After 53 years, the Ford Econoline has reached the end of the road.
It may be called the E-Series these days -- in order to better ride the coattails of the top-selling F-Series pickup -- but to countless small businesses, college students fresh from the U-Haul center, and rock groups looking for their big break, it will always be known as the Econoline. One of those bands even went so far as to coopt the name in tribute.
Don’t get too sad, though, the ancient chariot is being replaced this year by the all-new Transit: a Euro-style van that brings with it modern look, increased functionality and configurability that’s an improvement over the E-Series in just about every way.
Manufactured in Kansas City for U.S. sale, the Transit enters a quickly crowding segment of similar vehicles that includes the Mercedes-Benz Sprinterand Ram Promaster.
The fact that it resembles an over-inflated Ford Fiesta inside and out underscores its biggest change compared to the E-Series. The Transit is built on a car-like unibody chassis instead of the body-on-frame construction traditionally used by trucks. The change is aimed at improving refinement and efficiency, it’s even offered in front-wheel-drive models in foreign markets.
All American-made Transits are rear-wheel-drive, and start at $30,560, a few hundred bucks less than the last of the E-Series. Unlike the E-Series, it is offered in three lengths, three roof heights, and with a choice of three engines: a 275 hp 3.7-liter V6, 310 hp twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6, and a 185 hp 3.2-liter five-cylinder diesel with 350 lb-ft of torque that promises to be the fuel economy leader of the bunch.
The last of those is a $6040 premium over the base engine, and exactly how much of a jump in efficiency it delivers isn’t clear. All Transits have a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating of over 8500 pounds and aren’t required to carry a mpg rating, but Ford offers one for the entry level passenger versions of the V6-powered vans, which are both 14 mpg city, 19 mpg highway. That compares to a high of 13/16 for the most efficient E-Series van, which had a 4.6-liter V8, and 10/13 for the most powerful V10 E-Series. Nevertheless, a Transit representative says they’ve been seeing mid-20s mpg in diesel versions.
The short wheelbase, low roof Transit at 248 cubic feet has more cargo space than the smallest E-Series, while the long wheelbase versions of both are exactly the same at 278 cu ft. It’s the zeppelin-sized high boys that really up the ante, with a maximum volume of 487 cu ft. That’s substantially larger than the last 10ft box truck I rented for a particularly ambitious trip to IKEA, so don’t be surprised if you start seeing a few of these with truck rental company names painted on the side.
There will be a lot of happy shoppers if that happens (at least until they need to unload all that stuff.) I recently tried out a variety of Transit configurations, and the ride and handling characteristics of all of them were decades better than the E-Series across the board. They’re not quite on par with minivans, or the dressiest pickups, but they don’t bounce, they don’t drift and even the diesel kept things quiet most of the time. The 3.7-liter is well-suited to the low roof truck, especially in 15-passenger wagon form, but for just $1,910 more the potent 3.5-liter should prove a popular choice.
The vast majority of Transits will be employed in commercial applications, and Ford has developed it with those customers in mind. You can order them with Ford’s Crew Chief connected fleet management system, programmable keys that can limit a van’s top speed, a lane-departure warning system to keep your drivers between the lines, and pre-drilled mounting points that perfectly match a large selection of aftermarket bin and rack systems designed in concert with Ford.
There’s also a step in the front bumper to make it easier to clean the enormous windshield, available dual sliding side doors, and rear ones that open to a wide 270 degrees. A dually model comes with a gross vehicle weight rating of up to 10,360 pounds, while towing maxes out at 7,500. The E-Series could pull 10,000, which is one of the reasons Ford will continue building it in chassis cab and stripped chassis versions for a few more years.
One unique feature on the Transit is the mechanical security system for the fuel filler. It’s located just behind the driver’s door and the cover is tucked under it so it won’t open unless the door is opened first. This is meant to prevent theft as trucks are left parked in commercial yards, but I can’t help but wonder if Ford’s new CEO Mark Fields was properly briefed. Like me, he’s a New Jersey native, and while we don’t all like Springsteen, none of us get out of our vehicles to pump gas if we don’t have to. It’s our Garden State-given right!
It shouldn’t pose too much of a problem for Jersey rockers on cross-country tours, however, who can rest easy in the knowledge that European bands have been trying to make it in Transits since the 1960s, too.
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.