Medium vans are the backbone of the UK's trades & fleets - they're all about payload, practicality & reliability. The VW Transporter & Ford Transit Custom are 2 of the best available right now - the icon & the best-seller, respectively. So, sit back & read on to find out which van will win Vanarama Van Expert Tom Roberts' latest van comparison article.
Think Ford Transit Custom & you'll no doubt see images of the UK's best-selling medium van as clear as day - they're everywhere. Think VW Transporter & you'll no doubt see an image of a refined panel van being converted into a campervan. What's great about these 2 vehicles is that while they do the same job - being a good medium panel van - they have very different images.
This comparison is particularly interesting due to the recently announced future partnership between Ford & Volkswagen, which will see the 2 manufacturers make up to 8 million pickup trucks & vans over the course of their union. This total will include a pickup based on the Ford Ranger, a smaller city van built by VW & a 1-tonne van made by Ford. That last one is the most interesting detail considering which vans I'm comparing in this article - this new 1-ton van is likely to be the new Transporter & Transit Custom.
But enough of the future, this article is about the current generations of the refined & iconic VW Transporter & the Ford Transit Custom, the UK's best-selling medium van. The vans compared in this article are the latest 2020 models - the 2020 Ford Transit Custom & 2020 T6.1 VW Transporter).
Under The Bonnet
Ford Transit Custom: Ford's incredible 2.0-litre TDCi EcoBlue turbodiesel engines return surprisingly low running costs & shed loads more torque than you'd expect from a smaller engine. But despite the smaller size the 3 original versions of this engine – 105hp, 130hp & 170hp – have recently been joined by a 185hp for the top-of-the-range versions of this excellent van. Ford have also added a 6-speed auto gearbox alongside the EcoBlue engine for added driving comfort.
Volkswagen Transporter: VW's already made for itself with its 2.0-litre TDI turbodiesel engines that power the Transporters. Right now, you'll find the engines offered in a significantly wide choice of outputs that range from 90hp to 199hp in the T6.1 versions. There was a time when you could get Transporters with petrol engines, but those have since been discontinued - you won't find any petrol-engined models in the T6.1 range these days & for some users that might be a problem.
Tom's Winner: In this round, I'll hand the win - only narrowly - to VW. Their engines are available in far more outputs giving users a bit more choice. That said, Ford's EcoBlue engines are better for running costs. It's VW by a squeak.
On The Outside
Ford Transit Custom: On launch, the Ford Transit Custom shared its aesthetics with Ford's car ranges & nothing's changed. As Ford transitioned to the open grilles, so followed the company's LCV offering. The Custom looks like a medium van should, it's got a bit of flash but it's all business. The trim levels affect the outside in small ways - as you go higher the black plastic panels get replaced with body-coloured panelling, alloy wheels are thrown on, fog lights get added, chrome trim appears around the grille & the door mirrors go full electric (in movement & heating). The sides of the Custom are also generously clear of panel lines to make signwriting one just a little bit easier.
Volkswagen Transporter: The Transporter is an icon - as much for its looks as it is for the legacy & the platforms multiple uses. Even to this day there are elements of the original camper vans at play in the looks of the Transporters - even in the panel van versions. Lines & curves blend together seamlessly to give the Transporter an edge of SUV at the front end - this is helped by the VW car grilles being echoed in the LCV offering's grilles. Trim levels affect the vehicle's external appearance in much the same way as the Ford Transit Custom - body coloured panels, additional chrome trim. Pick the one you think looks the best & that matches your budget.
Tom's Winner: As a self-confessed VW Transporter fanboy, I've got to hand this one to the iconic van. As instantly recognisable as they come, the Transporter - in my mind - has the edge in looks over a substantial portion of the LCV marketplace. But, I'm not arrogant enough to think you all agree, we've all got our own tastes. What upsets me is that once Ford & VW start making these vans together we'll lose what makes them iconic - at least on the outside. Just my 2 pence worth.
In The Cabin
Ford Transit Custom: The Ford Transit Custom has the best cabins in the medium van marketplace - in my opinion. They've got all the modern tech you actually need - nothing you don't - & Ford have nailed cabin comfort. The standard cabin trim levels give you comfy seats, touchscreen tech, the best cup holders in the entire LCV marketplace & easy-to-understand controls & readouts. You won't find better cabins than Ford cabins.
Volkswagen Transporter: Sadly, this is one area I feel the Transporters are let down. While the newer Transporters have better cabins, they're never quite as good value for money as the cabins on other vans. For the Transporter, you'll get slightly more plush cabins as you make your way up the trim levels, but the tech is the same as you'll get in other LCV without ever feeling like it's trying to be an actual LCV. The Transporter cabins miss the point - LCV don't need car interiors, they need tough & durable car-like interiors.
Tom's Winner: Well, this was never a fair fight. The Ford Transit Custom wins hands down. There are things about the Transporter's cabin I like, but for the premium you pay when compared to the Custom, it doesn't match up. Fair play to Ford, they've poured decades of car experience into creating the perfect car-like LCV cabin.
In The Loading Bay
Ford Transit Custom: Okay, we're at the business end of the Transit Custom & with payloads ranging from under 700kg to nearly 1,500kg, it's technically more capable than some vans from the large van sector! Most people opt for the low-roof versions - they're easier to park in difficult multi-stories, yet still offer users load volumes of up to 6.8 cubic metres. The high-roof versions offer more headroom, which might make more sense to users who regularly step in & out of the loading bay for deliveries. All-in-all, at this end of the vehicle, the Custom is a major contender in the sector thanks to the sheer capability of the vehicle for the price.
Volkswagen Transporter: In the latest version of the Transporter, payload ranged from under 800kg to well over 1,300kg - which is quite a way off the maximum payload for the custom, it's also a much tighter range for a medium van to operate in. It's top payload is also far short of the real heavy lifters in the medium van sector - the Vauxhall Vivaro, Citroen Dispatch, Toyota Proace & Peugeot Expert - but this is not to say it doesn't have capability. Just ask the legions of bands & AV technicians who swear by the hatch door & lipless loading aperture.
Tom's Winner: While the Transporter's hatch door is so cool it hurts, the Custom's capabilities in the loading bay are the clear winner. It is a far more flexible offering with space, practicality & weight-carrying ability. When Ford made the Transit Custom, they knew what they were doing.
Ford Transit Custom Vs VW Transporter: In Conclusion
For me, this is the most interesting time to be doing this comparison. Ford & VW have announced their intentions to work together to create a joint medium van - among several other new LCVs. We're going to lose these icons in their current, very different, designs & will soon have platform-sharing equivalents.
For the sake of this article, there has to be a winner, but I just can't bring myself to choose one. At time of writing, the Transporter & the Transit Custom are then best the medium van sector has to offer because they so brilliantly demonstrate the breadth of the offering within it. The Transporter is a touch of iconic class that endures thanks to its legacy & modest refinements with every facelift, while the Transit Custom is the young upstart that offered everything a modern LCV would need for a competitive price & now outsells most other vans by almost 100%.
It's too close to call. I'd put my neck out & crown one of these the winner if I could… but I'd end up picking one over the other on a technicality & that doesn't feel right to me. What do you all think?