Grinder Special: Dieselheads.

Ford Mercedes VW Vans

                                                                                                                          
Chipps and the Singletrack staff embark on a grouptest with a difference.

Words by Chipps, pictures by Singletrack.

                                                                                                                                                          

A van test? In a mountain bike magazine?

Well, unless you rarely have cause to leave your sweet home trails, then driving is often an inevitability of being a mountain biker. While most of us make do with cramming bikes and friends into an estate car, many riders decide that the mountain bike is such an integral part of their life (and lifestyle) that an even more bike-friendly vehicle is needed, and medium-sized vans are a popular choice. You need only look through the car park at Glentress or Coed y Brenin to see the number of vans, both privately and business-owned, ferrying groups of riders around.

This test evolved out of Singletrack’s own need for a new van. Our long wheelbase Sprinter was ageing and, quite honestly, too huge to be practical, so we drew up a list of needs and would-likes and set about finding something that would suit.

If your previous experience of van driving has been renting an older Transit to move house with, then you’re in for a treat. Modern vans drive, manoeuvre and park much like cars and, with modern engines and refinements, return pretty good fuel economy too.

We were after a vehicle that would take up to five riders and five bikes, ideally with wheels on – but not seem too frivolous or cavernous if it was just one driver and a camera bag going to a trade show. It needed to be comfortable and quiet enough for long journeys like the seven-hour drive up to Fort William; be economical on fuel, and still fit into a regular car parking space (something our Sprinter definitely didn’t do). Surely not too much to ask?

Luckily the commercial vehicle world recognises the demand for mountain bike-friendly vans. We were lucky enough to be offered three press-fleet vans on loan, for an average of a month each, to have a good chance at evaluating them. Our shortlist – whittled down to Ford’s Transit Custom Kombi, Mercedes’ Vito Sport and the ubiquitous Volkswagen T5 – arrived one by one at Singletrack Towers. We duly set about the arduous testing process armed with tape measures, notebooks and, by the end of it, mountains of service station coffee cups and fuel receipts.

All three vehicles were used, mercilessly, as ‘work’ vans: we packed five people and five bikes into them for photoshoots, we did big motorway miles down to trade shows and back up the country for mates’ weekends in Innerleithen. In between, we drove them home and tried to park them in little driveways, took them to Ikea to buy beds and to cinemas with all seats full. In short, we treated them exactly as ‘ordinary’ mountain bikers all over the UK would. Then we locked ourselves in the office and debated the pros and cons of each van – and here are the results…

Ford Transit Custom Kombi.

Ford Van

  • Price as tested: £32,234.00 (inc VAT)
  • Spec as tested: 310 LWB Trend. 2.2L TDCi 125PS.
  • From: Ford, ford.co.uk

Sleek and styled, the Custom Combi is not your local builder’s Transit.

The sculpted lines do much to soften the outward appearance, but there’s no hiding that it comes from thoroughbred van stock.

The high driving position, roomy cockpit, pair of two-litre pop bottle holders and huge dash remind you that this still comes from the same family as the original ‘Sunday Sport on the dashboard’ Transit. Much is made of the new version’s driving comfort and there are all sorts of driver-aids available, like rain-sensing wipers, heated windscreen, Bluetooth syncing and eight-way adjustable driver’s seat. Ours even came with a 240V inverter and those spooky sideways headlights that come on when you go round a corner.

The Custom Kombi we tested is the minibus version of the Transit family and features full glass windows and eight seats. The two rear rows of seats can fold flat or forward, or come out in a single or pair per row, with the option to remove any or all rear seats to reveal a space big enough to play tennis in. With the back row of seats folded forward, there was room for five people and more than enough bikes, with wheels on and tidy packing not needed. There were tie-downs for bikes and cargo and everything had a good sturdy feel. This is a van that we’d be happy to load up with five people’s gear and bikes and take Euro roadtrippin’, such is the vastness of the back.

Fully loaded, the (front wheel drive) van’s 2.2 litre diesel engine was a bit sluggish to get up to speed. For full-on loaded life, we’d upgrade to the bigger engine. Saying that, though, the size of the vehicle was never a problem. It’s certainly on the top end of what you’d call ‘comfortably manoeuvrable’, but it was happy on country lanes, supermarket car parks and urban driveways. On long journeys, there were little helpers, like a good stereo, cruise control, a limiter and an ‘Eco’ mode that limits the van to sensible speeds. Nevertheless, we struggled to get more than 32mpg out of it. Like all the vans here, there are literally hundreds of different options available in terms of wheelbase, engines and seating. In fact, we’d probably be better off with the version with just two rows of seats and a semi-panelled rear.

Things we liked about the Transit Custom Kombi included: the high driving position; the big space between front seats that was good for camera bags, dogs or a coolbox; the purposeful stereo and all the cubby holes to put drinks, phones, etc. The pair of rear sliding doors is essential if you’re going to regularly fill the back up with bikes and people and the rear seats were voted as comfy enough for long journeys. Our stock van came with a few added extras that we’d probably skip, like the £400 metallic paint and the pop-up roof rails – if you’re having to fit roof racks on this thing, then you have too many toys.

The Custom Kombi just surfs that fine line between sensible, practical van and fun, weekend getaway vehicle. It’ll probably be too much van for most people, and it did feel frivolous for us when it wasn’t full to the brim, but families with lots of toys and company bosses with a bit of leeway on what vehicle the company should get, would do well to look at it.

 

Mercedes Vito Sport.

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  • Price as tested:  £36,328.00 (inc VAT)
  • Spec as tested: 116CDi Dualiner Long Sport EU5
  • From: Mercedes, vitosport.co.uk

If there were a prize for shameless self-promotion, the Mercedes Vito Sport would win hands down.

The brand seems to sponsor nearly everyone who races bikes and can be seen at nearly every mountain bike event, so we were looking forward to trying the van and seeing why Mercedes is particularly keen to get mountain bikers on board.

The Merc was the quietest of all three vans due to the very nice and comprehensive internal panelling, although this did impinge on the useable space in the back. Rear wheel drive seems to be a Mercedes trademark of some kind – even though in this case it seemed impractical as the wheels would spin on any damp grass, which mountain bikers are likely to encounter frequently at events and races.

Fuel economy-wise, it was no better or worse than the Transit – even though it was the most powerful of the three vans. The instant reading was telling, especially on motorways where it sent the average through the floor, but we managed to average 32mpg with a variety of drivers and driving styles around a mix of long distance and hilly countryside driving. Talking of power, there was a huge amount on tap and the Vito Sport lived up to its name – driving very much like a powerful car.

The steering column controls – indicators, washers, lights, etc. – were crammed mostly onto a single ‘stick’, which made it all too easy to end up indicating with your wipers and flashing your lights when you just wanted to set the cruise control. There was also a foot-operated parking brake to the left of the clutch, which drivers switching from cars found very hard to remember. If this were your only vehicle, though, you’d soon become accustomed to it.


The built-in satnav was useful but mounted low down, just above the gear stick, but a summary can be displayed between the speedo dials. We would have preferred the main screen, however, to be swapped into the position of the heating controls that sat above it. The huge dashboard did just about everything and external looks were certainly fast and flashy.

Seating versatility was good; the rear seats rolled up completely flat against the front seats, leaving you with the practical space of a full panel van, though you couldn’t opt to just remove the double rear seats, only the single or all three. The tie-down points were well placed, with some mounted high and others at floor level, and the fully-lined plastic panelling saved us from denting the metalwork with bar ends. The floor was squishy and rubberised, presumably to stop a heavy payload moving around, but it also doubled as a cheapskate sleeping mat for weekends away.

Finally, a tailgate rear door like the Vito’s is a must for any mountain biking van owner. As a shelter from the elements when loading and unloading or even shuffling into a change of clothes, it’s well worth the extra few hundred quid over twin barn doors.

 

Volkswagen T5.

IMG_0672

  • Price as tested: £29,021.00 (inc VAT. LWB version is £30,461)
  • Spec as tested: T5 SWB 140PS Trendline.
  • From: Volkswagen, volkswagen-vans.co.uk

VW has had a firm grip on the outdoor adventures lifestyle van for the past 50 years.

If the activity you’re interested in is adrenaline or lifestyle-focused and requires you to travel, carry equipment and occasionally sleep at the side of a road you will, at some point, have looked at a VW van as a vehicle.

The T5 we tested was a mid-spec short wheelbase Kombi Trendline. You can choose from a panel, combi or window/shuttle van: all available in short or long wheelbase and with various spec and power options. Volkswagen threw in a couple of extras to move the feel and look of the van away from a standard works van: the exterior had been treated to some 16in alloys and there was a leather steering wheel for that racier feel.

Being a VW one of the first things we wanted to know was, are the adverts boasting about that ‘thunk’ sound when closing the doors true or false? Answer? True! From the dashboard to the doors and floor covering, there was a real feeling of being built to last.

The Trendline spec didn’t dazzle us with complicated seating adjustments and gadgets. Instead it has instruments that are clear to read, a simple but powerful DAB stereo (though lacking rear speakers), easy to use cruise control and plenty of space for hydration storage. Of all three vans, the T5 came with what seemed the most suitable engine, with reasonable power and good fuel efficiency from the 2.0l TDi front wheel drive engine. Locally, the T5 was averaging 38.9mpg and on longer motorway trips, it reached 42mpg, loaded with four passengers, bikes and riding kit.


Apart from the higher driving position and the van being slightly wider than a large MPV, piloting it felt just like driving a large car. This was partly due to the layout of the controls, but was also down to the short wheelbase. When it came to loading up with bikes and gear, we had to pause and think about it. With the rear passenger seats in place, even a small 26in-wheeled bike wouldn’t fit straight in with both wheels on, though it did fit in diagonally. We did manage to get hold of a long wheelbase T5 for 24 hours and having 400mm extra load space made all the difference.

If you are in the market for a private vehicle, possibly looking to put some kind of camper conversion in, the following negative points probably won’t be an issue – but as a working vehicle intended to carry a variety of loads including passengers, they may.

The rear seats came in a ‘double, single’ configuration, flawed by the single only tilting forwards slightly or coming completely out. The backrest of the double could be folded flat, but when we wanted to fold the bases up against the front seats, they released completely from their securing points. This then meant we either needed to remove them, or find another way to secure them.

There is also only one rear sliding door. You can upgrade to two at a cost of £400, which would be well worth the extra cost if, like us, you need a vehicle that’s as versatile as possible.

In the long wheelbase version and the Highline spec, with that second sliding door added, the T5 is without a doubt a van that is instantly useful. Volkswagen even calls its black colour, ‘black’; you get what you see with no hidden surprises.

 

Overall:

Our choice of medium-sized vans for this test came down to the wish list of what we thought we wanted.

Your own needs, wants and budget will inevitably differ; however, it’s worth bearing in mind that the flash and shiny vans of today will become more affordable third-handers in five years time.

The Transit Custom Kombi was the first van to arrive with us and, despite it being less anticipated than the other two vans, it quickly won fans due to its surprising ease of driving and its truly cavernous internal space. This was very nearly our best van of the test, losing out finally when it came down to fuel economy and overall price. It’s certainly one to consider if you’re in the market for a large, versatile van/minibus, and the short wheelbase version is already a popular choice for mountain bikers.

The Mercedes Vito Sport surprised us in a few ways. The ‘Sport’ label made us think it would be a fuel guzzler, but in reality it was no worse than the Transit. The power was truly impressive and this made driving an engaging, enjoyable experience, with care needed not to speed everywhere. Lots of modern gizmos aided passenger comfort and driver safety, and the rear seats were versatile in their arrangement. However, there were a few bits we didn’t get on with. The rear wheel drive had us stuck with wheels spinning more than once, even on flat fields and muddy lay-bys; not a problem if you never leave the motorway, but grass is the natural home for a mountain bike van. The foot-operated parking brake and the combined control stalk took lots of getting used to, too – which is fine if this would be your only vehicle, but if you’re constantly flitting between vehicles, you’ll start to hate them.

The Volkswagen T5 was the winner for us in this context. In terms of price, resale value and economy, it pleased the sensible heads among us. In terms of ease of use, the driving experience was impressive and we found that load space was acceptable in the short wheelbase version we tested. We were happy enough to have to whip front wheels off when carrying more than three bikes in return for the car-like handling and driving feel – and opting to spend an extra £1,500 on the long wheelbase version would solve all of those problems. Even factoring in the cost of options like the second sliding door and a longer wheelbase – which turned out to be essentials for us – the price was competitive compared to the other models on test and the resale value of T5s is high.

In fact, we’ve given the VW T5 Sportline enough of a thumbs up that we’re dipping into the Singletrack coffers to buy one ourselves. It should be with us in time for the 2014 event season so if you see us cruising the highways, remember to give us a wave.

 

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