By on April 18, 2012

Our look at Nissan and GM’s van offerings would be out-of-place without including the Van “built Ford tough”. We know that the E-Series days are numbered – Ford recently announced the American Transit van T-Series will come with the holy grail of Ford powertrains, the 3.5L twin-turbo Ecoboost V6. Turbo love aside, is it wise to stock up on old-school vans before the trendy new models come on the scene? If you’re worried about new model glitches and want a van that’s as old as time, with a bullet-proof Ford modular V8 and a transmission that’s a bit shy on gears, it might just be your choice. With the E-Series’ days numbered and the commercial vehicle segment being as exciting as Wonder Bread, the lack of press fleet vans was no surprise. What’s a rag like TTAC to do? Spend a week in a Hertz special.

Although we ended up with a passenger van, and not a commercial van, all E-series vans feature a large front grille and longer hood thanks to a refresh in 2008 to make them look more like the F-series. Wagon and recreation vans use aerodynamic headlamp modules and acres of chrome, while base commercial cargo haulers have a blacked out grille and sealed beam headlamps. The chrome bling and modern headlamps look decidedly more attractive, but on a practicality level there’s a problem: those  snazzy duds are more expensive to repair when John Doe (your least careful employee) rear-ends Ms Daisy on Main Street. For $235 Ford will sell you their middle-of-the-road package which retains the black bumper cover but upgrades the lamps and grille. I’d stick with the base model if you’re not driving your own van. Out back the E-series vans all feature swing-out doors that open to a full 178 degrees making them almost as useful as the doors in the Nissan NV (the NV’s essentially fold flat to the side of the van) and more convenient than the 165 degree doors on the GM competition. Like GM, Ford offers your choice of a sliding or 60/40 split side door.

Our E-350’s interior is circa 2009, when Ford raided the Super Duty parts bin which means Ford’s SYNC radio and navigation units are on the E-series menu, a notable upgrade from GM’s infotainment options. Should your fleet need some big brother love, the CrewChief GPS tracking and monitoring system is available on most models. Our van was a rental, which meant of course that it had been driven hard, put away wet and had a vague aroma of spoilt milk and dog urine. This wasn’t some primped press car folks. After a quick wipe-down to prepare it for the camera, it was obvious the hard plastics inside were built to last showing little wear, just like the GM and Nissan offerings. On the creature comfort side, A/C is standard and Ford makes a backup cam, backup sensors and the aforementioned navigation system with SYNC optional. Volume purchasers beware, adding SYNC will bump your MSRP up $1,010 as it requires you upgrade to the four-speaker package and inexplicably you must add cruise control to the party.  If those items were already on your menu, then SYNC (with Bluetooth) itself becomes a $475 bump. Ford also offers an integrated trailer brake controller for $230 and a set of in-dash auxiliary switches (the same as in the Super Duty trucks) for $85 making it easier to pimp your ride.

If the phrase “all-new drivetrains” sets your loins on fire, skip this section. Ford offers a limited engine selection compared to GM – two V8s and a V10. The observant will notice that a V6 or diesel V8 option are conspicuous by their absence (the V6 was dropped in 2008 and the diesel in 2009).  While Ford markets the E-150 as the only full-sized van with a standard V8, I’m not sure 225HP and 286lb-ft (13/17MPG) are anything to trumpet when Buick’s 2.0L turbo four cylinder beats both figures and delivers them across a broader range (durability concerns aside of course). The optional 5.4L V8 bumps the power figures to (a still less than competitive) 255HP and 350lb-ft (12/16MPG) and was the engine in our rental. Even empty acceleration was sluggish and when loaded with 5 passengers and a weekend’s camping gear it was best described as “glacial”. The problem is not the 255HP, the Ford’s ancient 4-speed automatic which is the only transmission available with either V8. GM’s base 4.8L V8 may deliver less torque at 295lb-ft, yet combined with the modern 6-speed transmission the GM van never feels out of breath even in mountainous terrain. The E-Series on the other-hand often seemed like it was hunting for a gear that didn’t exist, especially on mountain highways and in steep urban settings. Ford’s optional 6.8L V10 brings a newer 5-speed auto, but it is still a cog behind GM. Despite superficially healthy numbers for the Ford V8 (305HP/420lb-ft), GM counters with a 6.0L V8 at 324HP/373lb-ft and one extra gear making it yet again the performance and “driveability” winner. On the green-cred front, Ford’s  V8 engines can be ordered with liquid propane or compressed natural gas prep packages; all you do is have a conversion company add the gas cylinders. Beware though, that the CNG conversion costs $13,000. While your gaseous E-Series may deliver fewer MPGs on the road and the “savings” are dubious, California and a few select states will allow solo CNG drivers in the HOV lanes with permanent stickers if your conversion is done at the time of purchase.

A van’s mission is to shift the most stuff. Both Ford and GM offer extended vans to swallow more, but how they extend differs. Ford offers an extended body while GM extends both the wheelbase and the body. Neither option is an outright winner so which option is better? That depends on what you’re hauling and where. GM’s regular wheelbase of 135 inches is shorter than the E-series’s 138 inch model and this helps GM’s V6 van be the most nimble with a 43-foot turning circle vs the E-Series standard 48-foot. Adding the V8 to GM’s van bumps the circle to 49-feet. The E-Series’ standard 216-inch length (vs the 224-inch long Express) is responsible for its slightly smaller cargo capacity able to swallow 12.5-foot long items vs GM’s standard 13-foot sword swallowing ability. Extending the rear of the E-Series takes cubic cargo capacity from 237 cubic feet to 278 cubic feet and allowed 14.6-foot items to be carried from the dash to the rear doors, while that sounds good, GM’s extended wheelbase vans measure in at a whopping 20-feet-5-inches holding 313 cubic feet of cargo and swallowing items that are 16-feet long (if placed carefully inside). The downside to GM’s wheelbase stretch is the enormous 54-foot turning circle making U-turns difficult even on the widest of expressways. The upside of the extension is superior handling when the cargo area is full by spreading the weight more evenly between the front and rear axles.

As my week with the E-Series van came to a close I had more questions than answers. Why would anyone that owned and operated their own van buy the Ford van over the Nissan NV which offers more creature comforts, more power and better fuel economy? Similarly, who would a large commercial customer buy the E-Series van over GM’s Express/Savana van with a wider selection of options, heavy-duty six-speed transmissions, greater hauling capacity and better fuel economy? At the end of the day the E-Series is a tired workhorse that knows it’s being sent to pasture, yet sales remain high for one reason; companies like a homogeneous fleet. Fleet buyers like being able to buy the same van they brought 10 years ago, knowing the same custom widgets will bolt right on. Perhaps that’s why Ford has pledged that the E-Series will soldier on even after the introduction of the Transit T-Series in America. With an advertised 25% better fuel economy on tap, let’s hope Ford can convince the commercial buyer lemmings to switch to a better product rather than defect to the competition.

 

This is part three of a five-part series on commercial vehicles. Click the links below for the others in this series

2012 Nissan NV

2012 Chevrolet Express / GMC Savana

2012 Ford Transit Connect:

 

 

 TTAC searched high and low, found the best web coupons and rented an E-350 van for a week for this review. Gas was expensive and not included.

Specifications as tested

0-60: 10.1 Seconds

Average fuel economy: 10.4MPG over 896 miles

 


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36 Comments on “Commercial Week Day Three Review: 2012 Ford E-Series Cargo Van...”


  • avatar
    86er

    “While Ford markets the E-150 as the only full-sized van with a standard V8, I’m not sure 225HP and 286lb-ft (13/17MPG) are anything to trumpet when Buick’s 2.0L turbo four cylinder beats both figures and delivers them across a broader range (durability concerns aside of course).”

    You’re a funny guy.

  • avatar
    86er

    You mentioned turning radius in the GM and Ford reviews, what kind of turning radius does the Nissan have with that long snout?

  • avatar
    Chicago Dude

    “On the green-cred front, Ford’s V8 engines can be ordered with liquid propane or compressed natural gas prep packages; all you do is have a conversion company add the gas cylinders. Beware though, that the CNG conversion costs $13,000. While your gaseous E-Series may deliver fewer MPGs on the road and the “savings” are dubious, California and a few select states will allow solo CNG drivers in the HOV lanes with permanent stickers if your conversion is done at the time of purchase.”

    Any more info on Ford CNG? I’ve heard that they are “cheap” to convert. CNG taxis are becoming much more popular. The Transit Connect CNG and the MV-1 are all over the place here. But I noticed more and more Ford Escapes that are CNG instead of hybrids.

    There are now public CNG gas stations in all the strategic locations necessary to make CNG taxis work out. The station down the street from me sells it for $2.65/gge while 87 octane is $4.65/gal.

    • 0 avatar
      Alex L. Dykes

      The conversion is somewhere around $12,000 for the CARB compliant solution. Less if you DIY. However, in CA you can’t use the HOV lines if you don’t have a conversion company convert if prior to delivery.

  • avatar
    windnsea00

    Semantics, but that is an Avis/Budget rental and Ford hasn’t offered the 4.2 V6 since the 2003 model.

    When I worked for Budget Car & Truck Rental, the truck side considered the E-series a notch above the GMC in overall reliability.

    On that note, Budget started ordering their `05+ GMC Cutaways with the 4.8L V8 and they were still 4-speed automatics so you were on a slow boat to China in the 16 ft. box trucks. Could not imagine pulling a car and full cargo box worth of items over a major grade!

    The 5.4L V8/5-spd in the Ford’s had a nice edge with the 350 ft-lbs of torque. The 6-spd autos have definitely helped in the 4.8’s but still a bit gutless IMO for a box truck.

    Too bad you didn’t review the Sprinter, my family had an `07 model for a small courier business that was very reliable up to 315k miles when we sold it. Due to what it could fit compared to the Ford/GM models it’s was very worthwhile for us not to mention low 20’s mpg consistently.

  • avatar
    johnhowington

    does it blow transmissions like cotton candy? (gmc savannah)

  • avatar
    86er

    Just did a little research on the lengths/wheelbases (all 3500 series) in simplified form:

    Nissan: Length – 240.6 Wheelbase 146.1

    Ford: Length – 236 Wheelbase 138

    GM: Length – 224/244 Wheelbase 135/155

    That Nissan has an impressive turning radius even with the long snout.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    That grill is horrendous. Haven’t driven an E since the mid-90s, I found them honest, unpretentious, and, compared to their 1980s forbears, reasonably comfortable. What the hell happened?

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Back in the late 1990s a friend of mine had occasional use of a PowerStroke E350 because his father had one. Not a bad van but his dad bought it simply for the towing prowess. Even as a cargo van with one bench of seats installed (his dad used it to go to and from jobsites with a crew) that sucker would swallow an insane amount of crap.

    • 0 avatar
      NulloModo

      I drove an E-350 PowerStroke for a few months at a job I had before going into car sales. The other company vehicles were all Isuzu LCF trucks or International medium-duties, but somehow one E-350 diesel got into the mix. Nobody else wanted it, but I was happy to take it, initially because it was the only vehicle in the fleet that didn’t have a spy camera mounted in the headliner watching the driver for the whole shift, but later because I learned to enjoy its merits.

      The AC blew ice cold all day even in South Florida summer heat and humidity, and I could leave it idling from site to site all day and not burn more than half a tank of fuel. The Isuzus had mediocre AC, crappy radios, and less power. The only bad thing about the E-van was a slow leak somewhere in the brake lines that required adding some fluid about once a week and continually increasing stopping distances up until the refill.

  • avatar
    MarkP

    Apprarently a heavy load doesn’t change the fuel mileage much. We had a 24-foot motorhome built on an E450 chassis with the V10 engine. We hauled around a sofa, dinette, kitchen and bathroom for 3000 or so miles and got – yep, that’s right – 10 mpg. Of course if we had pushed it to 75 on the interstate, the mileage would have dropped. Oh, and it also beat us to death on rough roads (think I-40, plus some reservation back roads).

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    “With an advertised 25% better fuel economy on tap, let’s hope Ford can convince the commercial buyer lemmings to switch to a better product rather than defect to the competition.”

    Commercial buyer lemmings? Many commercial fleet operators know more than most about the vehicles they buy. The E-series is a nasty device, but fleet operators buy them loyally because they know the pitfalls of other offerings. The Nissan is something new, and experienced fleet operators will take a wait and see approach before buying large numbers of them. The cost of a mistake is high, and Nissan’s trucks have been hit and miss near release.

    • 0 avatar
      Alex L. Dykes

      All I will say is: You would be shocked by the interviews I had with the decision makers for some major GM and Ford fleet customers.

      • 0 avatar
        Toad

        Can you expand on this a little?

      • 0 avatar
        Alex L. Dykes

        The buyers of fleet vehicles I encountered were your basic non-car person. Had no idea what was under the hood, no concept of what a transmission does and why you would want a 6-speed over a 4 speed, etc. They were all about the bottom line and discounts, rebates, etc. However, shockingly long term bottom line was not as important as upfront bottom line as long as the future was over 4 years. I really can’t name names without getting myself in a big pickle.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        Interesting. I don’t think the guys I worked with were exactly informed about technology, but they knew the overall durability and failure rates of the components that came with the various vehicles in the segments they needed to shop. With that in mind, they knew when to make major repairs and when to patch something up and sell it in Mexico. They weren’t above bargain shopping though. They picked up three pristine, 15 to 18 thousand mile 2008 Suburbans for fifty cents on the dollar that had been either GM or Boeing executive vehicles even though their capable fleet mechanic accurately predicted that they’d be bloody burdens before they reached 50,000 miles.

  • avatar
    Volts On Fire

    Fleet buyers are just like other customers – for better or worse, they tend to stick with the devils they know. Unlike most customers, having a large fleet allows them to plan for the most common failures.

    That said, in my experience most if not all fleet customers are more content with the Econoline/E-Series than the GM offerings. The Express/Savana can be incredibly fragile devices in heavy operation.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    What I’d like to know is, if the T-Series was sold BESIDE (rather than in place of) the E-Series, whether (and how badly) it would lose to the older van.

    The Taurus is no Crown Vic, the MKT is no Town Car, and the Transit is no Econoline. It will be very interesting to see how all three replacements do. The voids their venerable predecessors left behind won’t be filled easily.

    This also means Chevy will be the only commercial van available that’s both “traditional” and “established”, so GM will probably sit back and see how the T-Series (and the Fiat-based Ram vans) do before considering a more modern Express/Savana replacement.

    • 0 avatar
      86er

      There’s nothing new under the sun. I’m sure in 1996 GM thought they were being very modern in ceding the taxi, police and livery market to FoMoCo.

    • 0 avatar
      th009

      Other than possibly reliability (to be seen yet), I really can’t imagine any significant advantage for the E-series over the Transit. (Of course we don’t yet know which Transit configurations they’ll offer — but surely far fewer than what is available in Europe.)

  • avatar
    dts187

    I hope there is a review of a Sprinter van coming in the near future. In college I delivered office supplies and would drive cargo vans daily. The company was in the practice of buying whatever they could get the best deal on at the time so there was a mix of GM, Ford, and Dodge products. By far, the most enjoyable to drive and work with was the Sprinter. I doubt it has the same towing cred as the competition but it was easy to drive, comfortable for the long drives, I could stand straight-up in the cargo area, and had a great cargo rail system.

  • avatar
    MarkP

    I guess I should have mentioned in my earlier comment that we now have a motorhome based on the Sprinter. It’s about the same size as the Ford. It has the V6. It gets 50% better mileage than the Ford, and is worlds ahead of it in comfort and driver ergonomics.

  • avatar
    stuart

    “The chrome bling and modern headlamps look decidedly more attractive…”

    Suit yourself. The front grille picture reminds me of this quote:

    “A whole family of angry kitchen appliances, demented toasters, furious bread machines and vengeful trash compactors.” — Bob Lutz

    I have the ’93 version. It’s like Grandpa’s Axe: the handle has been replaced six times, and the blade twice, but it’s still Grandpa’s Axe. :-) At 170K miles, my E-350 is on its second engine and third transmission. I’ve lost count of how many A/C compressors…

    stuart

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    The Econoline may be a cash cow, with its tooling paid off long ago – but it’s a dinosaur.

    I’d sure like to see Toyota build its Hi-Ace here even though it will probably be as expensive as the Sprinter.

    • 0 avatar
      fincar1

      +1 on the Hi-Ace. We were just in Costa Rica, and I believe that the passenger van version might be the most popular vehicle in the country, at least in the areas tourists commonly see. Every one I saw was a diesel 5-speed, as is typical of most vehicles there. I see no reason whey they wouldn’t be competitive here.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Ny company went from E 150 superduty vans to the Transit Connect. The E 150 was a beast, The TC is a smaller beast

  • avatar
    Wheeljack

    If Ford would have gotten rid of the ancient, tire cupping “twin I beam” suspension years ago, this would be a much nicer vehicle to ride in and drive. Many of these things also end up with basically uncurable steering wheel vibration that I used to solve by adding an aftermarket steering stabilizer since new or freshly balanced tires would not stop it.

    The other thing I hate about these is the radically different planes that the brake and gas pedal are on. Drive one in stop and go traffic (such as shuttle duty) and your leg aches by the end of the day with all the lifting to go from gas to brake, vs. just sliding your foot over or lifting only slightly/pivoting on the heel of your foot. This is another thing they could have easily corrected years ago but chose not to.

    Lastly, am I the only one that thinks the last version of the instrument panel was better looking than the current blocky/chunky is?

  • avatar
    86SN2001

    I work for a Fire Department that runs an EMS service. We just took delivery of a 2012 Ford E-450 ambulance. We HAD to replace an ambulance because of that HORRIBLE 6.0.

    We have the 6.8 V10 and it’s actually not too bad. We average around 7 MPG (our diesels average around 10), it’s quiet, warms up quick, etc. Fuel is cheaper, maintenance is cheaper and so on.

    There are a few negatives…it’s PERCEIVED to be sluggish (gasoline has a 0-5K rpm range, diesel has a 0-3K range), so it is a screamer, gas use is a bit higher, etc.

    It’s a good truck…but our 2010 Chevy with the Duramax is a far superior truck.

    • 0 avatar
      NulloModo

      I can’t remember the last time I saw an E-Series ambulance in the ‘sold fleet’ lot at my dealership. Ford makes an ambulance prep package for the F350-F650, and the ones I’ve seen lately have all been F-550 based with the 6.7 diesel.

  • avatar
    highrpm

    I’ll add a comment since I used to own a small expediting company and had a small fleet of cargo vans.

    I started with the GMC vans but changed them over to Fords as they got close to the end of their useful lives. The Fords were more reliable to the point that annual costs were 50% compared to the Chevys.

    I did a lot of preventive maintenance on the Ford vans as well as repairs. I did most of the work myself in order to save money. My drivers would put about 500k miles on the vans before I sold them.
    – Alternator – they last about 150k miles. Get it rebuilt for $50 or swap with a new one. You don’t want to pay for a tow and shop fees if the alternator goes out in the middle of nowhere.
    – Suspension – new shocks, ball joints, drag link, etc. every 150k miles. I bought lifetime shocks at Autozone for all the vans. The beauty of this was that I basically bought one set of shocks, yet returned a bunch of shocks under the lifetime deal for several vans!
    – Transmission – solid. They lasted 500k miles.
    – Engine – I only bought 5.4L vans. The engines were running strong at 500k miles. My drivers did oil changes every 10k miles at whatever town’s Wal Mart they happened to be in that day. I only used the cheap Super Tech oil (this is a nice argument against short oil change intervals and synth oil isn’t it?). The engine ancillaries (water pump, power steering, etc.) usually lasted 500k miles.
    – Body – these vans all have external door hinges. Sometimes they rust to the point that you’ll break a hinge when you try to open the door. The Ford hinges are bolted on, and are very easy to replace. The GM hinges are welded in, and take several hours to replace.

    The Chevy vans weren’t as solid as the Fords, and cost 100% more to maintain/repair annually. By 300k miles, these things were starting to have a lot of issues so I sold them off. For the Chevys:
    – Alternator – this was a solid piece on the GMCs. I took them in for a rebuild every 150k miles but my guy always said that they looked fine.
    – Suspension – tie rods and shocks every 150k miles. They have a newer suspension design than the Ford and had a nicer ride.
    – Transmission – the 4L60 was definitely not as durable as the Ford transmission. By 200k miles, they usually needed a rebuild or felt like they were going to need one soon.
    – Engine – I had 5.7L vans. The water pump was usually leaking by 150k miles. Various gaskets were leaking coolant or oil by then. I had various sensor/electrical issues on these vans. The fuel pump would usually fail every 100k miles. You have to drop the fuel tank to replace the pump (or cut an access hole in the cargo area).

    I’ve never owned a Sprinter van. I was interested in them for a while, but word in the expediting community is that by 200k miles there are a lot of engine problems, turbo issues, transmission problems, etc. They do get better fuel economy, but these savings do not make up for the huge increase in repair costs. Parts aren’t as widely available for the Sprinters so if your van breaks down in Iowa, you’ll have to put your driver up in a hotel (at your cost) while the shop waits for parts to arrive. And since this isn’t a Gool Ol’ American van, the shop may not have diagnosed the van properly so the first repair may not actually fix the problem.

    • 0 avatar
      Stereopticon

      We run a small public transit system on a fleet of cutaways (think small RV camper) built from an E-450 base. After years talking situations our mechanic and footing giant repair bills, I find it tough to believe that they’re better than a Sprinter on maintenance. We’ve had several engine replacements, half a dozen major transmission and drivetrain issues, a couple turbo failures, all on vehicles under five years old and with less than 150k miles on them. It’s true that we beat them to death – hilly terrain and weight on the edge of what the chassis was designed for. But I’m counting down the days to the release of the Ford Transit in mid 2014; it appears to be more intelligently designed and has been a mainstay of the European transit community for the past 40 years.

  • avatar
    That guy

    I’ll tell you why the Ford vans are more popular, they hold up better. We have both Ford and GMC vans in the fleet, after 80K miles the GMC vans feel cooked while the Ford vans still feel like they have a lot of life left.

    That said, after driving both, any update is more than welcome. These things are not good vehicles to drive at all. Even 15 year old HD pick-ups feel modern in comparison. I hope the Transit is as good as everybody says it is.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    I’ve driven both Ford and Chevy vans tens of thousands of miles at work in the last fifteen years . The company owned both Ford and Chevy extended but I also drove many new rental vans too . If it’s a rental I’d much prefer the Ford- it’s built better and feels more solid . But,I don’t know how typical our experience was but the Econoline with the Triton engine was at the end of its life at less than 200k miles . By then it needed a new trans and A.C compressor-both for the second time ,had no brakes and needed some valve work . Always hated the Chevy Express for its crappy interior- the door panels fell apart repeatedly , the crappy hard edged cut-yourself plastics , the U.A.W. at its uncaring worst assembly quality – but it was much more reliable and still running well at 200k miles .Both were driven hard but maintained reasonably well . Other Ford van owners I’ve known had similiar transmission woes and it seemed to be very difficult to get a decent rebuild .I was most impressed with the Ford when I was hit by a Ford F-150 truck which hit me going about 20 m.p.h.. The truck was totalled , but the van , though badly damaged was easily repaired and I wasn’t scratched . It helped that the F-150 front bumper matched the van’s rear bumper perfectly .

  • avatar
    C. Alan

    I have to admit, I own a 2009 E-150 8 passenger van with the 4.6l V-8. My Wife and I primariliy use it as a kid hauler (we have 5 kids) and it works great for that. The van we we have is an ex-vanpool lease, and we bought it with about 90k miles on it. From the reciepts I found inside the van, was well taken care of by the lease company that used to own it. My kids love the big captains chairs, and my wife likes being able to get the kids in and out easier than our old mini-van. Also, in Southern California, you can pick these vans up cheap! We got ours for less than $10k, and I think it will last us for quite a few years.


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