IAIN ROBERTSON 

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The customised van market has been growing like Topsy in recent years, reports Iain Robertson, but for the first time ever, Ford is able to offer manufacturer approved versions of its vans, the most compact of which (at the moment) is the Transit Connect.

Customisation, which has been refocused by the motor industry as ‘personalisation’, usually lies within the eyes of the originator. No car company worth its salt has been able to avoid what the personalisation opportunity presents, not least because every add-on, every modification, equates to a full-profit margin, even though the core vehicle may have been discounted already.

However, regardless of the changes wrought, making them appeal to a wider market demands very conscious allegiances with suppliers…one man’s meat, and all that stuff. Seldom do individual customisers worry about final appearances, as may be evinced by some of the more lurid mobile display boards running around our roads. However, searching for a lowest common denominator will achieve very little. After all, customisation is a statement exercise.

IMGYet, BMW with the Mini, Toyota with the Aygo (and its sister Peugeot and Citroen models), Suzuki with its Swift, Fiat and the 500, as well as, to a lesser extent, the Vauxhall Corsa and Ford Fiesta, can all be customised through their supplying dealers, in some cases to values hovering around 50% more than the list price and, as it is by customer preference, money is frequently not a barrier. However, the van business is somewhat different and, while VW produces factory-approved conversions they are mainly in the campervan scene. The rest are down to local converters.

Dependent on the quality of the customisation, most modified light vans can command a double-take in our highly vehicle-aware market. There is hardly a street in any village, town, or city in the UK that does not have a head-turning VW Transporter, Renault Trafic, or Vauxhall Vivaro parked on it. Owned usually by hobbyists that include anglers, outdoor sports enthusiasts, or just customising fans, a growing number of businesses also want an attractive, zapped-up, modified van, upon which to declare their enterprise. In fact, as such detailing can often be offset (taxwise) to marketing, or advertising spends, I am surprised that more examples do not exist, especially in the marketing and advertising arenas.

Although some Ford Transits have received the customising treatment, none of the conversions has been as thorough, or professionally attractive as that produced by Pontypool-based MS-RT. Having spoken at length with the MS-RT management team, I can tell you that they slaved for many months during the development of an aesthetically sound body-kit that might meet the customising zeitgeist and the devil, as they say, lies in the detail. While the Transit Custom was launched last year to much acclaim, the latest Ford-approved conversion is to the Transit Connect, its smaller brother.

IMGAn important vehicle, its roots lie in the original Escort van, replaced by the more purposeful Connect model in 2002. In its latest iteration, with vastly improved chassis strength and increased carrying capacities, the compact van is already making a major impact in the city van sector. Powered by Ford’s 1.5-litre Eco-Blue turbo-diesel engines in 74, 99 and 118bhp forms (badged 75, 100 and 120; there are petrol alternatives), it is the latter unit, mated to a very slick 6-speed manual gearbox (an automated-manual alternative transmission is available as an option) that powers the MS-RT test van.

While the standard van is defined by its styling that incorporates a useful, Euro-pallet sized load cube, this van has the optional twin side-sliding doors for easier access to the load bay that has a maximum carrying capacity in this form of 595kgs; the Connect can be specified with larger capacity, a longer wheelbase and also a crew-cab option. The rear ‘barn doors’ open fully to allow forklift truck access, even with the lightly extended rear bumper bar fitted as part of the MS-RT kit. The rest of the customising exercise deals with cosmetics, such as new front grille and bumper, side-skirts, tail spoiler, 18.0-inch diameter OZ alloy wheels, with enhanced tyres and twin exhaust outlets that actually work!

The cabin, protected by a full-height metal bulkhead, provides flexible access for a driver and passenger; the ‘double seat’ on the nearside of the cab being just about wide enough for two slim, belted-in occupants. Fully retrimmed in faux suede (Alcantara) and Nappa leather, the seats are both very supportive and comfortable. The driver’s seat and steering column offer an enormous range of adjustability and positioning the gearlever in the lower dash-centre allows space for the middle occupant’s knees. A sporty steering wheel is an element of the conversion, while the in-built sat-nav also provides a screen for rear-view. Other standard Ford equipment includes the LED load space illumination, while the MS-RT extra-cost modifications included a Bronze pack and rally decals.

IMGStructurally rigid, the Transit Connect rides firmly but comfortably and can be hustled through the Welsh countryside with amazing eagerness. Its steering responds crisply and provides a tight turning-circle for added manoeuvrability. It also handles confidently and competently. Thanks to leggy gearing, a fuel return of around 58.9mpg is in prospect, yet the Connect is not short of verve and can top 100mph with ease, while despatching the 0-60mph benchmark in around 11.5s; it is certainly enough to match its racy appearance.

If your business, or private needs could benefit from a light van, the Ford Transit Connect is probably the best in the industry. Customised by MS-RT and acquired through the Ford Vans network, the test van is priced from £23,995 (plus VAT and RFL) complete.   

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