Ford’s Transit Custom Trail is the minivan challenger we want but won’t get

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Kamil Kaluski

In North America, we are all familiar with Ford’s Transit van. What we’re less familiar with is Ford Europe’s Transit Custom, a van that slots between the full-size Transit and the car-based Transit Connect. This unibody vehicle is roughly the size of the Mercedes-Benz Metris van and has been in production since 2012. We don’t suspect you’ve looked longingly at a Transit van recently, but Ford’s latest updates to the mid-size cargo-hauler might provoke an envious stare across the pond.

To jazz up this midsize van a bit, Ford has just introduced the Trail version. The Trail trim, which is also available on the big Transit, includes both mechanical and aesthetic tweaks. Ford says that the package is “designed specifically to operate in tougher working environments,” but families looking for a weekend camping rig will find it compelling as well.

ford transit custom rear

As far as appearance goes, a Transit or Transit Custom equipped with the Trail Package receives blacked-out lower body trim, mirror arms, and wheels. The most drastic difference is the front fascia, however; the Trail trim swaps out the base van’s horizontal strakes and tiny oval badge with Raptor-esque mesh and giant FORD lettering. The Transit Custom also gets black roof rails, which are a nice touch and are probably quite functional—if you can reach that high. All those little visual differences make for a pretty badass breadbox.

Gear to get dirty

Maybe the black trim bits didn’t inspire you, but stick around for the mechanical aspects of the Trail package, because this is where things get interesting. Trail-equipped full-size Transit vans get all-wheel-drive; the smaller Transit Custom retains its front-wheel-drive configuration but gains a mechanical limited-slip differential. To completely blow our American enthusiast minds, that LSD is exclusively available with a six-speed manual transmission.

That differential isn’t any old LSD, either. Ford developed it alongside U.K. driveline technology specialist Quaife and tailored it for unpaved roads, gravel tracks, and rugged surfaces.

ford transit trail range

Diesel power is your only choice for Trail-equipped vans. The 2.0-liter EcoBlue diesel engine offers a choice of three power levels: 128 hp, 167 hp, and 182 hp. You can pair any of these engine tunes with a 48-volt mild-hybrid system as well.

Though you can spec an automatic gearbox on any Trail-trim van, ditching the manual also requires you to sacrifice the mechanical LSD and its promise of gravel-spewing adventure. True, none of the EcoBlue diesels boast impressive horsepower figures, but the 182-hp variant packs almost 300 lb-ft of torque at a very low engine speed. A torquey diesel van with a six-speed and a capable LSD? That’s our kind of family hauler.

Trail trimmings

The Transit Custom Trail is available in panel van, double-cab-in-van, and wagon versions, with a choice of two wheelbases. The bigger Transit Trail is available in panel van, double-cab-in-van, wagon, single chassis cab, and double chassis cab variants.

ford transit custom interior

The basic cabin consists of three-across leather-covered seating and a full infotainment system. Features such as power heated seats, navigational system, and a household power plug can be added. Floor covering aside, there’s nothing commercial-grade about this van.

A different animal

For those wondering, American-market minivans are vastly different beasts than these European quasi-work vans. Two years ago on my family trip to Italy, I rented a Fiat Talento passenger van, which is about the same size as Ford’s Transit Custom. It had a 130-hp diesel engine and a six-speed manual transmission. This unibody appliance was slow, no question about it, but surprisingly fun to drive on Tuscany’s winding roads.

fiat talento
Kamil Kaluski

I sat higher and much farther forward than I would in a Toyota Sienna or a Honda Odyssey. Flat vertical sides and a higher roofline made the three-row interior seem very spacious—more like a bus than an SUV, being nearly as large as a bus. The rental-spec hauler had fabric seats and rubber floors that proved to be very resistant to regurgitated pasta.

The torquey engine made the Fiat van seem quicker than it actually was, but it was far from the ultimate driving machine. At over 100 mph on the autostrada, the van didn’t provide comfortable or confident feedback. On hilly dirt roads, especially when starting from a stop, traction proved an issue. A limited-slip differential would have really come in handy then …

ford transit custom van side trail

A sweet spot stateside?

Mercedes-Benz determined that there is sufficient demand in North America to justify selling its Metris van here. While the Metris isn’t a direct replacement for the minivan, it’s a less-intimidating alternative to a full-size van. Ford’s midsize Transit Custom occupies a similar sweet spot, somewhat reminiscent of the Chevy Astro and the Ford Aerostar. Ford Europe already has a product that’s basically ready—why not bring the Transit Custom stateside? With the Trail package, please …

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