By Aaron Bragman
It's not every day that an automaker retires an icon, but that's exactly what's happening at Ford as the company starts the process of putting the American-style E-Series commercial vans out to pasture in favor of something new: the European-style Transit commercial van.
The E-Series has dominated the North American market for decades, but the Transit can claim the same bragging rights; it's been a mainstay of European roads for almost as long. Now the Transit comes to America, bringing with it a revolution in how commercial vehicles are going to be used, with an accessibility and price that previous Euro-vans like the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter haven't been able to match. We recently had a brief spin in a variety of Transits at Ford's Dearborn Development Center at the company's headquarters in suburban Detroit, and the van left us surprised.
The Transit will bring a number of variants to the U.S. market, with a choice of three lengths, three roof heights, two wheelbases and four body styles. They present significant advantages over the current E-Series: Gone is the body-on-frame truck design of the current E-Series, replaced by the Transit's stronger unibody construction. Three new powertrains are offered as well: A 3.7-liter V-6 is standard, while the turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 and turbodiesel 3.2-liter PowerStroke five-cylinder engines are optional. All are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that drives the rear wheels.
The new configurations present some advantages over the current E-Series. For instance, the Transit's naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V-6 makes more horsepower than the outgoing 4.6-liter or 5.4-liter V-8 engines in the E-Series, while getting 19 percent better fuel economy than the 4.6-liter engine, according to Ford. The turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine gets a whopping 46 percent better fuel economy than the outgoing optional V-10 engine in the E-Series. These will translate into measurable fuel-cost savings for fleet operators. You can even downsize in terms of the vehicle you buy — the payload of the new Transit 150 is greater than the payload of the old E250, meaning you can get a cheaper vehicle that does the work of the more expensive, less-efficient older model. At the other end of the range, the biggest, longest Transit cargo van has 75 percent more room than the biggest E-Series, Ford says. That's a massive increase in ability that could allow some fleets to replace two vans with one.
Climbing into the Transit is a different experience than hopping into an E-Series. It's a step up for sure, but once in place the view outside is expansive through the deep windshield. It's not quite the panoramic view that the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter provides with its higher windshield, but it's significantly better than the Ram ProMaster, which has a low roof that makes it difficult to see stoplights when stopped at them. Seating position is comfortable, with a horizontal dash that is made of acceptable-quality material for a commercial truck. The big, supportive seats felt like they'd be comfortable on longer trips thanks to strategic bolstering. Gauges are big and easy to read, and all controls are within easy reach of the driver.
All three powertrains move the Transit with acceptable speed. Our test vehicles were loaded to about half-payload capacity, according to Ford. That's about the average weight most users will see on a daily basis. The base 3.7-liter V-6 makes 275 hp and 260 pounds-feet of torque; it's rumbly and decently strong, moving the Transit through traffic without any issue.
Buyers requiring more towing or hauling ability will want to step up to one of the two optional engines, however. The turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 makes 310 hp and 400 pounds-feet of torque and is the more entertaining of the trio. Never at a loss for power, this is the modern equivalent of the big V-8 engine, and it delivers torque such that you'll never miss the old V-8. Both V-6 engines get the same fuel economy of 14/19/16 mpg city/highway/combined.
For a little more efficiency and a more usable torque curve for hauling duty, there's the optional turbodiesel 3.2-liter inline-five-cylinder, making just 185 hp but 350 pounds-feet of torque, with 90 percent of that torque available between 1,500 and 2,500 rpm. Of the three powertrains, the EcoBoost turbo is the most responsive and easiest to drive, given its usable power and rapid turbo response, but none of the powertrains are lacking.
Compared to the Sprinter's two diesel engines, the Transit feels about on par, diesel-to-diesel, and definitely stronger when considering the powerful EcoBoost motor. The Transit powertrains stack up well versus the Ram ProMaster too; none of the trucks in this segment feel underpowered or lacking oomph. The differences between them come in how they ride, handle and drive. Who knew there could be such differences between European-style vans? But there are, and considerable ones too.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter rides and drives like a big SUV. It's amazingly easy to drive, has composed highway manners and is highly comfortable and decently efficient. The Ram ProMaster is the exact opposite; it's extremely awkward, tippy and insecure, with a seating position and downward slanting dashboard that makes it feel like braking too hard would send you tumbling over the dash and through the windshield. The Transit rides somewhere in the middle: Its handling is surefooted; it doesn't feel tippy like the ProMaster, and its brakes are strong and firm like the Sprinter. Steering is heavier than in the Sprinter, however, requiring noticeable effort in the heavy-duty models like the Transit 350. That heft contributes to the sense of stability, but also can get a bit tiresome at lower speeds.
Overall, our initial doubts about whether buyers would accept the European-style Transit over the traditional American-style E-Series have lessened considerably after a first exposure to the van. It's better in so many ways than the old E-Series that for some buyers it will feel like a revelation. It offers a host of electronic safety options as well, including lane keep assist, rear parking sensors, a trailer hitch assist camera and the world's first five-row side curtain airbag that protects every single row in a 15-passenger bus in a side-impact collision. Ford's full Sync system is available, including a touch-screen with navigation, web-connected streaming music apps and more. You can equip a Transit with as much technology as you can equip just about any other vehicle in Ford's lineup.
Pricing is not out of line with the current E-Series, either. The starting price for the Transit 150 is $30,560, while an E150 cargo van will start at $29,595. The Transit is slightly more expensive than a $29,625 Ram ProMaster 1500, but considerably less than the $36,915 for the cheapest Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. You can option up these trucks to astonishing prices, however, with each of the manufacturers offering in-house customization through selected partnerships with verified upfitters. The Transit is also offered in 250 and 350 versions, with correspondingly higher payloads and towing options. It is on sale now at Ford dealerships around the country.
Cars.com photos by Aaron Bragman, Mark Williams