Wednesday 2 March 2011
The 2009 Ford Transit is Britain’s best-selling van and it's now one of the most agile too, thanks to the addition of an all-wheel drive system.
On a trip to New Zealand back in 1997, I remember being staggered at the number of Japanese 4wd panel vans on the roads (I hadn't seen one before) and I recall wondering why there weren't any for sale in Britain. Our 'local' manufacturers seem to have been slow to catch on to the sales oppportunities offered by such vehicles, but gradually things are changing. Both Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen already have mud-plugging LCVS and latest to enter the fray is this handy - and very capable - offering from Ford, the Transit AWD.
You'll notice the van is called AWD and not 4WD and that's for a very good reason. Ford's new offering takes all the decisions out of whether to use two wheels or four - the clever engineering fangle-danglery underneath takes care of it all, thus making driving safer and also saving fuel into the bargain, by swapping back to two wheel-drive as soon as AWD isn't necessary.
And it's not only panel vans that will benefit from the AWD technology. Chassis-cabs and minibuses are also available, for a price of £3,995 more than a standard counterpart. However the AWD is limited to one engine - the 2.4-litre TDCi unit with 136bhp with a six-speed manual gearbox.
The vehicles don't look any different from the outside - Ford's designers decided that for most fleet purposes, the Transit is high enough off the ground already so didn't need jacking up. That way, cargo can be loaded and unloaded easier. The only thing that distinguishes the AWD models from their standard brothers (unless you look underneath) is a small AWD badge.
As the 4wd gubbins only weighs 50kg, it does not affect the vehicles' load carrying capacities unecessarily. Ford's marketing men admit they really can't make too many predictions about who will buy these vehicles. A conservative estimate of between 300 and 600 a year could be well wide of the mark if they manage to blag a couple of big fleet deals. And that could well be a possibility as several construction firms and utilities have already expressed an interest.
Because the AWD doesn't look any different from a standard Transit, it's easy to think that it isn't really a pukka off-roader. Indeed it was never meant to be one, but simply a vehicle that wouldn't get bogged down in a muddy building site or in a field. But you'd be wrong making assumptions. When the first AWDs were built recently, even Ford's own testers were taken aback at how far they could be pushed.
Having spent a morning yahooing around on an off-road course near the Henry Ford College at Loughborough I can state categorically that this Transit will take a lot more than any fleet will ever throw at it. The course had been churned up to a thick soup by heavy bouts of rain and to make things more interesting, a bunch of Ford dealers had already had their turn, leaving an array of foot deep ruts and dislodged railway sleepers for us to stumble over.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm not an expert off-roader but with a professional driver on hand to advise me about gearchanging and accelerator dabbing, I finally managed the course without mishap. My expert then took me up the hard part of the course and I was left hugely impressed as our Transit handled it all with the utmost aplomb. One of the problems that manifested itself was that because the Transit is much higher than the average off-roader, it will tilt over at a greater angle, leaving it prone to scuffs and scratches at the top. It's not a fault with the vehicle but merely an unavaoidable reality which any all-wheel drive van suffers from. But it's a small price to pay for the extra practicality that this van offers over a more usual off-roader.
One of the other big bonuses with a vehicle like this is that despite its off-road capabilities, you can still carry 10 cubic metres or so of cargo. At present, many fleets opt for 4x4s such as the Nissan Navara but with trucks like this, cargo space is severely limited.
In its quest to provide a van for all fleets, Ford has come up with a dazzling vehicle that really will do the business and more for companies that need a mud-plugger. We're impressed and we bet that so will any van fleet operator who buys this new Transit model.
(All prices current as at Feb 2009)