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VW T6, Mercedes-Benz Vito, Ford Transit Custom

Good things come in threes

The transporter market is going from strength to strength. The biggest players in the mid-size van segment are the VW Transporter, Ford Transit Custom and Mercedes Vito, with all three opting against multi-brand model cooperations. But who has the best product policy? Find out in our comparison test.

Out of all the measurements that arose from this comparison test, one number impresses more than any other: more than half of new registrations in the three-ton class of the european market (56.9 percent) go to the T6, Vito and Transit Custom. Reason enough to invite the three big hitters to a showdown. The rules are simple: the most compact body variant, mid-level motorization, and a budget of 10,000 euros for extra equipment. This means that all three come in below the city-friendly five meter mark, with engines churning out 105 HP (Ford) or 114 HP (VW and Mercedes). More than enough to carry the test weight of 500 kilograms.

Transit: Stately yet dynamic

Perhaps unexpectedly, the supposed weakest of our trio labored least under our test load. For a transporter, the Transit Custom is remarkably agile in the hustle and bustle of the city. You’d certainly be forgiven for questioning the figure of 105 HP. The solution to this puzzle is the mighty torque of the new two-liter Ecoblue diesel engine, with 360 Nm pulling at the front axle from an early 1,375 rpm. On loose and slippery surfaces, the Ford is somewhat overwhelmed with all this power, irascibly tugging at the steering wheel in search of grip. The ESP kicks in late, but too eagerly. At 2,000 revolutions, the maximum torque flattens off dramatically, calming down to rejoin the others on the motorway slip road.

Still, if it’s possible to even talk of vans in such terms, the Ford is certainly the most fun of the three. Stiff suspension, direct and sporty steering, precise shifting and the power of the turbo all work together to bring smiles to the faces of tradesmen wanting something other than just a comfortable ride. Well insulated, only the faint whine of the turbo makes its way into the cabin area. The cabin is generously proportioned, three will fit without needing to fight for elbow space. The six-speed gear shifter is mounted high, at the same height as the steering wheel spoke. This is comfortable for the driver and the person in the middle mustn't worry of anything pressing into their leg.

There is plenty of storage too: a large compartment beneath the bench seat, with a small writing/working space folding out of the backrest of the middle seat. Some of the storage options are ill-placed, such as the large cup holders at knee height. The Ford also lacks an open document holder. External devices can be plugged in within the closed compartment on the dashboard in front of the steering wheel. Seat padding is hard, but to make up for this, the Ford has the most adjustable driving seat. There is little to feel of any lumbar support, even if you turn the fiddly settings dial to its maximum.

Buttons and switches on the instrument panel lack any logical structure, some are even tucked away behind the steering wheel. In comparison to the two competing brands that pimp their transporters with car parts, chrome and piano lacquer finishes, the Transit just looks stale and pallid. A positive is the fuel guard to prevent misfueling. Negatives: To access the engine you will need the keys, and the hunt for the tiny hook under the hood takes both time and nerve.

In terms of drive and comfort, the Ford is in the same league as the Vito and the T6. It falls behind, however, in loading volume and safety, despite extensive assistance systems and the best visibility thanks to its wide angle mirror. Aside from the eight eyelets on the floor, the Transit has no other lashing options. It also has the furthest stopping distance and wallows threateningly during emergency stops. 

When all is said and done, the main issue to cancel out the advantages of the Transit is the low loading capacity. The test vehicle (270 L1) can carry a mere 645 kilograms. The 310 L1 version, with a loading weight of 1,200 kg, would have performed far better here. This would, however, have cost an extra thousand, for which we would have knocked points off for cost. Just as a side note. The fact that the Ford has the largest loading dimensions and door cut-outs isn’t enough to cancel out its weak payload.

Vito: Strong but awkward

The title of ‘strongest man’ goes to the Mercedes Vito in our contest. It sets the bar high with a payload of 1,135 kg, gaining it an early points lead over its competitors in the loading volume and weight section. It needs these points, as it otherwise often gets in the way of itself. For example, if the double doors are open to a 90 degree angle, the rear lights are covered and the Vito becomes an invisible hazard in the dark. The doors also lack a locking mechanism. Inattentive loaders could knock doors with their elbow or forklift, inadvertently swinging them out into the street or pavement.

The narrow opening of the sliding door makes it challenging to load a Euro mesh pallet into the side of the Vito, with the convex separating wall making it almost impossible. Mercedes only picks up points for the longest loading length thanks to the fact that this separating wall retreats so far into the driver’s cabin at the bottom. This does make it practical for carrying long, thin objects. In terms of loading capacity, the Vito brings up the rear. The windowless Vito box van is ‘lit’ by a small, dim ceiling light. Lashing rails on the floor and side walls offer enough fastening options, which win the Vito important points in safety testing.

Whilst the Vito’s radiator grill is adorned with a large Mercedes star, the engine behind it in the 111 CDI is a 1.6 liter Renault turbodiesel. The German-French partnership is neither a stroke of genius nor a poor choice. The engine is forgiving of lazy gear changing and low-rpm driving, and accelerates the Vito well and evenly. There is never any real discernible punch from the turbo. Not to worry. The Vito has such comfortable suspension that you’d actually rather meander to your destination in comfort. Whether laden or empty, it will bound along country roads with as much dignity as a C Class. Mercedes opted against an automatic start-stop system for its front-wheeler. The Vito allowed itself 7.4 liters per 100 km, identical to the Transit. Its small 57 liter diesel tank means you’ll be forced to the gas station every 770 kilometers.

Driving the Vito feels more like driving a car than a cumbersome transporter. The seating position is low, the roof an underground-garage-friendly 1.91 m. The Mercedes’ speed-sensitive electromechanical power steering system puts it ahead in terms of handling too. And that despite its large turning circle. It is the only van in the field to feature active parking assist in its program. Upon pushing the steering wheel button, the Vito slides itself into the tightest of parking bays all by itself. Even the small side mirrors without wide-angle segments (only the Transit features these) don’t matter, as the blind spot warning system reliably informs you of vehicles to the sides and rear of the Vito. Only the hill-start assist function is cause for consternation, as it doesn’t always kick in.

Aside from the limited seating area, there is nothing to complain about the seats themselves. Comfortable padding, good lateral support, strong lumbar support and a grippy steering wheel. Posture problems for the person sitting in the middle seat may arise, as they must contort their legs due to the low gear console. The thick leather steering wheel and attractive instrument panel stand out in the sparse cockpit. The pixelated Becker satnav seems antiquated, whilst the mini control-knob for the infotainment system will be too small for the hands of some tradesmen.

T6: Time-tested yet totally modern

Whether they would fare better with the large touchscreen of the VW Discover Media navigation system remains to be seen. A comprehensive voice recognition system means that drivers of the Volkswagen do have an alternative. With regards to multimedia offerings, the Transporter is in a different league to its two competitors. It features smartphone mirroring, a satnav with real-time traffic alerts, and the VW will even function as a WiFi hotspot if required. Just like the Passat. It’s with the variety of well-solved details that the T6 collects points: an unobstructed entry, resilient seat coverings, well-planned storage, a structured cockpit, and, and, and...

The 114 HP variant of the 2.0 TDI is the Volkswagen engine on test today, which was only officially announced as part of the VW portfolio at the IAA. With this, VW closes the gap between the performance levels of its other two options, with 102 and 150 HP – something that many customers have been demanding since the introduction of the new Euro 6 engines. Both Vito and Transit are fitted with a six-speed transmission, whereas the VW Transporter has to make do with five gears. As a result, it is not a specialist at long distances. Fifth gear can be used from 70 km/h, and from 130 km/h the rev counter is consistently around the 3,000 rpm mark.

It isn’t just the consumption that spikes with motorway driving – sound levels inside the cab increase markedly too. Even at a standstill, the VW diesel was the loudest on test, rumbling away and making the whole vehicle vibrate. Despite this, the T6 sips a mere 6.7 liters/100 km, which makes it the most frugal of the trio. Points are lost for suspension comfort. The combination of a lowered body and rolling-resistance optimized 17 inch wheels – both reduce fuel consumption – mean the T6 positively crashes through potholes. The 500 kg test load visibly presses down on the rear axle.

Neither parking assistance nor a wide-angle mirror are there to help the driver in city traffic. On the plus side, slim A pillars provide good view when cornering. Drivers of the VW will need to be more sensitive – the pedals are light and easy to push all the way, and the gearstick slips smoothly through the gears. It’s just something to get used to. Even the steering, which is nice and firm in slow city traffic, feels increasingly vague and numb at higher speeds. We’re complaining at a high level though. 

If at all, the VW Transporter is ever so slightly worse off than the Vito and Transit in some individual tests, but wins top points across almost all categories. Success can, at least in this case, be demonstrated in numbers – more than a quarter of all newly registered mid-size vans (25.8%) can be ascribed to the VW T6.

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21. November 2016
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