After standing stagnant for what felt like generations, the commercial van market has seen a resurgence—and the 2017 Ford Transit absolutely plays into that.
Ford and Ram have looked to their European divisions for new, more efficient options, while Nissan also entered the big van segment with its NV range.
Ford’s effort is the Transit, a nameplate well-known in Europe that arrived in the United States for the 2015 model year. This year, it largely stands pat, remaining available in XL and XLT trims with van (commercial or cargo), wagon (passenger-oriented), and cutaway (conversion-oriented) body styles, as it seeks to convince commercial and fleet operators out of their E-Series (or Econoline) full-size vans. The Transit has big shoes to fill since the E-Series dominated the market for nearly 40 years.
The Transit scores a 5.4 overall based on its good flexibility and decent (for what it is) road manners. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
It’s fair to say that the Transit represents a marked departure by offering improved fuel efficiency, better cargo flexibility, and much-improved ride and handling attributes. Its interior is modern and far more flexible, allowing it to be a people-carrier, a mobile office, or a cargo hauler with ease.
The Transit segues right into the commercial market, where the E-Series has long been a staple of business owners, delivery fleets, hotel shuttles, and even RV conversions. Its rivals include the Nissan NV, which takes a more conventional approach like the E-Series, and the Fiat-based Ram ProMaster, which turns things around with front-wheel drive, a low cargo area, and an unusual powertrain. And then there’s the van that started the Euro invasion—the still excellent Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
For those who don’t require quite as much space, Ford’s Transit Connect offers a much smaller footprint. Despite its name, it shares very little with the larger Transit.
As with its predecessor, the Transit is available in several different sizes. With three lengths, two wheelbases, and three roof heights, it can do duty as a serious delivery truck. With the highest-roof model, those over 6 feet tall can stand upright inside the vehicle when loading and unloading, and rear cargo doors swing out 270 degrees for fuss-free access. We’ve seen Transits configured with a full desk inside, which might be cheaper than office rent in some markets.
Among these sizes, you can choose from XL and XLT trims, the latter of which can be outfitted with some unexpectedly luxurious touches. For 2017, there are nearly 60 vehicle configurations in all, according to Ford; that’s up from 47 in 2015.
Unlike its body-on-frame predecessor, the Transit has a unibody construction that helps it ride and handle far better. While the front MacPherson strut setup might be a lot closer to modern passenger vehicles than the old E-Series, the leaf springs and live axle in back aren’t. Payload capacity for the Transit lineup ranges up to 4,650 pounds, while payloads have increased at least 600 pounds compared to the Econoline predecessors. Towing capability is up to 7,500 pounds, and the six-speed automatic transmission includes a separate towing/hauling mode.
Transit models for the U.S. are built in Kansas City, Missouri. Competing with the range of aftermarket upfitters, Ford offers numerous factory-approved conversion options for setups like cargo dividers and roof racks, all available through a dealership.
The Transit lineup includes three engine choices. There’s a base 3.7-liter V-6, making 275 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Then the step-up engine is a version of Ford’s EcoBoost 3.5-liter V-6, making 310 hp and 400 lb-ft (at just 2,500 rpm). Separately, as a towing-oriented option, there’s a 3.2-liter Power Stroke turbodiesel inline-5, making 185 hp and 350 lb-ft (at just 1,500 rpm).
Outside, the Transit shares some elements with Ford’s other global passenger cars; squint and you’ll see some hints of the Focus and Fiesta. But it is governed by its purpose, meaning its boxy cargo hold takes precedent.
Inside, the same hold trues, and while you might expect this van to be entirely utilitarian, there’s an almost sporty look to its dashboard. In many ways, the Transit breaks from the boredom of previous van interiors, although its switchgear is scattered about in a somewhat illogical fashion. Seats are large and supportive, with armrests included in most, and low side windows afford a good view out. Heated seats are even available for those in wintry climes.
With more than 487 cubic feet of maximum cargo capability in its largest versions, with a best-in-class rear door opening height of 74.3 inches, the Transit has more cargo space than any other gasoline-engine mode. Extended-length versions will offer seating for up to 15, including another 100.5 cubic feet behind the last row.
The IIHS has not yet rated the Ford Transit, but the NHTSA rates the van with four stars in a frontal crash and five stars for side impact protection.
Compared to the Econolines, as well as the Transit’s contemporary rivals, Ford puts a lot of features into these vans, and they offer a far more passenger-oriented set of in-cabin features than the Econolines ever had. For 2016, Ford has made a rearview camera standard on all van and wagon models, as well as a front dome lamp, map lights, and theater dimming.
Ford’s much-improved Sync 3 infotainment system is offered on the Transit lineup, and to keep tabs on your drivers you could get either sophisticated Crew Chief fleet telematics or a simplified MyKey system that allows some degree of control over the vehicle’s maximum speed.
New features for 2017 include an available power-deploying running board for the truck’s passenger side, which should help with loading cargo or humans into its hulking bay. Additionally, the automaker has made alloy wheels, which it says are designed to be easy to clean, as an option. The alloy wheels are matched with locking lug nuts, a crucial item for users in some areas.
With the low or medium roof, the Transit will return 15 mpg city, 19 highway, 16 combined with either of the gasoline V-6 engines, according to the EPA. Ford hasn’t listed equivalent numbers for the diesel model.