Here are some comments you don’t normally associate with the Ford Econoline: lack of manufacturer support and repair facilities, high repair cost and crippling loss of revenue during downtime. That’s what I gleaned from a Dodge Sprinter fansite and those comments came from one of the forum’s more even-handed members. Which explains the sea of Econolines (white paint, out of state plates) on the Bayou City’s expressways after the devastation of Hurricane Ike and not a single Sprinter. So let’s check out a Regency conversion van to find the Econoline’s inherent goodness, hmm-kay?
Right. Aside from the early 90s wind tunnel testing, a Super Duty-esque schnoz and Kenny G friendly color palette, the Econoline’s form hasn’t changed much since its 1970s heyday. It’s a classic two-box design, with a stubby hood and upright rear pillar for maximum cargo space. The stamped fender flares and forged five-spoke mag wheels lack yesteryear’s mullet-worthy flair, but work nicely with the van’s silhouette. It’s a somewhat more refined look than the afterthought, tinker toy appearance of its archrival, the Chevrolet Express.
But the Econoline’s Regency Conversion isn’t all sugar and spice: peep those paint schemes worthy of artwork in a Motel 6 bedroom and Pontiac-ready side skirting. But the high top conversion tells everyone it’s time to “raise the roof” all up in this mother-trucker.
When the party gets started, there’s no better place than inside the Custom Van Lounge. That’s because the Regency-fettled Econoline has all the toys: even the heated/cooled drink compartment keeps beverages handy and healthy. Touch the rich carpeting, wood appliqué afterthoughts and remarkably well-crafted leather captain’s chairs. I wish my apartment was that frickin’ nice. Note to the Ford Flex: who’s your daddy?
For the trendy gangsta-wannabe, why not flip the switch on the power-folding third row, hit the mood lighting, pop some chilled Cristal and make a rolling VIP room? Or grab your buddies, connect the PS3, boot up “Rock Band” and hit the Grand Funk Railroad on the plasma screen before the tailgate party? Dig it: we’ll help you party down, because we’re an American Van.
The Econoline’s street cred (so to speak) is virtually bulletproof, but that’s not the point. Ford’s forgotten soldier carries the whole family to weekend vacations in the kind of luxury unattainable in a mere SUV. The ride on any road is undeniably decadent and disturbingly silent. The Regency conversion adds many moving parts, mercifully void of squeaks or rattles. Even the mini blinds kept their collective mouths shut within their integral plastic channels.
Well, at least for now. I remember the hack job, rattletrap conversions of yesteryear, so there’s a good reason why Ford’s warranty doesn’t cover the aftermarket luxuries. But the Econoline isn’t for passengers only: the driver has the goods for a few Pistonhead-approved giggles. Perhaps the tragic accidents in 15-passenger rental vans lit a fire under the Blue Oval Boyz, because the fresh suspension tuning, big-ass brakes and active handling put the monster van in its place.
And it’s about damn time: the pinky-finger steering feel and highway wander are history, replaced by somewhat wonderful feel and arrow-straight highway tracking with the Econoline’s leather wrapped tiller. Better spring tuning with an Addco-worthy swaybar help the Econoline in the corners, putting the bonehead Twin I-Beam suspension on par with the fancy pants wishbones of its F-150 cousin. More to the point, the Econoline handles like a Chevy Suburban in most situations.
But it feels wrong: sitting north of the engine, the driver’s uninterrupted view of the road garners the reactions of a drunken tourist gawking over the railing of a cruise ship. Push the Econoline hard and you’ll go overboard. The active handling nanny is just that, the laws of physics hit faster in the Econoline. That’s partially why people flock to mega-SUVs of questionable utility in the first place.
What a shame. The Econoline is a treat to drive on occasion, but the EPA doesn’t bother testing its economy for good reason. (I averaged 14 MPG in mixed driving.) The trio of 2-valve gasoline engines are responsive enough: our midgrade 5.4L tester cruised nicely and made some genuinely entertaining noises too. But the Ford trucks get more juice from their 3-valve motors, not to mention the craptastic 6.0L Power Stroke Diesel is the sole oil-burner on the Econoline’s options list. Epic fail.
But the Econoline refuses to die. Maybe it’s nearasdammit to perfection: one version is a responsible working machine while another is an immensely practical play toy. Who knew a vehicle with a “School Bus Prep Package” on the options list transforms into one of the best luxury cocoons on the road? Next time you see a Pistonhead towing his pride and joy behind a mega-dollar SUV, shake your head in disapproval. They’re better served with an Econoline.
[Joe Meyers Ford provided the vehicle reviewed.]