Selecting the right vehicle
Function over form
When we started looking for a car to fit our family of 9 we tried to determine what attributes the “perfect car” would have. It has to fit all of us. If at all possible it should fit in the garage. It should be something we won’t mind holding onto for a decade. It needs to be reasonably priced, and close to indestructible. One way or another we feel like we managed to get it all.
To start, our list of choices was pretty small.
- Ford Transit
- Nissan NV Passenger
- Chevrolet Express /GMC Savana Vans
- Chevrolet Tahoe /GMC Yukon (we didn’t ever consider the longer Suburban/Yukon XL as we weren’t really a big fan of the overall geometry of the vehicle.
- Ford E-Series (Econoline)
Right off the bat we had basically written off the Express, Savana, and E-Series Vans. If you’ve ever taken Super Shuttle to the airport you’ve ridden in one of these. Most of them haven’t truly been redesigned for a decade or more. Save a couple of small facelifts, they remain boring and slow, running on global-warming V8s with body-on-frame construction.
The Nissan NV was an interesting choice as we’ve found them to be quite popular big family vans. They come standard with 12-seats, the rear 10 are split into 7 different units so you have a lot of flexibility. Our main issues with the Nissan were its large size and its handling. It was the largest of the vans we looked at — about 2 inches too tall for our garage, and nearly 2 feet longer than similar vans. As for handling, it moves very much like a U-Haul box truck. Not well.
We had our hardest time deciding between the Ford Transit and one of the large SUVs offered by GM. If you are a parent and ever had that experience of trying desperately to find something that suits your family but isn’t a minivan you will understand our dilemma. We went through that struggle a few years ago and decided a full-size crossover was better for us. We talked about how it had more power, and better handling, and better styling, and on and on. In the end it was just us rationalizing not buying a minivan.
— it was more important to let the “coolness” go and instead focus on practicality.
In retrospect, we made the wrong choice. When you have kids, you don’t want to worry about people crawling over seats, or jamming a crayon in the slide/fold/stow mechanism. You don’t want to worry about people smashing their head into the door frame as they contort to get out of the car because there isnt a clear path from the back to the door. What you do want is functionality and ease of use. The Yukon/Tahoe technically did seat 9 but that was in a 3–3–3 configuration, that means a kid would be sitting up front with the driver. And how comfortable is it really going to be in that third row?
Better judgement prevailed this time around — it was more important to let the “coolness” go and instead focus on practicality. The Transit won out.
The Buying Process
I won’t spend too much time on this. But I will say when it comes to ordering a vehicle I think we have found the secret to success.
Before that, it’s important to explain that we weren’t able to find a 10-passenger Transit Wagon that suited us on any dealer lots anywhere within a day’s drive. I think a combination of these being pretty new vehicles, that they are most commonly used as commercial vehicles, and that we didn’t want a mid or high roof model is why we were forced to order one directly from Ford.
We built the model that suited us on the Ford website and then sent that (via email) to every Ford dealership within 75 miles of us. This was around 30 dealerships. We let them know we had emailed the other sellers and were hoping to get the best price. We heard back from about 12 of them. From our perspective, since it was a new vehicle price was the most important factor. We got the lowest price from a dealer in the center of Austin and placed the order with a $500 deposit. From there it was just a waiting game. We placed our order toward the end of November 2015 and took delivery (at our house) the beginning of March 2016. 16 weeks all told, having never stepped foot in the dealership we bought the car from.
Here are the specifics on the model we purchased
- Wagon XLT
- 3.5L Ecoboost V6
- Low Roof
- Regular Wheelbase (130")
- Heavy-Duty Towing Package
- 10-Passenger Seating
- SYNC 3/Nav
- Privacy Glass
- Sliding Passenger-side door
- 150 Watt 110-volt AC power outlet
The Transit comes in a myriad of configurations for the wagon model, which is the passenger version of the van. I will be ignoring the commercial versions for the rest of the article. There are three roof heights, two wheelbases and three body lengths. These give you anywhere from 8–15 passenger seating.
The lowest roof height comes in at just under seven feet, which will fit in most commercial parking garages, and some residential garages. You’ll want to measure yours carefully, our garage door opening is only about a quarter of an inch higher than the top of the van. It fits, but only just barely. The mid-roof model is tall enough for a most people to move around the cabin without crouching too much, and the high roof is tall enough for almost anyone to walk around comfortably. The regular wheelbase, and shortest body model can come with 8 or 10 passenger seating, the latter is what we have. The longer wheelbase, mid-length model seats 12–15, and the extended body comes standard with 15 seats.
We selected the low-roof regular wheelbase because we like the way it handled the most and we don’t have to worry about vertical clearance 99% of the time. If you’ve every driven a full-size extended cab truck this is no more difficult to wrangle down narrow residential streets, or navigate your local Costco parking lot.
We drove a long-wheelbase model on a trip shortly before getting our van. Yes, it was still very drivable, but I felt like I spent a lot of time checking my side mirror to make sure I wasn’t going to run over the curb every time I made a right-hand turn. If you don’t need 12+ passenger seating, or a monumental amount of storage space, I prefer the shorter wheelbase.
We opted for the towing package mainly because it was about the same price as an aftermarket solution and we wanted to have the ability to tow a small trailer or put a hitch mounted bike rack on.
The SYNC3 “fancy-pants” stereo was perhaps a little bit of a technology splurge. I justified it to myself because it is gaining compatibility with Apple’s CarPlay technology later in the year via an update and I really do want the ability to have access to the full functionality of the iPhone/Siri through the van’s audio system and display. One thing I didn’t consider, but am very pleased with is how large the backup camera view is. If you wind up with the smaller screen by skipping the SYNC system the view is really, really tiny. Ford could improve the resolution of that camera though. The in-dash display has a pretty nice 8-inch display, but rear camera resolution looks about as good as flip-phone camera.
The privacy glass I would suggest everyone gets. We took a test drive in a Transit with “standard tinting” as one dealer called it. As far as we could tell the windows were 100% translucent. The privacy glass isn’t too dark, it seems pretty much like normal tinting.
Is the van nice to drive and use? I think if you use the caveat for a van, then it’s very easy to say Yes its great! If you are comparing it to your last crossover or large SUV, it’s a little more complicated.
Position and Visibility
You are quite high in the drivers seat. This has the enormous benefit of giving you an incredible field of view. It feels like you can see everything in front of you, the windshield is big and clear. The A-Pillars aren’t too wide and from my vantage point they don’t seem to block anything important.
A small side note with the drivers and passengers windows is that only about 55% of the window will roll down. I guess because of the odd shape of the door not all of the window can recess into the panel and so you have the rear portion rolling down but the front is stationary. It reminds you that you are in something that was initially designed as a commercial vehicle.
It feels like you can see everything in front of you, the windshield is big and clear.
In my opinion the single largest drawback to the Transit is its center rear visibility. The rear doors are barn-door style so there is a very wide column right down the center of the field of view.
I have all but given up on using the rear-view mirror. I rely almost entirely on the side mirrors for driving. This might be an argument for buying the long arm mirrors that are generally touted as necessary if you do a lot of towing. I have in the time since getting the van purchased a clip on curved mirror that covers the rear-view. This doesn’t help with the visibility out of the back, but now I can keep an eye on all of the passengers. Parents know what I’m talking about.
One big thing to consider when driving is the length of the vehicle. Even though I’m in the regular wheelbase, I’ve kept an eye on the curved side mirrors to watch the right rear tire and make sure I don’t clip the curb. But if you have driven a Suburban or Extended Cab truck then this will be nothing new.
Otherwise, the van handles well in slow city and neighborhood driving and equally well on the highway. I have heard stories of some of the folks with the high roof model fighting gusty winds on higher speed roads. In the low-roof I have been out in the middle of a thunderstorm on the highway and had no issue feeling fully in control.
The steering wheel does seem like they pulled it out of smaller vehicle. I can’t determine if that’s a good thing. It’s comfortable and easy to hold onto. It’s not out of place exactly, it’s just unexpected. It’s not the huge school bus wheel you’d expect to find.
Power and Perfomance
The bad news is that I don’t know enough about the inner workings of the car to give you fancy stats on the Transit’s engine, suspension, or exhaust. Car and Driver seemed pretty pleased with the Transit they tested. They reported a 0–60 time of 7.5 seconds, a quarter-mile at 15.9 seconds, and the ability to do burn outs if you turn the traction control off. Dad’s lamenting the sport wagon you had to give up to get the Transit can rejoice!
I do think that the Ecoboost engine is a nice option. I can pop onto the highway or accelerate out of a corner and almost forget I’m pulling a 14-foot box on wheels.
2017 Update: Nothing in the way of drivetrain has changed between 2016 and 2017. Gas and Diesel are still both available. I would still recommend the Ecoboost gas model for a family-hauler.
Safety and Convienience
I mentioned earlier that we have the SYNC 3 system with a large in dash display. This displays what you are listening to on the stereo, shows a running map when you are driving, can display turn by turn directions, and let’s you edit various settings in the car.
The navigation system is pretty easy to use and responds well to verbal address input. It’s a little more hit or miss when you ask it to take you to a Point of Interest. For example, “Take me to Costco.” returns less then predictable results, sometimes neglecting the nearest option and routing you across town. I prefer the map in 3D mode and when you are near large city centers you often get 3D buildings which help with spacial awareness.
One really serious problem is that in bright sun the screen is all but useless. I have turned the brightness up to full and even turned off the auto-dimming feature and still I could see nothing when sunlight comes into the cabin just right. Its not super common, but when it happens it pretty frustrating.
Ford’s AppLink system is strange. They seem to have forged some relationships with a very select group of mobile software developers to include the ability to operate those apps form the in-dash system. So far I can get Pandora, iHeart Radio, MLB at Bat, Glympse, and sometimes Spotify to work. So basically a number of audio apps and a GPS broadcasting app. Pretty boring stuff. I feel like this is a major missed opportunity. I can think of all kinds of great applications. I wish Waze, GasBuddy, even some home automation apps would work with app link. Imagine hitting the 5 mile mark from home and having the AC kick on, 500 feet, the garage opens, and in the driveway your lights fade up.
Now, Apple and Android both have an in car infotainment option that is designed to let your smartphone take over the duties of your car’s system. Ford has promised that 2016 models will get a software update to include this functionality and I imagine that is the route I will go when it becomes available.
2017 Update: New models ship with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay if you pony up for the SYNC 3 system.
Storage in the drivers and passengers compartment up front is pretty incredible. You’ve got cup holders in the center console, and a second set outboard where the door meets the dash. There are also a couple of cubbies just below the dash.
The glove compartment isnt enormous but it can hold the essentials. We keep some hand sanitizer and wipes in there for emergencies. There isnt’s a lot of leg room when the glove compartment is open even with the seat moved back as far as possible, and if you got anything heavy in there the door opens very quickly. Watch your shins.
The doors themselves even have multiple storage areas. I am not even sure what all of them are for. One set seems to be purposefully designed so that its inaccessible when the car doors are closed, meaning you can only get at them when you are parked.
The rear cabin is a different story. What is lacking are the pouches and trays and compartments you will find in every other car and minivan these days. If you go with the sliding door the interior is one solid flat piece of plastic. I keep thinking that a few thin compartments that would hold books and crayons would have been great.
What is lacking are the pouches and trays and compartments you will find in every other car and minivan these days.
Given how large the seats are, if you use a few seat back organizers to give the kids access to things like Kleenex and books and toys on those longer trips you’ll have lots of useable space.
I’m also ok with bungee cording stuff to the walls, but there aren’t any d-rings or hooks to attach stuff to. Given how large the seats are, if you use a few seat back organizers to give the kids access to things like Kleenex and books and toys on those longer trips you’ll have lots of useable space. We wound up getting a pair of Brica seat back organizers. We put them on the back of the drivers’ seat for the second row, and one on the back of the right seat in the second row for the third row kids. We’ve also found a small soft-sided trash can that we put used Target bags in, which helps to keep clutter from building up.
2017 Update: Once nice addition that Ford has added as an option is a power running board. It pops out when you open the sliding/barn doors on the side of the van. The 2016 running board was a static install and does feel like it’s placed precariously enough that you might slip and bump your shin on the door opening.
I’m assuming that if you are reading a review about a full-size passenger van you know how miserable it can be to find a seating arrangement that pleases everyone. We’ve got seven children, ranging from (at the time of this article) 1 to 15 years old and the Transit has something for everyone. You can have a carload of people and everyone will find the seating arrangement agreeable. Little kids want to be able to see Mom and Dad. Middle-schoolers want to be able to look out the window. I don’t even know what teenagers want. Maybe to brood silently in the corner?
This van has something for everyone. You can have a carload of people and everyone will find the seating arrangement agreeable.
All of the rear seats are pretty comfortable but almost every seat is a little different. The second row which is only two adjoining seats seems to have the largest amount of regular legroom.
In the third row you have two seats directly behind the second row. As far as I can tell these are identical to the ones in front of them and they also have enough legroom that my teenagers have no problems. There is also one more narrow seat in this row that is separated from the other two. This gap allows access to the fourth row of seats. This seat sits directly next to the sliding door. There is no seat in front of it in the second row so you can fully extend your legs, but there is a small step cut into the floor for exiting the van. This seat is also considerably more narrow than all of the other seats. We have a 12-year-old who loves this spot though, she gets a little space to herself and doesn’t mind losing a little shoulder room.
The fourth row is three seats that stretch fully from wall to wall. As a result they are very wide and the older kids like that a lot. This last row is one single unit but isn’t built like a bench, each seat feels like an individual unit to the passenger. It is also removable quite easily by two people. There are a set of handles that disengage the locks holding the seats in place, you then lean the seat forward and lift them to remove them. They are very heavy though. One person would have a hard time doing it alone without getting hurt.
…the seats sit so high off of the floor that most of the kids can shove a backpack under the seat. They can keep their personal stuff with them without it being directly under their feet…
All of the seats have a small pull-tab that you can yank on and lean the seat back a bit. Think airline reclining. It’s not a lot but it’s enough to get more comfortable. We’ve also found that the seats sit so high off of the floor that most of the kids can shove a backpack under the seat. They can keep their personal stuff with them without it being directly under their feet as was the case in our previous vehicles. Excluding the jump seat next to the sliding door, which is bolted onto the floor, the second and third row seats can be removed using the same mechanism as the fourth row. The handles are missing though and you need a longer screwdriver or something similar to disengage the locking mechanism. I have seen a few people fashion a homemade handle to allow them to do this easier when needed. I really am not sure why Ford left the pull-handles off when they obviously built the removal mechanism into each one?
I’ll be honest, I find child seat compatibility on the Transit to be disappointingly underdeveloped. The Transit uses Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) compatible seats, but only barely.
If you are not familiar with the LATCH system, it is basically a standard created to make it simpler to attach your children’s seats into your vehicle safely and securely. The lower anchors are a pair of metal brackets that sit in the crack between the seat and seat-back. The tether is usually on the backside of the seat and you run a strap over the seat and clip onto the tether which keeps the upper portion of the car seat from traveling as far forward during an accident.
There are tethers all over the place in the Transit but there are only two sets of lower anchors; one in the right seat on the second row and one on the middle seat in the third row. There is not one in the fourth row middle seat which I would have expected at a minimum. But really, why not put them everywhere? Cost, laziness? It’s my understanding that US Federal regulations only require two, so that’s my best guess as to why that’s all we have.
I find child seat compatibility on the Transit to be disappointingly underdeveloped.
If you want to put an infant or convertible car seat anywhere else in the van you have to use the seatbelt to do so. I can’t speak to which is safer, but I can say that I have the option of setting up a car seat with Lower Anchors or a seatbelt I will always choose the anchors. They are much simpler to work with and allow me to be much more confident of correct installation.
One of the worst situations to be in is having a car seat that is too wide to comfortably sit someone next to it. Though all of the seats in the Transit are wider than you will find in most vehicles, you’ll want to check measurements for your car seats and boosters. After a lot of research we settled on the Eddie Bauer XRS 65 for our 1-year-old, this is a convertible seat and works both rear-facing and front-facing. It is quite wide but the seat next to it has no trouble reaching the seatbelt even in a booster. For our 5-year-old we got the Graco Turbobooster LX. This one is a booster with a removable back. It’s got large side-impact protection, fits great, and most importantly connects to the LATCH system. Many boosters do not have this option, I highly recommend it. We also keep a Bubblebum self-inflating booster in the car for little friends. It compresses down to almost nothing and you can put it under a seat, or in the glovebox. It’s nice to have a spare booster that you don’t have to leave on the floor under someone’s feet when it’s not being used.
The LATCH options vary slightly from Transit to Transit depending on your seating configuration. Ford has a slightly confusing diagram that tells you where you can put a LATCH compatible seat. The relevant seats are the ones with the little white circles with a baby in them. I am slightly confused about which of these options are available in the US. These are the diagrams in the manual that came with my Transit, but some of these configurations for seats are not something I remember having available to me. If you are needing lots of LATCH points for your kids, please find a dealer with the seating arrangement you are looking for and take you car seats along to check it out.
The Transit does not have the option for a factory DVD/Video player of any kind. This felt like a big deal some year ago when we were on long road trips. Many minivans and SUVs included them and they were very helpful when the parents needed a little quiet time. These days between the books that our older kids want to read, and the number of iPads we bring along this doesn’t seem like as big of a concern. There is an option to get an auxiliary fuse box and extra battery on the van and this might be useful if you need to have a number of extra electrical items being added aftermarket.
There is a ton. We don’t even have one of the longer models and I can comfortably put all the luggage and food we need for a big trip in the back of the van. Since the van doesn’t taper as you go higher you have a very large area that you can pile luggage up in. I would like to find a way to run a series of bungee cords across this space up to about the same height as the seat backs. That way you wouldn’t have to worry about anything falling out when you open the back doors if something has shifted around while you were driving.
Ford does offer a set of cross rails for the roof. If you have a cargo box you could put that up there for additional space. Consider that you probably need to cart around a two or three step ladder though as even on the low-roof model it’s difficult to really gain access to the roof.
Cost and Reliability
Passenger Transits start at $33,175. This is far less than the Mercedes Sprinter which starts at $40,745, and inline with the Nissan NV which starts at about $32,000. You can max the Transit out somewhere in the realm of $50,600 if you go the high-roof, extended length model with all of the goodies.
Ford offers a 3 year/36,000 mile bumper to bumper warranty. We elected to extend this with Ford’s in-house extended warranty. We started by shopping around online. There appear to be some dealers that will sell you a warranty this way and compete largely on cost. Once we got the lowest quote we just took it to the dealer we ordered from and asked if he could match it. He was able to without any trouble. The warranty is pretty flexible, you get to pick the number of years and the mileage you want. We chose 8 years and 125,000 miles. We also got the maintenance plan, something not many manufacturers seem to offer. Ford’s, as far as we can tell, takes all of the guess work out of regular maintenance — wear and tear items (spark plugs, shocks, brake pads, various belts and chains) minus tires are all handled when you take the van in for regular oil changes. Since this is the only vehicle we will have that fit everyone we never wanted to be sidelined with an unexpected major cost. We were also able to price shop this online and then have our dealer match it.
2017 Update: Prices have increased for 2017. Not dramatically but be sure to check with your dealer for available incentives. Very little has changed to the van itself to warrant this increase.
Customizing the Van to suit our family
Here are a couple of things we keep with us to make getting around in town and cross-country a little better.
For the kids:
- Coloring Books and then some — I know, everyone has a device these days, no one wants to color. But Disney has a free app that uses the camera on your device to take a photo of the coloring page and turns your child’s work into a 3D animated character. It’s so awesome. They have a tons of different coloring books that work with the app. Also good to get some of washable markers. I am not a fan of having pink seats.
- Pillows — The thing with bringing pillows from the kids’ bedrooms is that because of their size they are always taking up space when they are not in use. We’ve gone the route of bringing self-inflating camp pillows. These can be compressed while the sun is out and inflated when the kids start to get tired. You can also manually blow them up if you like them a little firmer.
- Games — Its hard to find good sets of travel games. We have a few favorites Tile-Lock Scrabble, Chess, Hangman, and Trivial Pursuit, but instead of playing the full game we just like to quiz the kids and let them quiz us. So we got a book that has a bunch of the questions.
For the parents:
- Maps — We still love paper maps, and the Rand McNally Easy Fold are our picks for quickly getting an overview of where you are and the next city or town you will be driving through. If you need something with a little more detail. The Rand McNally Atlas is the most bang for your buck. All 50 states – and if you get the spiral bound one its easy for your copilot to manage in the front seat. It also fits perfectly under the front passenger seat.
- To hold the coffee you need on those long trips — A few picks: the cups made by Yeti are insanely good at keeping things hot or cold for a seemingly unending amount of time. We also love the Contigo mugs that cannot spill I am not kidding here, I’ve never had one of these be the culprit for an errant stain in the car. If you need larger capacity. Go with old faithful, a big Stanley Thermos.
This is a great vehicle. If you have a big family, or you haul your kids and a bunch of friends, or you like to go camping a lot, or you want seating flexibility, or you want a ton of storage space this is about as good as it gets. It gets reasonable gas mileage — as good as most large SUVs, and it’s comfortable for you and the passengers, and if you go with the Ecoboost engine it's even pretty peppy. It isn’t a luxury vehicle, and doesn’t have all of the creature comforts that have become common in a lot of vehicles but the size of the cabin allows for you to customize the interior to suit your needs. Know that you are getting the most modern passenger van around if you go with the Transit.
Regarding bias, I was not paid or given any promotional consideration for any item listed in this article. This includes the Transit itself which we were not loaned, and have paid for ourselves.
All of the photos in this article were taken with a Canon Rebel T5i with a Canon 10–22mm EF-S lens.