Tradesmen, movers, rock bands, and overachieving parents who need a van just to haul their broods around can now rejoice. For a new generation of American carriers has arrived, with handling, braking, safety, functionality, and fuel efficiency dramatically improved over anything that's been offered for decades. And if it weren't for a quirk of history, much of this makeover would have happened back when the shag carpet in that classic '70s pleasure wagon was still clean(ish) and the airbrushed Disco Jesus mural on its flanks had not yet begun to yellow.
Truth is, American vans have sucked for decades, thanks in no small part to an obscure tariff on imported light trucks levied by President Lyndon Johnson in 1963. The so-called chicken tax added 25 percent to the price of vans from overseas — retaliation for duties on U.S. poultry by France and Germany — and effectively killed foreign competition. American carmakers sensed an opportunity to coast, and they took it, denying American consumers the latest van tech for more than a quarter of a century. Where an ordinary car or a minivan (which were based on passenger cars) went four or five years between redesigns, some full-size American vans went essentially unchanged for 30 years. Old-fashioned body-on-frame construction, crude suspensions, lousy fuel economy — if it's what they did in 1975, it's pretty much what they did in 2005.
The 2015 Ford Transit marks the happy end of that sad era. It is the van equivalent of upgrading to a modern tablet from a rotary dialer. Its predecessor, the old Ford box-on-wheels, with its medieval underpinnings and all the steering positivity of al dente linguine, creaked down the road and demanded a driving technique that would do the most cautious grandmother proud. But the new Transit (in all its many iterations) behaves like a reasonably athletic large sedan, albeit one big and tall enough (with optional high roof) to carry a baseball team or the complete contents of the average New York apartment. The amount of plastic in its spacious interiors is vast, but in appearance it is vastly improved.
The Transit sports many of the luxury and infotainment touches American consumers, circa 2015, demand: command-seating captain's chairs, multiple power outlets, and democratically arrayed climate controls. Steering is unexpectedly crisp when you corner in the Transit, and the body doesn't echo and boom in the way an old Econoline or Ram would when you drove it over potholes and railroad crossings. And when the brakes are applied, the modern suspension actually brings proceedings to a controlled halt with a minimum of drama.
If having all-wheel drive is essential to you, you'll need to venture beyond the domestic offerings, as the Transit is rear-wheel drive and the Ram ProMaster is front-wheel drive. Only the Mercedes Sprinter comes in all-wheel as well as rear-wheel drive.
But only the Ford can be had with seating for a class-leading 15 persons. Both the Ford and the Mercedes are available in an almost endless combination of wheelbase and roof heights (and a price range that spans from $29,565 to the low 50s for some versions), and these rear-wheel drivers can both be had as heavy-duty duallies, with an extra set of wheels in back for heavy loads and towing. The Mercedes buyer can choose from one of two fuel-efficient diesel engines, while the Ford and Ram each offer a single, grunt-filled diesel engine alternative to their gas V-6s. With most models still bettering 20 mpg on the highway, not one of these New Age vans is a fuel-sucking V-8, or the thirstiest of them all, the old Econoline's V-10, with which one could experience the wonder of eight mpg transportation.
Because some things never change, fans of retro-tech can find solace in two old-school vans still out there — the Chevrolet Express and the Nissan NV. With their gas-sucking V-8s and body-on-frame chassis, it's like an express back to 1978, only this time without the shag carpet.