Medium Van Test: Transporter v Transit Custom v Vito

Big enough for two euro-pallets and an 8×4 sheet yet small enough to fit on a driveway, medium vans are the go-to vehicle for most self-employed tradespeople and SMEs. In this triple test, we pitch three of the sector’s hottest contestants, the Ford Transit Custom, VW Transporter and Mercedes-Benz Vito, against each other in a gruelling battle.

Background

In the red corner, we have the Volkswagen Transporter which is the longest-running and best-selling van of all time, having sold over 12 million examples since coming to market in 1948. The Transporter entered into its sixth generation in 2015 and is the most expensive van in our group and in the segment.

Next up it’s the Transit Custom. Since 1965, the ‘Transit’ has been the UK’s best-selling name in commercial vehicles and the Transit Custom was last year’s sixth best-selling vehicle overall; outperforming the Vauxhall Astra, VW Polo and Mini. The Transit Custom hit the market in 2012 and received a facelift in 2018.

The baby of the group is the Mercedes-Benz Vito; having only been introduced in 1996. The current model (third generation) was launched in 2014 and it takes its name from the town in which it is manufactured; Vitoria in northern Spain.

Kerb appeal

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Many small businesses are now realising that their van can be their biggest advertising tool; which means looks are becoming increasingly important. The Vito is noticeably lower than the other two, while the Transporter is arguably the most plain to look at.

This isn’t exactly a direct comparison, however, as the Vito has the ‘Sport’ trim, which includes 17-inch, five-spoke alloys, colour-coded bumpers, chrome trim in the grille and chrome side bars for that sporty look.

Meanwhile, our Transit Custom is in the more modest ‘Limited’ trim (sitting above Base and Trend, but below Sport) and the Transporter in Highline (above the Startline and Trendline, but below the Sportline and Edition), but both have the basics covered with colour-coded bumpers and alloy wheels.

We’ve given this to the Vito, but you’re free to make your own mind up on this one!

Winner: Mercedes-Benz Vito

On the inside

Even upon first impressions, its clear that this is a two-horse race between the Transporter and Transit Custom.

The current generation of Vito is the oldest in the group, and this is immediately obvious upon climbing into the cab; the dashboard and instrument panel is dated, the display isn’t touchscreen like the other two and is much smaller, and it lack a carpeted covering on the bulkhead. The seating position is also considerably lower, which means the visibility isn’t quite as good.

Unquestionably, the Transit Custom has the most stylish interior; it features a floating, tablet-inspired eight-inch touchscreen and the dashboard in finished in glossy black with chrome highlights. We also liked the infotainment system and the abundance of storage spaces.

However, the Transporter comes out – only just – on top for interior. While it may be a little bland to look at, there’s no questioning its functionality. There are even more storage spaces in the Transporter’s cab, including two pockets in the doors and above the windscreen, and the seating position is higher still than the Transit Custom; offering commanding views of the road ahead.

Winner: Volkswagen Transporter

Weights and loads

While the Transit Custom and Transporter have a choice of two wheelbases and two roof heights, the Vito has the option of just one roof height but you get to choose from three wheelbases. The load area of the Transporter is the widest and tallest, although the Vito’s extra-long wheelbase has the longest load bed.

The load floor is the lowest on the Vito, although the Transporter has the widest rear door aperture and the Transit Custom has the widest side load door aperture. The Transit Custom and Transporter have nearside side loading doors, whereas the Vito has dual side doors as standard.

A floor lining is standard on the Vito and Transit Custom (from the Trend trim) and optional on the Transporter, while side panels are standard on the Transit Custom (from the Trend) and the Transporter, and optional on the Vito. The Transporter has the best fit-and-finish and is the best lit with three interior lights, although we did like the ‘lipped’ load floor on the Transit Custom. The Vito and Transit Custom have separate buttons on the key to lock the load area and cabs.

Despite its larger stature, the Volkswagen Transporter is actually the lightest of the group. Gross vehicle weights vary between 2.8 and 3.2 tonnes on the Transporter and Vito, while they span a 200kg either side – from 2.6 tonnes to 3.4 tonnes – on the Transit Custom, which gives it the highest payload of the group of 1,474kg.

Winner: Ford Transit Custom

Engine and driveline

The Volkswagen Transporter has the most comprehensive engine line-up; with four diesel power ratings (83bhp/220Nm, 101bhp/250Nm, 148bhp/340Nm and 201bhp/450Nm) on the long-running 2.0TDi and two outputs on the (148bhp/280Nm and 201bhp/350Nm) 2.0TSi unit. All Transporters are FWD (although there is the option of a 4-wheel drive 4Motion) and there is the choice of a 5 or 6-speed manual, or a 7-speed DSG – which is the smoothest and most decisive automatic of the group.

Under the bonnet of the Vito is either a 1.6-litre diesel from Renault or Merc’s own 2.1-litre diesel. The 1.6 powers the front wheel drive models, hooked to a 6-speed manual and is available in outputs of 88bhp/230Nm and 114bhp/270Nm. The tried-and-tested 2.1 is only available on rear wheel drive models, mated to a 7-speed automatic (7G Tronic) and is available in outputs of 136bhp/330Nm, 163bhp/380Nm and 190bhp/440Nm.

The most limited engine line-up can be found on the Ford Transit Custom. The Custom solely employs the new 2.0-litre EcoBlue, which has experienced a number of technical issues over its short life, in four guises; 104bhp/360Nm, 128bhp/385Nm, 168bhp/405Nm. The Custom engines are linked to a 6-speed manual (6-speed automatic available as an option) are very torquey, which means they’re well optimised to carry weight.

Winner: Volkswagen Transporter

On the road

In terms of driving characteristics; the Vito comes out on top thanks to its low centre of gravity, minimal body roll and direct steering but its let down by the poor NVH (noise, vibration and harshness); the shock absorbers do little to cushion bumps and potholes while there a number of noticeable squeaks and rattles above 30mph.

The Transit Custom also suffers – albeit to a lesser degree – from a couple of niggly squeaks and the engine can be quite load during heavy acceleration. However, its also impressive to drive and the steering is direct and provides plenty of feedback.

The Transporter performs and handles differently to the other two; it’s raised position means it doesn’t feel quite as connected and body roll is more prominent. Having said that, it’s incredibly refined and deals with the bumps and divots of everyday roads extremely well.

Winner: Ford Transit Custom

Cost of ownership

Residual values are the largest contributor to total life costs, and the Volkswagen Transporter has the best of any panel van. Although the Transit Custom has the most fuel-efficient variant (Econetic returns up to 49.8mpg), the Vito has the best average fuel economy for standard variants; varying between 44.1mpg and 47.1mpg.

Prices range between £19,350 and £30,185 on the Vito, £20,930 and £34,910 on the Transporter and £21,850 and £31,755 on the Transit Custom. However, spec-for-spec, the Ford comes out on top. A mid-powered, long wheelbase top-of-the-range model would set you back £28,005 with Ford (T320 L2 Limited 130PS), £28,010 with Mercedes (116CDi Sport Long) and £29,285 with Volkswagen (T32 Highline LWB 2.0TDi 150).

The Transit Custom has the longest service intervals at 30,000 miles or two years, while the Mercedes-Benz Vito has the longest warranty at three years, unlimited mileage.

Winner: Mercedes-Benz Vito

Verdict

3rd – Mercedes-Benz Vito

While we admired the looks, handling, fuel economy and pricing of the Mercedes-Benz Vito, it’s starting to show its age in the cab and the fit and finish isn’t the best. There are also lots of niggly squeaks and rattles emanating from the bulkhead.

2nd – Volkswagen Transporter

The Volkswagen Transporter is the most expensive mid-sized van to buy – whether new or used – and its not hard to see why. The Transporter is well-built, has a well-appointed cab and an excellent fit-and-finish, and it has the widest selection of engines, and the best auto box on the market.

1st – Ford Transit Custom

Finishing closely behind the Transporter is the Transit Custom. The 2018 updated Custom looks the part inside and outside, its affordable, its great to drive, and offers the best payload of the three models – up to almost 1.5 tonnes.

Technical data

Ford Transit Custom

Engine: 1,995cc, 4-cylinder EcoBlue

Performance: 104bhp/360Nm, 128bhp/385Nm, 168bhp/405Nm

Transmission: 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 39.5mpg – 49.8mpg

Load lengths: 2,555mm/2,922mm

Load height: 1,406mm/1,788mm

Load width: 1,775mm

Between the wheelarches: 1,390mm

GVWs: 2.5t-3.4t

Payload range: 675 – 1,474kg

Load volume range (m³): 5.4 – 7.7

Warranty: 3-years, 100,000 miles

Starting price: £21,850 plus VAT

Mercedes-Benz Vito

Engine: 1,598cc OM622 or 2,143cc OM651

Performance: 88bhp/230Nm and 114bhp/270Nm (1.6), 136bhp/330Nm, 163bhp/380Nm and 190bhp/440Nm (2.1).

Transmission: 6-speed manual or 7-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 44.1mpg – 47.1mpg

Load lengths: 2,586mm / 2,831mm / 3,061mm

Load height: 1,261mm

Load width: 1,685mm

Between the wheelarches: 1,270mm

GVWs: 2.8-3.2t

Payload range: 727-1,145kg

Load volume range (m³): 5.8 – 6.9

Warranty: 3-years, unlimited miles

Starting price: £19,350 plus VAT

Volkswagen Transporter specs

Engine: 1,968cc ‘EA189’ diesel or 1,984cc ‘EA888’ petrol

Performance: 83bhp/220Nm, 101bhp/250Nm, 148bhp/340Nm and 201bhp/450Nm (diesel) and 148bhp/280Nm and 201bhp/350Nm.

Transmission: 5-speed or 6-speed manual, or 7-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 30.7mpg – 47.0mpg

Load lengths: 2,572mm/2975mm

Load height: 1,410mm/1,940mm

Load width: 1,700mm

Between the wheelarches: 1,244mm

GVWs: 2.6t-3.2t

Payload range: 715kg – 1,301kg

Load volume range (m³): 5.8 – 9.3

Warranty: 3-years, 100,000 miles

Starting price: £20,930 plus VAT

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