoy a loud, rattle-prone, creaky, harsh ride on beam-hard seats while struggling to see out the low windows. This is an experience nearly every traveler has had. By comparison, the Transits we'd just spent two days with were every bit of the four decades better they needed to be. It cannot be understated just how much better the Transit is in every single way. The load floor is barely more than knee high. There's a huge side door, and hitting your head on a door opening is nearly impossible. Stand up all the way if you're under six-foot, six-inches – no more half-hunching down the aisle. There are windows actually designed to be looked out of. The ride is buttery smooth, no booming vibration from un-restrained metal panels and no squeaks. Conversations can be held at normal levels rather than yelling over the roar of an ancient V8. The seats are comfortable. The AC is cold. There are cupholders.
Enough anecdote-laying, what's in a Transit? We're talking about a very fullsized unibody van that's enjoyed a 49-year history in Ye Olde Europe. This latest iteration is part of the "One Ford" initiative, so it was designed as a global offering from the get-go, eschewing the body-on-frame construction the E-Series has used since 1975. Instead, the Transit integrates a rigid ladder frame into an overall frame construction made of high-strength cold-rolled and boron steel. The suspension is a simple but well-tuned Macpherson strut array up front with a rear solid axle and leaf springs.
As with the F-Series built in the same sprawling Kansas City Assembly Plant, the Transit offers a staggering number of variations. Transit Assistant Program Manager Milton Wong confirms there are over a million combinations – Ford hasn't yet tallied it up formally. Suffice to say if you want a Transit (or a thousand of them) you can option it/them to precisely the specification best suited for your needs. Mix and match between 129.9-inch and 147.6-inch wheelbase lengths, three overall lengths, three roof heights (83.6, 100.8 and 110.1 inches), cargo or passenger or chassis cab configuration, technology packages (MyFord Touch, Crew Chief fleet management services, etc.), emergency services prep pack, RV prep pack, light duty, medium duty, heavy duty and dual rear-wheel axle, different colors and several other variables.
Then add in three gas engine choices: The base engine is the same 3.7-liter V6 now offered in the F-150, and it boasts a respectable 275 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. It's also the engine that offers optional hardened valve seats, sensors and programming needed for aftermarket CNG conversions. The hot rod option is the 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 EcoBoost with 320 hp and 400 lb-ft.
The term "fullsize" doesn't really do the Transit justice.
The final engine option is a new-for-North-America 3.2-liter inline-five turbo-diesel borrowed from the global Ranger pickup (which is frustratingly un-global for North America) making 185 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. It'll run on B20 and boasts a variable-geometry turbo and glow plugs that allow quick start down to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. They work below that, of course, just not in a "quick" manner. It's kind of a brute too, offering 90-percent of peak torque starting at 1,500 rpm. While not the drag racer the EcoBoost is, it'll certainly drag some stuff. The 3.2 is expected to be the prime fuel economy and long-term durability option, and it'd better be considering it's the most expensive. All three engines get paired to a six-speed automatic SelectShift transmission that can be manually shifted, but who are we kidding here?
The term "fullsize" doesn't really do the Transit justice. For the most basic configuration, the short wheelbase, low roof model, it's really only a little bit larger than the outgoing Econoline. However, the maximum wheelbase, maximum roof height, maximum overall length version with dually rear axle we chose to review – "Jumbo" as it's called – is the size of a small warehouse. Full-service motorcycle shops have less floor space. It boasts shades of the Grumman box van in this configuration. For comparison's sake, versus the biggest factory-available E-Series, this maxi-Transit boasts a staggering 75-percent more interior volume, for a total of 486 cubic feet. Roll that figure around in your head. That's a cube nearly eight feet to a side. If you're a business owner running two Econolines, they might be replaced by one Transit.
If you're a business owner running two Econolines, they might be replaced by one Transit.
Getting to that generous volume is exceedingly easy – the dual swinging barn doors at the back open wide, up to 270 degrees with magnetic stays, and the sliding side door at the side is 50-percent larger than the largest E-Series opening. Both doors will accept a fully laden pallet. Total payload for our Jumbo 350 dually tops out at 4,650 pounds. Only the mega-Sprinter boasts better payload at 5,485 pounds. Towing isn't bad, either, in the event you needed to tote even more stuff. Max tow rating isn't into the silly stratosphere that light-duty trucks occupy, but it matches Sprinter's rating of 7,500 pounds – about the weight of a trailer, a racecar and spares to go with your mobile speed shop.
The Transit does all the beefy man-work stuff well, but the whole thing is designed in such a way that it's astonishingly easy to drive and live with. If you're familiar with the Fiesta, Focus or the F-150, you'll recognize the Transit's interior bits. The bucket seats are basically plucked from the F-Series and offer all-day comfort; the steering wheel, turn signal and wiper stalks could be from any Ford car, and the dash is a jumble of Fiesta and F-150. A MyFord Touch/info screen sits up high with stylized buttons below, while the shifter is dash-mounted to the right of the tiller and there's great space in the center console that can be spec'd with a mix of two or three USB charging ports, aux-in, auxiliary power switches, two 12-volt power ports, trailer brake controller, three cupholders and seven lords a-leaping. In any model with more than the lowest roof, there's an overhead storage shelf much like the one found in the Transit Connect (a vehicle we have a sneaking suspicion might fit inside the Jumbo Transit with a bit of persuasion). There's a little cubby to the right of the steering wheel that's perfect for stashing a phone. Near the floor-mounted hand brake you can get an optional 110-volt plug running from an inverter. There's lane departure warning, automatic rain sensors, an automatic headlight option, and perhaps most interestingly, the Transit will detect a drowsy driver by using the forward camera to watch the vehicle's position in the lanes, comparing it against steering inputs over time. Start to nod off and it'll vibrate the wheel.
It's not quite sporty, but it's well short of the "ponderous" adjective we expected.
Ford set up a "low speed city demonstration area" in an empty parking lot. In our eyes, what they laid out was an autocross course to push the half-loaded vans to their limits. The short-wheelbase 3.7L-equipped Transit was the most nimble and the diesel seemed to have the most entertainingly restrained stability control programming, but the EcoBoost was definitely the quickest. We shouldn't call the hydraulic steering "precise" but the wheel offers solid feedback, and putting the front tires exactly where you want them is easy. At the adhesion limit, the Transit's handling is completely predictable while running at too-fast speeds. The e-nannies step in exactly when you've done something stupid and apply just the right amount of correction. Body lean is certainly a thing, but we were expecting much, much more. The turning radius is weirdly tight for such a long machine – Jumbo easily managed a three-point turn in a two-lane street, and there was never a worry about making a corner. Brakes are scaled to stop somewhere around 15,000 lbs, so they're darn powerful. Dare we say that for a mountain of a vehicle, this Ford is almost sporty? Not quite sporty, but well short of the "ponderous" adjective we expected.
In more realistic highway and around-town settings, the Transit is a puppy dog. It's remarkable how quiet this van is. There's virtually no wind noise at any speed and the racket that normally comes with a naked interior is mercifully absent. Credit the mastic glue laid down between structural beams and sheetmetal with sound deadening patches that have been stuck in where needed. In a rainstorm, we could hear the pitter-patter of droplets on the roof, a realization that says a lot about how quiet the rest of this van is. It was easily capable of merging into freeway traffic with cargo, passing was effortless, and huge, two-part wing mirrors mean you can pretty well see what's going on behind and to the sides.
The Transit is so good that our pangs of nostalgia for the death of the Econoline have been put to rest.
Forward visibility is excellent although our windowless cargo layout meant backing up was exceedingly challenging, even with a rearview camera. Basically, you're driving backwards while looking down a tunnel, though that's not to say that's different than other vans. It may sound silly, but the step-in and seat height is one of the Transit's best aspects. Here the combination of a generous step, low-ish footwell height, easy grab points, and a minivan-like hip-point means that for a driver hopping into and out of the van all day long, there's going to be much less fatigue. By comparison, the Sprinter practically requires mountain climbing gear to reach the helm. The lone weakness of the Transit's control room is the tight distance between the driver's seat and the center console. Our size-eleven Red Wing boots were held up every time we tried to pass directly to the cargo area.
It was always assumed the last E-Series would be built shortly after the heat death of the universe. That may still come to pass since Ford will continue building the heavy chassis cab version until at least the end of this decade. With that said, the Transit is so good that our pangs of nostalgia for the death of the Econoline have been put to rest. Amongst the latest crop of Eurovans, the Transit exhibits the best combination of capability, creature comfort, thoughtful features, technology and powertrain options. Plus, just think about how huge the airbrushed murals can be.