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The Ford Transit Is the Approachable Cargo Van

Road & Track logo Road & Track 1/14/2021 Mack Hogan
a van parked on the side of a building: You may not notice them, but these vans are everywhere. Last year in America, Ford sold more Transits than Jaguar Land Rover sold vehicles. © Mack Hogan You may not notice them, but these vans are everywhere. Last year in America, Ford sold more Transits than Jaguar Land Rover sold vehicles.

For a country known for trucks, America still buys a hell of a lot of vans. Last year Ford sold 153,868 of them here, more units than it moved in van-heavy Europe. Somehow Ford’s found a way to get its closed-back hauler to catch on. The secret, I’d wager, lies in approachability.

Anyone who’s spent time behind the wheel of a Chevy Express, Ford E-350, or God forbid a U-Haul high-roof knows how lumbering, rickety, and unwieldy typical American-style vans can be. These vans dominated our market for decades, powered by understressed and incredibly thirsty V-8s. Everything from their door design to their technology was outdated, with fuel economy that made them a nuisance on any small business’ balance sheet. No wonder America didn’t like vans.

But then European-style vans started showing up. Stubbier noses, bigger cargo-to-footprint ratios, and smaller engines made them more usable in cities. But higher prices for vehicles like the Mercedes Sprinter made them a tough sell, especially compared to budget trucks, and ultimately they were still commercial vehicles with weak tech and sloppy dynamics. It was the Ford Transit that finally broke through, offering the refinement and tidiness of a Sprinter with Ford’s massive commercial vehicle rolodex and better technology, economy, and service access. Suddenly, Transits popped up everywhere.

And they are truly everywhere. You may not really see them anywhere, thanks to the region of your brain responsible for discarding mundane stimuli, but look closely and you’ll see one parked on every city block. They are nowhere near as ubiquitous as Ford’s unassailable F-Series trucks, but they outnumber most blue oval products in yearly sales. For 2019, with 153,868 sales recorded, the Transit beat out the Edge, Expedition, Ranger, and Mustang. Put another way, Ford sold more Transits here than Jaguar Land Rover sold vehicles in the U.S. Considering the Transit’s stateside sales outnumber those of the Chevy Express by nearly 2:1 and European Transit sales by 1.5:1, suffice to say Ford’s van conquest of America is complete.

a truck on a city street: 2021 ford transit mr cargo © Mack Hogan 2021 ford transit mr cargo

This is especially impressive considering a Transit starts at $40,180, eight grand north of a base Chevy Express and dearer still than even a Mercedes Sprinter. Yet as gig workers delivering for Amazon and plumbers upgrading their workhorse hit the market, the Transit wins out again and again. It wins because it doesn’t ask anything of you.

My experience is the proof of that. The Transit arrived the day before I moved apartments. I’d like to claim coincidence, but I’d arranged it specifically to help me on my eight-block intra-Brooklyn move. Not only was this timing personally beneficial, but it’s also the only situation in which a writer like me could ever move enough stuff to justify using a full-size cargo van. So I had to pick it up in Jersey, drive back through Manhattan traffic, and street park it for a mid-pandemic move. As someone with little full-size van experience, this seemed like the ultimate stress test.

a truck is parked on the side of a road: 2021 ford transit mr cargo © Mack Hogan 2021 ford transit mr cargo

Except it was entirely normal. The seating position is more upright and tall, but as soon as you get in a Transit you recognize normal Ford technology and a dashboard seemingly ripped from a Focus. You can get leather seats, adaptive cruise control, and CarPlay. It’s all laid out as you’d expect, with tons of extra storage pockets and pouches for any workday needs. My tester had the basic naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V-6, powerful enough to make an unladen van feel entirely relaxed in traffic. Those who want to drag race with a full trailer can opt for a 310-hp twin-turbo V-6 with 400 lb-ft of torque. This Transit also had the optional all-wheel-drive system, nice for peace of mind but probably unnecessary on such a heavy low-speed vehicle. Still, it’s a nice option for those first-time van drivers worried about operating an unladen rear-wheel-drive vehicle in the snow.

You can also get Transits with packages to make RV upfitting easier, off-road #Vanlife adventures more accessible, or delivery duties more organized. All of which makes the experience of buying, customizing, and using a full-size van less daunting and more approachable.

a view of a car: 2021 ford transit mr cargo © Mack Hogan 2021 ford transit mr cargo

More than anything, though, it’s the driving dynamics that sell it. The Transit is entirely friendly and supremely confident. Besides the fact that it is physically longer, the Transit is just as easy to drive as any passenger car. The steering is shockingly precise, the brakes are firm and progressive, and even in medium-roof configuration it doesn’t roll aggressively into corners. The virtually nonexistent nose and the wide-angle back up camera make parking easy, though finding a space big enough for the thing can be tough. Of course, you can always let the Transit do the hard work, as my $48,595 tester had an automatic parallel parking feature. Those systems are usually too slow and cautious to make much sense in a city, but with the Transit I’ll take all the help I can get.

As far as actual hauling goes, I can say with certainty that a Ford Transit Medium Roof Short Wheelbase can fit pretty much everything I own in it. My roommate and I had movers handle the beds, and we didn’t take the couch, but everything else fit with room to spare. We didn’t get close to the 3685-lb maximum payload of a Transit 150 cargo, but if you’re moving bricks it’s good to know that a Transit 350 can safely haul 5231 lbs. Also, my editor confirmed that a piano fit quite easily into the Transit, too, should any traveling pianist come across this review.

a car parked in front of a bus: 2021 ford transit mr cargo © Mack Hogan 2021 ford transit mr cargo

The downside is simple and obvious. Ford will sell you a Transit in infinite configurations, from stripper-spec runabouts to tech-laden turbocharged all-wheel-drive monsters ready for your nomadic Instagram life. But that comes at a premium, leading to a $40,000 base price and an options list that stretches far beyond the horizon. In return, you get a van that is more approachable, user-friendly, refined, and comfortable than a commercial vehicle has any right to be. Ford’s bet is that business and private buyers alike will gladly pay up to make their lives easier. Based on the numbers, it seems Ford is right.

a car parked on a city street: 2021 ford transit mr cargo © Mack Hogan 2021 ford transit mr cargo

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