- Extended test of most dynamic van on the market
- Extreme looks, upgraded performance, comfy ride
- Auto gearbox adds extra luxury, great to drive
‘The trouble with this van,’ remarked colleague Richard, after about 10 minutes of travelling in it, ‘is that it’s so nice inside, no-one will want to get out to do any work.’ That’s a pretty dilemma for a light commercial vehicle to find itself in – and testament to just how much effort goes into making the Ford Transit Custom MS-RT R-Spec stand out from the crowd.
We have driven MS-RT's range-topping R-Spec before, with the standard manual gearbox. But when the boss of the company that builds them rang up and asked if we’d like to spend a week behind the wheel of the automatic version, there was no way we were about to refuse.
After all, generally we get to drive these things for maybe a morning – a whole week would give us a much better idea of what it would be like to live with one of these unusually premium vans. Plus enable more members of the Parkers team to evaluate its potential.
So just a few days later, an exceptionally mean looking black-on-black example turned up at the office, complete with the optional six-speed automatic transmission, which is a particularly popular addition for lifestyle buyers.
Not to mention the Steinbauer power upgrade that takes Ford’s 2.0-litre EcoBlue turbodiesel from 170hp and 405Nm to around 208hp and 486Nm, and the full Reiger rear suspension package.
What the hell does any of that actually mean?
We’ve explained MS-RT previously, but as a quick recap, it’s building a successful business out of enhancing several of Ford’s more popular LCVs – as well as the popular MS-RT Transit Custom you can get an MS-RT Transit Connect (tested here in earlier M-Sport guise) and Ranger pickup.
The process of doing this includes a full visual makeover inside and out, as well as changes to the suspension. In the R-Spec’s case, the new look includes a full bodykit with eye-catching driving lights in the grille plus a total interior re-trim in a suede-like material that’s topped with matching Sparco racing seats and blue seatbelts.
Performance boosts for the Transit Custom have generally been limited to Eibach rear springs, in an effort to lower the back of the van and control the Ford’s typically bouncy ride. However, the R-Spec gets a bigger set of front brakes and rear springs made by Reiger in an effort to actually make it fun to drive it along a twisty road.
The rear springs can be combined with Reiger shock absorbers at extra cost to further sharpen this Transit’s driving behaviour.
Under the bonnet MS-RT also adds an intercooler and air intake to improve the engine’s breathing, while an active exhaust system – really a cleverly-disguised speaker – means you make this van sound like a sports car. The genius of this particular approach being you can also not make it sound like a sports car as well. Which is handy late at night…
Prices for the R-Spec start at £35,995 plus VAT – for which you get a short-wheelbase Double-Cab-in-Van (DCiV), with five fully-trimmed seats and twin sliding rear doors.
The automatic transmission, the Steinbauer powerbox, Reiger shocks and 20-inch alloys (as fitted here; 18-inch items in the same design are standard) come at extra cost.
Wait. People actually want to do this sort of thing to a van?
While you might automatically think of a van as nothing more than a box on wheels for moving stuff, an increasing number of people are starting to look at them more as ultra-practical lifestyle vehicles.
With two rows of seats like this, they make very handy family wagons – assuming you don’t need to access too many small car parks – and sporty types who need to lug round large recreational toys such as mountain bikes and surfboards have been all over the van life for decades. Typically in variations of the VW Transporter.
What’s different now is that most modern vans are good to drive, comfortable on longer journeys and available with all the same creature comforts as modern cars, making them much easier to live with. The Transit Custom in particular has established itself as a true Transporter alternative thanks its attractive looks, car-like cabin and Ford’s long-standing sporty heritage.
MS-RT takes these advantages and essentially injects them with steroids. The result isn’t for everyone, but it is certainly eye-catching. Which makes these vans an appealing choice for working operators as well, as a means of making their business more memorable.
Just remember the interior will probably take more looking after than a conventional Transit, especially in the R-Spec – getting mud and dust and other site residue out of suede isn’t a matter of wiping it over with a cloth…
So what is the Ford Transit Custom MS-RT R-Spec like to live with?
A big bonus to having this van for a week was that we weren’t limited to driving it near the MS-RT factory in Wales. This is not an unwise expression of anti-Wales sentiment – rather a means of saying we got to experience a lot more people clapping eyes on it for the first time.
And let us tell you, few things turn heads like a van that looks as angry as this one.
Obviously, there were some expressions of sheer bemusement, but for the most part it was all thumbs up and grins – especially from fellow van drivers – interspersed with the occasional jealous side-eye from the pilots of fancier-looking VWs. Something we feel able to say since we’re running a 204hp turbo petrol Transporter as a long-term test vehicle right now.
Some potential buyers may also be interested to note few things clear the outside lane of the motorway like a van that looks as angry as this one.
We’ve seldom had such congestion-free journeys. And childish though it may be, having the performance to prove the point whenever someone did seem to have an ‘Oh, it’s just a van’ attitude to their lane discipline made life all the sweeter in the R-Spec. We’ll come back to that aspect below.
In terms of more practical matters, we’re pleased to report we didn’t have any issues with that dangerously low-looking front-splitter – which still seems to clear most kerbs when parking and didn’t cause us any problems with speed bumps.
And though those racing seats may appear uncompromising, we found them far more comfortable than Ford’s standard equipment.
What did the wider Parkers team think of the MS-RT R-Spec?
Usually it’s a bit of a challenge getting any of the car guys to drive a van – but not in this instance. Suddenly five-up lunch time runs to the supermarket were all about the big black beast, and typically the driver came back raving. ‘Best van ever!’ was a standard refrain, and that is after having driven the long-term Transporter.
Colleague Gareth even took it to a car launch – which just happened to be a Ford event (for the latest Ecosport). And of course the Ford personnel loved it as well; MS-RT models are sold via Ford dealers, but they are not official Ford products in quite the same way as the regular range, so it was a novelty for them to see the R-Spec up close.
In other words, it makes quite the impression. Good news for buyers whether they’re turning up at a sporting social or arriving at a client for work.
That the active exhaust system also nearly caused Gareth to fall out of a car laughing because it was so loud is just another aspect of the R-Spec’s character. The system is controlled by a smartphone app via Bluetooth, so you can adjust the volume as well as turn it off completely.
Up to three exhaust ‘profiles’ can be loaded into it at one time, so don’t have to stick to a single sports car impression, either.
What’s the Ford Transit Custom MS-RT R-Spec like to drive with the automatic gearbox?
The optional automatic transmission really suits the R-Spec’s (equally optional) Steinbauer power upgrade – delivering smooth, usefully potent oomph without ever feeling like it’s going to overwhelm the Transit Custom’s chassis. Though that is no doubt partly because the MS-RT modifications to the suspension work really, really well.
For while the auto also takes a lot of the pain out of driving in traffic, it’s this van’s ability to be genuinely entertaining away from busy roads and other motorists that sets it aside.
The balance between ride and handling that MS-RT has managed to achieve here is properly something to be proud of. The Transit Custom was a solid starting point, of course, and we are still talking about a van, so you won’t be cornering quite like a Formula 1 car, but from the confident levels of grip to the surprisingly restrained degree it leans over during faster turns it's easy to carried away.
Unlike some other vans, the Custom never feels like it’s trying to trip over its front wheels when driven in this way, either. It’s easy to understand why owners like them so much – and when you combine that convincing capability with the MS-RT’s extra-special interior you end up with a vehicle that, in our opinion, has no trouble at all justifying its asking price.
The most impressive aspect, however, has got to be the ride comfort. For as well as controlling the body roll and helping you drive faster round corners, the uprated rear suspension also deals far better with bumpy surfaces than the standard Ford set-up – and this is with the optional 20-inch alloys, don’t forget.
Talk about making a van a pleasure to live with. The only thing to keep in mind is that the bigger wheels do change the gearing slightly, which has the effect of causing the speedometer to under-read slightly – meaning you’re typically going around 3mph faster than it says you are.
What’s next for MS-RT?
We understand there are a few projects in the pipeline – most significant of which will be a revised Transit Custom based on the newly facelifted 2018 model. The standard version reaches Ford dealers around about March time, and we expect to see the new MS-RT shortly afterwards.
Full details of the Transit Custom Double-Cab-in-Van’s load area dimensions and payload can be found in our twin-test review of the regular Sport model versus the VW Transporter Sportline.