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2018 Ford Transit Wagon first drive: Still no substitute for the van

We get a lot of high-capacity machines through the Autoweek offices — big SUVs, crossovers, even some full-size sedans and, of course, our in-demand long-term Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. But faced with, ahem, unique needs, sometimes one has to go a step larger, into pseudo-commercial territory. My cargo was people — I had a load of family to haul around Michigan’s gorgeous Leelanau Peninsula for a long weekend, plus all their luggage, meaning my choices were the Mercedes Sprinter, Chevy Express or Ford Transit; luck of the draw means a Transit showed up in medium-roof, 12-passenger EcoBoost V6 configuration, and I was looking forward to a week behind the wheel of this bus.

Five days and 950 miles later, I was maybe a little less enthusiastic, but there’s one thing I can’t argue with: No other vehicle style would have done the job, and the Transit had capability to spare. We never even used the Class 3 hitch receiver, rated to tow an additional 4,500 pounds on our Transit 350/EcoBoost V6 combo.

Given the vast number of different Transit configurations, it’s worth noting our exact model, and the fact your experience might vary depending on whether you pick a different wheelbase, roof, seating configuration, powertrain or trim level. I drove a Transit 350 XLT medium-roof, 12-passenger wagon with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6, a 3.31 limited-slip rear axle and trailer-tow package. Our van also had tinted windows (necessary), Ford’s vastly improved Sync 3 radio/Bluetooth/navigation system (also necessary) and a ridiculously loud Manhattan-garbage-truck-spec backup alarm (unnecessary given the very good backup camera).

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2018 Ford Transit XLT Wagon interior

The Execution

The ride up to Suttons Bay, Mich., revealed a couple truths about the Transit 350: First, the seats are geared more toward commercial customers, and anyone accustomed to driving a plush modern minivan will find the cushions hard and the limited adjustability frustrating. That said, this is a vehicle designed more for urban shuttle runs, not multihour road trips, and the durable-looking fabric proved very easy to clean and vacuum — more important for the average Transit buyer.

Second, the fuel economy might surprise you: The EcoBoost V6, lightly loaded on the way up, with mostly open highway driving, returned 18.6 mpg. You’d be hard-pressed to top that with a full-size SUV. By the end of the trip, with significant stop-and-go/short-run rides peppered in and a full load of passengers and luggage back to Detroit, the average was still a tick over 17 mpg. That’s excellent considering the capability, and while I still prefer a diesel engine in a van like this it’s hard to argue with this powertrain’s modest appetite for cheaper regular-grade gasoline.

Ford has also done a good job giving the 3.5-liter engine a diesel-like turbo whistle and just enough spool-up to sound/feel like a proper oilburner, without the additional maintenance/emission control considerations. Add in the 400 lb-ft of torque, and it gets even tougher to justify the roughly $2,000 upcharge for Ford’s I-5 Power Stroke diesel, especially when max towing actually drops to 3,600 pounds with the diesel.

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transit rear

That’s a big box.PHOTO BY CATHY MCKINLEY / AUTOWEEK

Driving this tall van isn’t the harrowing crosswind-correcting experience you’d think. My wife, for example, has long harbored an unreasonable phobia of being killed in a fiery church-bus-over-the-cliff incident, making our Transit trip a source of dread for her. Thing is, despite its height, the Transit has a fairly low center of gravity, and Ford has built in several electronic aids, including stability control, that can help mitigate the effects of crosswinds. By the end of the week, she’d even driven the van a couple of times and pronounced it “kind of fun.”

And it is, in a big-rig sort of way. Visibility is excellent through the massive windshield, and extended side mirrors with convex lower spotters make it simple to place in the lane and when navigating tight turns. Steering is linear and actually has decent feel for a big commercial vehicle — similar to the brakes and throttle: It’s all sized and tuned to deliver a perfectly ordinary driving experience that’ll have the average driver feeling confident in short order.

Passengers on long trips will be less enthusiastic due to the aforementioned commercial-grade seating, but it does the job, and our van’s full-length HVAC did a good job of keeping several hundred cubic feet of air cool in Midwestern August heat and humidity. This Transit also came with a $940 optional power step that extended beneath the wide sliding side door — a helpful feature for easier passenger loading, though the sliding door itself is an enormous piece of metal and glass that’s not power-operated, requiring a very firm slam to close. A combo motorizing both would be helpful and worth the money. And while we’re adding features, at least one 12V power outlet and USB port in each seating row needs to be standard on any modern vehicle — our Transit was equipped with just two of each for the entire van.

transit step

Our Transit was optioned with a power side step, but the large sliding door remained manually operated.

The Takeaway

If you’re a consumer shopping something like the Ford Transit, chances are you’ve got four or more kids and a dog or goat or something similar. Otherwise the sacrifices you have to make due to its commercial underpinnings make something like a Chrysler Pacifica or Honda Odyssey a far more livable choice, especially in the vicinity of our tester’s $51,000 MSRP. But if you do need the extra space, know that the Transit is a daily usable, maneuverable, remarkably fuel-efficient machine — nothing like the slow, soggy vans of yore. And you can always find an airbrush artist to spice up those slab sides.

OPTIONS: Stone gray metallic paint ($150); 3.5-liter Ecoboost V6 ($1,865); 3.31:1 limited-slip rear axle ($325); wheel well liners ($295); full windows with second-row flip-open capability ($190); back-up alarm ($125); reverse park aid ($295); keyless entry pad ($95); trailer tow package ($485); long mirrors, power/heated ($220); Sync 3 with navigation ($1,595); styled aluminum wheels ($425); power running board ($940); all-weather floor mats ($60); privacy glass ($675)

Source : https://autoweek.com

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