Guest Rental Review: Ford Transit

Being practical, I spent the ‘winter term’ of my freshman year in college earning an EMT Basic certification in lieu of studying ‘Religiosity in the Simpsons’. My idea was to both increase my earning power during summers through learning a skill and to do something useful. After busting my ass for a month in a compressed course while friends in the dorms pulled all night benders, I passed the simple exam and started volunteering for the rural county EMS provider. That gave me the chance to get up-close-and-personal with a variety of Ford Econolines including a late 80s 460-powered Type II (van body) bruiser back-up bus (you may have seen this at Putnam Park), a 7.3L naturally aspirated Type III (box-type) diesel, and a pair of 7.3L ‘Powerstroke’ turbodiesel Type IIIs. All had well in excess of 150,000 miles. None were cosmetically pretty. All were in reasonable mechanical repair.

After going through an Emergency Vehicle Operators Course – consisting of watching a video – and driving around on a wet high school parking lot forwards and backwards with a senior Paramedic, I was deemed qualified to operate a 5 ton truck capable of pushing 100 miles with lights, sirens, and an air horn at the ripe age of 18. Naturally, I drove as much as I could: emergency responses, 120-mile round-trip patient transports to regional medical centers, in conditions ranging from a sedate transport on beautiful spring days to emergency transports in the midsts of hellacious storms so rotten helicopters couldn’t fly. Since I was paired with a full-time Paramedic, I’d ride in the back about half the time, depending on the patient’s condition. That also meant I was the guy driving when the patient’s life literally hung in the balance and OTIF delivery to a trauma center 60 miles away would determine whether someone went home alive.

The old Econoline was a noisy, wandering, bouncy, uncomfortable steed with hot, cramped footwells, weak AC, and suspension tuning that would give you nausea from repeated jolts to the front wheels. At speed, the losing combination of a drag coefficient approaching the percentage of Millenial males unfit for military service and a complete lack of suspension travel made high speed work simply terrifying. It required micro-movements to keep the thing straight and huge corrections when the nose started wandering around. No brake or steering feel, either.

Why the hell does this matter in an ambulance? Because when some asshole doesn’t see a huge ambulance with dozens of flashing lights and 200 watts of blaring siren and therefore pulls out in front of you, or in those fortunately rare times when seconds really do count and you’re driving down an ice-covered interstate as fast as possible to get to a scene, you need to know what’s going on with the vehicle in order to arrive alive and avoid creating your own bus crash.

With bad memories of “American” style vans in mind, I pulled into Enterprise to pick up a 15-passenger van for a week-long adults-only vacation in Charleston with my wife and 6 other good friends. I was the designated driver for the 850 mile jaunt.


I was crestfallen when the guy pulled around a ratty-looking Chevy Express and informed me no Transits were available. At least I’d have 6.0L LS V8 power. Pulling out, it felt pretty sluggish, however, and I was even more disheartened when I got it home, checked the VIN, and realized it was a 4.8L V8. (Editor’s note from Jack: That engine is a popular installation in endurance-series Corvettes, so much so that it has its own name: “Express conversion.”)

This wasn’t going well.

Fortunately, the back doors were jammed shut on the thing. I didn’t expend any extra effort trying to un-stick them. Instead I called Enterprise and said I needed to swap as I wasn’t going to chuck luggage in the way-back with all the care of a hungover baggage handler.

A few hours later, I returned the Express and found a high roof 148” wheelbase Transit waiting for me.

On my walk through the interior to identify any damage or stains, it was hard to describe the sense of space a vehicle with a 7’ tall interior imparts. Some re-adjustment is in order to get used to standing upright and walking around in any transportation device this side of a widebody jet. I’ve read other outlets call driving the Transit just like driving a big Focus and thought this was horsepoop. It isn’t far off. The small-car Ford parts bin wheel, with its polygonal cruise button, the familiar control stalks, and Ford Euro Font binnacle gauges is a world away from the melted oval E-series truck dash and column shifter. It immediately reminded me of the Foci I’ve driven.

Firing it up, the 3.7L Ti-VCT Duratec sounded pretty good, and I was surprised by how the low-torque-high-revver moved the huge box on wheels during the back to my house. It pulled strongly to redline. The transmission shifted smoothly in normal driving and rapidly responded to engine room requests for more power. It didn’t seem tippy on the short trip home, either.

Seat removal is very easy on a Transit, but is prohibited by your rental agreement. If one were to find one of the many youtube videos illustrating the lever to pull and remove a few modular sections of the back rows for luggage space, I would guess it would be a one person job in theory, but two person in practice. Removing a few seats would free substantial floorspace for luggage, keeping weight on the floor and and improving rear visibility.

At 4:00am the next morning, I saddled up and pulled onto the street for the start of the trip with an additional 1500-1700 lbs of weight aboard. Getting to I-77 involved working my way across Ohio and some slightly twisty two-lane roads. The Transit’s tracking and stability leapfrogged the E-series and GM full size vans, but that doesn’t convey the scale of the improvement. Comparing the driving experience between a traditional full size van and a Transit is like comparing London in 1865 – with an underground, sewage system, museums, etc. – to the wreck of Atlanta in 1865. Nothing between the two is remotely analogous – they may as well be in different galaxies.

I can’t go so far and say a 10’ tall vehicle is car-like because that isn’t true, but it did require less highway steering correction than a Ford Explorer rental I recently had. Power wise, I wanted more grunt, but never needed it. This came as a shock, particularly when I got on the interstate and was punching a massive hole into the air at 75mph. The 3.7 performs its role admirably, and while it certainly was moving a load, always seemed cheery about it. The noise was pleasant enough for a commercial vehicle. High RPM activity didn’t become bothersome until the tach crossed 5, but even then VCT (yo) gave a tangible little extra boost.

Once I got to I-77, the best part of the drivetrain came into focus. It has a true manual gear selector on the side of the shifter within easy reach. Not some Toyota or GM style gear suggestion button, but an actual feature that will hold the selected gear regardless of throttle position. For the mountains on 77, this was incredibly useful as I’d put it in 5, drop the hammer, and be able to mostly maintain speed climbing without exploring the 6,700 RPM redline.

If this powertrain were an animate object, it would exemplify the Stoic idea to accept your given role and play it well, whether you’re under the nose of a drifting ‘Stang or delivering building materials to construction sites. Going down the mountains, I gained more and more confidence in the inherent stability of the Transit’s platform. My brain is pre-programmed to assume anything tall is top heavy, but I never felt it from the wheel as the height is just air and fiberglass. The Transit’s clear signals from the wheel, progressive brakes, and reasonable (for a commercial vehicle) suspension compliance allowed us to keep or exceed the pace of most other vehicles, and I had a bit of fun staying on the tail of a guy in an Subaru WRX who would tear away in straight lines, but lose focus while vaping (seriously) and allow me to catch up in the curves. A well-driven Ecoboost Transit would have no trouble leaving just about anything for dead.

Not that I cared about passenger comfort, but I was told that – aside from not having as generous legroom as such a bus would outwardly imply – seats and the ride were ‘fine,’ and everyone appreciated the ability to GO FOR A WALK INSIDE while rolling down the highway. Behind the wheel, I never got fatigued or had an ache due to the comfortable seats, lumbar adjustment, and tilt wheel. This was massively different from memories of Econoline sponges that would cause 18-year old me backaches after an hour’s drive.

Big side mirrors with standard wide-angle viewers underneath gave me plenty of BLIS without the need for an actual blind spot information system and confidence for a few quick unanticipated lane-changes to dodge debris. Aerodynamics dictated the fuel economy of just under 15mpg over the course of the entire 1800 mile trip, but when compared to the 22mpg I got in a rented Explorer, I didn’t think it was too bad considering the capability of the Transit and heavy foot I applied. It supposedly had a locking rear diff, so I’d expect it would be as good or better off-road than the Explorer, too.

For those who drive a Transit for a large part of the work day, it is hard to overstate how much of an improvement it is over the E-Series. Ford tangibly improved drivers’ lives more than government ever could. I don’t know much about the long term durability of the Transit platform – which will determine the Transit’s place in history – but forums don’t have any horror stories for the gas engined ones. The oddball 3.2L diesel is another story.

On the way home, we stopped for gas in a rural West Virginia town. I saw a young medic and a new Transit Ecoboost Type II ambulance parked at the pump. A pang of jealousy sprung up as I knew he’d be having a lot better time responding to calls that I did.

27 Replies to “Guest Rental Review: Ford Transit”

  1. John C.

    Euro vans good, American vans bad. What site is this?

    We will see how much more solid on the road it is in old age and how much ecoboosting can be relied upon at 150k.I know making them more disposable and cheaply is better for everyone, or was it no one, I forget.

    Reply
    • JustPassinThru

      My thoughts, your words. I’ve owned three E-series: A 1973; a rusted-out 1974; and a 1990…the first generation dog-nose one. All three were designed as, and were, pure, naked transportation. Rough as cobs, but reliable as the sunrise. The older two were easy to repair, even with something as crude as a broken throttle cable. The 1990 had more electronics, of course, but still…a box, pure and simple.

      I wonder about these Euro-designs. We saw, we STILL see, how that M-B box, marketed variously as a Mercedes, as a Ram, and now as a Freightliner…we see how it holds up in American salted roads with American use: not-so-good.

      I have to wonder how this thing will do. What the grade, thickness of body steel is, and if the welding is up to past standards.

      Reply
  2. CJinSD

    Econolines, as horrible as they are, saw a sales boost in 2017 as fleets burned by comically junkie Transits went back to them.

    Reply
    • jz78817

      Uh, no. E-Series is cutaway only, you cannot buy a new E-Series van. that up-tick in sales is simply because there’s far, far more upfitter bodies for E-series than there are for Transit.

      Reply
  3. Carmine

    “A well-driven Ecoboost Transit would have no trouble leaving just about anything for dead.”

    -Thats a pretty bold statement that I think you’ll find really hard to back up……

    Reply
  4. Fred Lee

    I owned a 2016 Transit regular wheelbase, medium roof, 3.5L. Liked it quite a bit. In hindsight I’d have gone for the high roof, as at 6’3″ I had to crouch to stand up.

    That van saw me through two house moves and many biking trips for which I slept comfortably on a cot in the back (while friends slept uncomfortably nearby in a tent). I could fit my full-size ATV or Kawasaki KLR650 in the back for trips to the repairman. I don’t tow much, but it pulled my utility trailer like it wasn’t even there.

    The seats are in principle easy to remove, in practice they’re heavy as $#!+. I did remove them myself, but definitely not fun. With two people it wouldn’t be so difficult. Lots of power from the 3.5L. My overall mileage over a couple years of mixed usage (but mostly city) was nearly 17. As with my other Ecoboosts (Focus RS and F-150 3.5) the mileage was not what the window sticker reported, but not bad.

    My only gripe is the interior amenities. Even the passenger wagon in XLT trim is workman-style with a tiny sync3 screen that is placed 3 feet from the driver and really should be angled for easier access, and manual cloth seats, and weird plastic pouches under the hood with foam, presumably to combat wind noise or rattling.

    I think if they made a slightly more upscale version they could get a bit of business from yuppies like myself who want the functionality with a dash more comfort.

    Reply
  5. stingray65

    I wonder if the purchasers of vans in Europe vs. the US influence the design. I suspect a larger portion of US van purchasers are buying for someone else to drive (i.e. fleet purchasers), so they want cheap prices, cheap servicing costs, durability, and at least ok fuel economy, but they don’t care about seat comfort, handling, standup space inside, because they aren’t driving the things themselves. In Europe, I suspect vans are more often purchased by small business owners and tradespeople that drive the things themselves, and hence want the comfortable seats, taller roofs, decent handling, and are willing to pay a little more up-front and in servicing costs to get them. The same type of people in the US buy pickups, and hence F-150s and Silverados get regularly updated technology and can be made optioned up better than a Cadillac because the “boss” drives them, while the Ford E and Chevy Express vans ride on 1960s technology and get nickel and dimed to death in terms of amenities and build quality.

    Reply
    • Nick D

      I think that’s right, but I also think Euro tastes in driving ju-ju also play a role. The Euro-vans continued to evolve while the USDM vans solidified in amber.

      Reply
  6. Nick D

    Thanks for running this and I’d gladly welcome any feedback on the style and substance of the review from any of the commenters here.

    Reply
    • -Nate

      “Thanks for running this and I’d gladly welcome any feedback on the style and substance of the review from any of the commenters here.”

      As an ex Van owner / driver commercially I found this review to be very good .

      -Nate

      Reply
    • One Leg at a Time

      Excellent review, despite the fact I have no need of a van. I enjoyed reading this.

      I thought you had your own voice (tone?), and it came through clearly in the writing.

      You did an excellent job of establishing your credentials as a someone qualified to review a van – it was an engaging story, rather than a litany of van-related accomplishments.

      Reply
  7. MrFixit1599

    We have 3 transits in our fleet now, 2 express, one full size 150. All base service department type white vans. I drive a 2015 express bought at the end of 2016, 77k miles and the only surprise has been the rear brakes completely gone at 50k. We are in the midwest, so lot’s and lot’s of highway miles, so that was a surprise. Apparently the rear brake bias that is dialed in from the factory is the reason for this, for stability purposes. Only drove the full size once from Milwaukee, to Detroit, to Battle Creek, to Milwaukee. Pulled an unloaded 2 axle trailer until Battle Creek. The trailer is horrible, but that has nothing to do with the van. Loaded a 1500 pound chiller on it, then hauled it back to Milwaukee. Did 85-90 all the way around Chicago late at night with no issues. Had to use the manual shift buttons and turn off overdrive. The big one did everything I asked it to.

    The express does drive just like a car. They aren’t fast at all but seem to handle surprisingly well. Handles considerably better then the 2006 Escape hybrid I drove for 350k prior to the van.

    Will it go 350k like the Escape Hybrid? Highly doubtful, but so far so good.

    Reply
  8. Scout_Number_4

    Thanks for the thoughtful, detailed review, Nick. I do wish you had included more photos, but other than that….excellent work.

    Reply
  9. E. Bryant

    Thanks for the review! As someone who owns one each of an Express (’03 long wheelbase Explorer conversion with high-roof “turtle top”) and Econoline (’04 regular body with 6.0L Power Stroke and U-Joint/MGM 4WD conversion in progress) as well as several older G-vans in my past, the Transit is obviously of interest. It’ll probably be several years before one finds its way into my fleet, and I’m sure I’ll overlook all the improvements that come with a 21st century vehicle while bemoaning the fact that they are more complex than a ball-peen hammer, but it’d also be nice to travel at 75 MPH without having to grip the wheel in terror and hoping that a quick stop isn’t required.

    A few friends are industrial equipment technicians who spends their days in various commercial vehicles, and it’s been interesting to get their takes on the newer vehicles on the market. Other than gripes about a few quirks on the Transit (for example, the difficulty of accessing drive-throughs and ATMs through the oddly-shaped side windows), it sounds like the first impressions of this vehicle are quite positive. Next, we’ll wait and see if these things can run a quarter-million miles with minimal maintenance and daily misuse, which has certainly not been the case with the Sprinter van.

    Reply
    • Nick D

      Thanks! You hit the nail on the head – whether or not these things will go to the moon and back before major service will be the determining factor.

      Reply
      • E. Bryant

        Yeah, the brilliance of American full-size vans – and in particular the ’03-up GM G-vans (which received the GenIII/IV engines) – is the way they run forever without aging. These vehicles start life with rattles, wind noise, powertrain coarseness, poor body panel fit, cheap interior plastic, marginally acceptable handling, and every other behavioral attribute we’ve been trained to regard as the worst abuses perpetrated upon the 1st world… and then they don’t really ever get worse. By the time they’re showing 300,000+ miles on the odo and still chug along just as poorly as the day they left the lot, the value of such a vehicle is quite obvious.

        I was quite a fan of the GM B-body, even though those vehicles had all the quirks of a platform dating back to the mid 70s and OE parts support died with Old GM’s trip through bankruptcy. The current-generation G-van has largely filled that hole in my soul labeled “fit for purpose”.

        While I like the Econoline (enough to dump stupid amounts of money into my current project), they just don’t offer a powertrain that can match the performance *and* robustness of the GM vans, I refuse to offer any endorsement of the twin I-beam front end, and the long-body/regular-wheelbase combo offends my engineering sensibilities. But the power and fuel economy of a tuned turbodiesel makes up for a lot of sins, even if Jack now thinks that I’m indirectly responsible for the death of dozens of our most vulnerable citizens.

        Reply
        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

          DIRECTLY responsible!

          For a long time now I’ve been thinking about living out of a final-generation GM van. There are some astounding builds out there, basically putting a mid-century modern home inside a work van.

          Reply
        • -Nate

          ” even if Jack now thinks that I’m indirectly responsible for the death of dozens of our most vulnerable citizens.”

          ? You run over too many squirrels ? .

          -Nate

          Reply
  10. E. Bryant

    The next time the diesel van leaves my shop, I’ll make sure to roll some coal for you.

    There are indeed some interesting #vanlife builds that have been documented across the ‘net (particularly amongst the hardcore outdoorsman crowd), but most of what I’ve seen has been excessively single-purpose. Yeah, it’d be cool to set up a van to comfortably sleep two adults and carry several bikes, kayaks, sets of snow shoes, etc., but I’m not so sure that I want a 7000 lb 20’ long vehicle that eventually is so specialized that it cannot carry even 3-4 passengers.

    There is much to be said about the utility of a flat load floor, a couple quick-detach bench seats, and a duffle bag full of basic outdoor gear. Any needs that go beyond the capabilities of that setup might be better served with a decent Class C rig (preferably one with a U-Joint 4WD conversion). And then there are all those used ambulances, just waiting to serve as a host for one of my bad ideas.

    Reply
    • Nick D

      Hell yeah – roll some coal!

      Ungoverned, the 7.3 turbo powerstroke would push an ambulance to 105-110. Apparently the brake boosters would blow on the early 90s and fry the ECU. That happened to one of the ambulances, and they put in an aftermarket ECU that removed the 90mph limiter (which really is as fast as you want to go in one).

      I was volunteering on a weeknight and we got called out at dusk to a kid who rode his bike out of a cornfield and got smacked by a car going 45-50 in the far corner of the county. En route, the volunteer firemen – the true heros in most rural areas – were advising we really needed to step it up because they could not get an airway established.

      We picked up a sheriff escort in an LT1 caprice (this was 2001-2002) at the one major intersection on the way. I had the 85mph speedo buried and thought it was odd I kept gaining on him as those caprices could push north of 140.

      We got there and I helped the paramedic with a needle traich, we loaded the kid and drove to the helicopter LZ.

      After the lifeflight took off and we were smoking cigarettes to burn off some of the stress, the deputy said we were going 110 for miles.

      That kid fully recovered with some gnarly scars, but probably had a single minute before irreversible brain damage occurred.

      Fate is a funny thing. Had we been in the naturally aspirated ambulance that struggled to maintain 80, the outcome may have been vastly different.

      Reply
  11. Shortest Circuit

    Yup. I rented a Transit for moving the ex out, and she was befuddled as to why a commercial vehicle would accelerate faster and handle better than her Santa Fe. I did my best to (try to) explain this was the reason for the $10k price premium.

    Reply

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