FORD TRANSIT: Making the move upmarket
11 May 2012
The biggest event in the LCV market this year is the launch of the new, more stylish Transit. James Dallas was given an exclusive insight into the van by its chief engineer Barry Gale
In the UK van market the Ford Transit is the undisputed king. Therefore, when a new generation of the model that has dominated the sector for half a century is in the pipeline, the industry takes notice.
The panel van version of the Transit will make its debut at the Commercial Vehicle Show in Birmingham's NEC on 24 April in short-wheelbase form, before going on sale later this year.
The design looks radical - sleek and stylish and a departure from the Transit's heritage as the nation's ubiquitous practical workhorse.
But Ford insists none of the light commercial's traditional functionality has been sacrificed.
"It has always been square, functional, but now it's more stylish like the cars," says Ford Transit chief engineer, Barry Gale.
The new Transit also has something in common with Dr Who's Tardis, according to Gale.
"It looks smaller, but inside it can carry the same amount," he claims. This includes 8ft by 4ft timber sheets and 3m pipes: "We've not compromised functionality."
Ford's passenger cars have a reputation for being good to drive, and the brand has worked to impart a sporty feel to the latest Transit's performance by incorporating elements of the popular Transit Sport Van series as well as increasing interior comfort and refinement.
Gale says the new Transit is more relaxing to drive and quieter than its predecessors too. The steering wheel is now adjustable for both rake and reach, a feature not included on previous incarnations, and the driver's seat can be moved further backwards and lower to accommodate taller, larger drivers.
Bread and butter
In bringing the commercial vehicle template closer to that of the car range, Ford will offer the van with a choice of three trim levels. As well as the major corporate customers, the manufacturer wants the new model to appeal to owner/drivers looking for a stylish vehicle they're happy to park outside their house. But in moving upmarket, Gale stresses Ford will be careful not to alienate the Transit's core, bread and butter market.
"We always recognise the need for an entry-level model," one that is suitable for large fleets such as the Post Office, for example, he says.
As well as increasing the new Transit's desirability, Ford has set itself the ambitious targets of also holding on to "all that has made Transit great" such as low insurance and servicing costs, while also selling more vans than it currently does, even though the Transit's dominance of the UK market is staggering. In total, 56,363 units were shifted in 2011, a rise of 22% year-on-year. In both the medium and heavy van segments it outsold its nearest competitors, the Vauxhall Vivaro and Mercedes Sprinter respectively, by two to one.
"We're not compromising on volume," says Gale. "We want to sell even more in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world. We wouldn't spend all this time and effort without increasing sales."
To illustrate the step up in specification levels on the forthcoming Transit, he says the vans will feature bedliners to protect load areas. This idea came from feedback from pick-up customers who said the ply lining not only offered protection but was also easy to clean.
Materials for the cabin will match those used in the car range, and going up the trim ladder options will include rear-view cameras and lane-departure warnings.
Gale is quick to acknowledge the benefit to Ford's commercial vehicle operation of being able to make use of the innovations that first appear in the car division.
"The advantage of being part of a global company is that the cars bring the technologies in," he says. For example, the new Transit will be available with a voice-activated phone system that will first appear in the
B-max passenger car in September. The Sync system enables users to connect mobile phones and music-playing devices via Bluetooth or USB, make hands-free telephone calls and select music using voice commands. Ford claims it can automatically transfer contacts from a connected Bluetooth device to the vehicle, allow calls to be activated through voice commands and read text messages aloud from Bluetooth-connected mobile phones.
Already launched in the US, Ford expects the system to be fitted to at least 3.5 million vehicles in Europe
by 2015. Sync also features the new Emergency Assistance technology, which Ford claims will allow occupants to contact emergency services in more than 30 countries, in the correct language, through the vehicle's GPS locator.
Ford is not yet quoting CO2 or fuel consumption figures but Gale says "great efforts" have been made to improve them. The current Euro5 Econetic SWB Transit boasts class-leading CO2 emissions of 178g/km coupled with fuel consumption of 43.4mpg - a claimed 10% improvement over the Euro4 vintage.
Most of the 2.2-litre Euro5 powertrains will be carried over to the new Transit, and Gale says the 155hp version, which is currently only available in rear-wheel drive, will feature on front-wheel drive vans too.
Despite often claiming that "they don't care what it looks like", Gale claims van drivers and owners are more concerned with their vehicles' appearance than they'll care to admit
He makes the point that mid-sized vans will continue to be bought in bulk by large fleets, but three years down the line they will return to market, when a degree of desirability with individual buyers and small businesses will stand them in good stead in the used sector.
As yet the manufacturer has not analysed the residual value prospects of the new Transit, but Gale says: "I can't think of any reason why the RVs won't be as good (as the current model)."
Following the launch of the SWB Transit at the UK CV Show this month, Ford will reveal more models at the Hanover Commercial Vehicle Show in September, and the rollout will continue into 2013.
The range, like the current line-up, will eventually include long-wheelbase derivatives, minibuses, combis and double cab vans, but specifications and preferences for different body styles are likely to vary between European markets.
In the UK, Ford expects the base model to dominate sales because more than 80% of volume goes to fleets. It says the sportier trims will appeal to retail customers. However, the brand stresses the entry-level model will itself be generously specced with, for example, roof rails included for the first time.
Gale names the Renault Trafic, the Vauxhall Vivaro, the VW Transporter and the Mercedes-Benz Vito as the "key competitors" for the first of the new Transits to come to market.
But he refutes the suggestion that Ford benchmarked the new van against competitors' models, stressing that, in many areas, such as steering, the current Transit already leads the commercial vehicle field: "We didn't compare it with other vans but with cars. There's no point in looking at other vans where the Transit is already the best."
But Gale acknowledges the competition is much stiffer now than when he first worked on the Transit in 1992, when he claims there were only about three vans to choose from. Market segmentation has also increased - where there used to be only two lengths and two heights on offer, there are now four of each.
The new Transit promises to take a radical new direction. This is a brave move from Ford and, as ever, the market will determine its success. But having dominated the commercial vehicle sector for so long with its ability to meet customer requirements and demand, it's a safe bet the manufacturer knows what it is doing. We wait with bated breath.