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In recent years, vans have been moving increasingly upmarket. The often-crude slab-like styling of yesteryear has gradually been replaced and seen van bodies evolve in to a more sophisticated car-like design, incorporating familiar shapes or grilles in to their new look.

Chrome, once the preserve of fancy high-end cars, is now prevalent on vans – or at least chrome-look plastics are – and leather can often be found on steering wheels and gear knobs. Vans are certainly moving up in specification, and that can largely be attributed to their desirability as people movers. As the demand for 4x4s blossomed in passenger cars, larger family-focused vehicles got neglected, leaving a gap large enough for a van to sneak through. Volkswagen’s Transporter has always been successful as a people mover, but Mercedes-Benz has also tried to muscle in on the action with a slicker, more appealing version of the Vito. When the Transit Custom was launched in 2012, it was clear that as much emphasis was placed on the importance of the Tourneo Custom passenger version as it was on the panel van. Vans or van chassis, particularly mid-sized ones, had suddenly become viable family runabouts and manufacturers needed to cater for their new customers’ more car-like expectations.

Enter the super-specced van. A commercial vehicle rammed full of all the gadgets your average car buyer would expect, from parking sensors to cruise control, dual-zone climate control and heated seats; top of the range models suddenly filled the higher reaches of a van price list. While your average fleet driver is unlikely to ever find themselves in one of our assembled Volkswagen Transporter Highline, Mercedes-Benz Vito Sport or Ford Transit Custom Sportvan models, the more discerning owner-driver may well do. They may also see the benefit in choosing a combi version, allowing up to six seats as well as a loadspace – useful for both the day job and the family.  

Gathered are the highest specification models currently available in Transporter, Vito and Transit Custom vans. Volkswagen will add a Transporter Sportline model to its range, and Mercedes are likely to produce a Vito Sport X, but for now these are the top of the range vans, and the ones that are most likely to lure in buyers wanting a more luxurious LCV.

How do they compare?

As range topping vans, two of which bear the word Sport in their title, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they might get some sort of a power boost. Unfortunately, these vans are all show and no go, with all of them receiving standard power units – albeit the most powerful versions available in their line-ups. That means the Transporter gets 178hp and 400Nm of torque from its 2-litre biturbo Euro-5 engine, the Vito develops 187hp and 440Nm of torque courtesy of its 2.2-litre Euro-6 engine and the Transit Custom pumps out just 168hp and 385Nm from its 2.2-litre Euro-5 power unit.

Standard equipment across the three vehicles is generous and includes air conditioning, Bluetooth and satellite navigation, but that is largely where the similarities end. Despite being the top of the range models, the level of finish and luxury in each varies massively.

The Vito gets acres of black plastic trim with black instruments and silver detailing. The effect is mixed, creating quite a classy look but with a slightly down market feel. From the darkness of the Vito, there is light relief in the VW Transporter with a combination of grey and black plastic trim making the cabin feel much brighter. The cabin of the new T6 model has been redesigned with the space in the dashboard on the passenger side now home to two shelves, rather than a lidded compartment that you get in passenger versions of the Transporter. Interior quality is generally high, and the small accents of chrome and piano black plastics help to break up the otherwise smooth and shiny surfaces.

Despite being the oldest interior of the three, the Transit Custom is probably not only the most pleasant to look at but also the most comfortable and ergonomic. Small details, like the rubber lined tray left of the steering wheel, and the excellently positioned and angled steering wheel controls, make the mid-sized Transit the easiest vehicle to adapt to. The leather trim on the seats and steering wheel also give a nice touch of luxury and the Transit is the only vehicle of the three where you really feel like you have taken a significant step up the pecking order by plumping for the most expensive version.

Why these three vans?

For these vans to really succeed they must be able to offer refinement not frequently found in LCVs. Ride comfort is of paramount importance in the passenger segment and these three are amongst the best in returning bounce free journeys, making them ideal for carrying people whilst also demonstrating sophistication expected from range topping vehicles.

Despite these three vans being at the top of their game, there is, however, still a noticeable difference between each. At slow speeds the Ford feels planted and assured, but as soon as you pick up the speed its ride becomes noticeably harsh and bumpy. The Mercedes strikes a fine balance and is smooth over all surfaces, but the Volkswagen just trumps its German rival thanks to its superior ride comfort when sitting in the second row of seats. Nevertheless, ride quality is just one factor in determining how premium a vehicle feels, as noise too plays a large part. Again here the Ford is probably bottom of the pile albeit closely matched by the Mercedes Vito. Both let in a surprising amount of engine noise into the cabin and suffer badly from tyre noise. In contrast, the Volkswagen is noticeably quieter not only than the competition, but over the previous generation van, and is certainly one of the largest areas of improvement in the new model.

While all three of these models will undoubtedly find their way on to numerous fleets as base models due to their total cost of ownership, owner-drivers, the typical customer for vans like these, are often more concerned with having a vehicle they can enjoy owning. Looks are subjective, so we’ll leave you to make up your own mind about which model you prefer – our testers’ opinions were split evenly between the three – but equally important as the way it looks is the way it drives. Not only are these three models the most luxurious in this weight category, they are also the three best handling vans at this size, yet they’re not free of their faults.

The Vito has long been the best handling van in the class, combining a well-balanced chassis with fast and responsive steering. The thicker than usual steering wheel makes the Merc feel like a more dynamic machine than perhaps it is, but it is fun and fast. Mercedes now offers two engines, with a 1.6-litre unit paired to front-wheel-drive models and a 2.2-litre engine matched to rear-wheel-drive models like our test vehicle. The former is borrowed from Renault and the latter Mercedes’ own design, but both are strong, torquey powertrains well matched to the Vito’s dynamics. Power delivery is better in the smaller unit, as it is a bit spikey in the larger engine, but across the range of diesel engines available in this sector these two are close to the top. The problem with the Vito comes when you need to stop. The brakes are soft, spongey and upon first depressing them in anger, pretty terrifying as little happens through the first 50% of pedal travel.

Volkswagen’s Transporter has no such braking problem and stops in a heartbeat. It also goes pretty quickly too, despite conceding nearly 10hp and 40Nm to the Vito, the Transporter feels like a more powerful machine and is helped by the super smooth and rapid shifts of the DSG gearbox fitted to our test van. Its weakness is its overly assisted and light steering, which sucks out too much feedback from the road and makes driving the Transporter rather uninspiring. We also found the seat to be the most uncomfortable of the three, with little support for the lower back and a flat base and seat back that more closely resembles a basic passenger bench seat.

With its bright red paint work and less than subtle black go-faster stripes, the Transit Custom’s appearance is writing cheques its engine can’t cash, at least on paper. Not only is the 168hp unit the least powerful of the three on test, it is only just the most powerful Custom in the range, 13hp more than the next most powerful unit, and with the same 385Nm of torque. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, yet the whole package in the Custom Sportvan is second to none. While there is a noticeable dead spot in the power band, requiring you to keep the engine revving nearer to 2,000rpm if you are to make progress at any decent rate, the weighty steering and smooth gearshift action let you feel like you are really driving the Transit with some meaning. The negative is that the engine is the least refined of the group, proving to be not only the noisiest on start-up, but also at motorway speeds.

Despite this, the Ford Transit is still the most enjoyable to drive and the easiest van to live with both long term or if you are just jumping in for a quick spin.  A comfortable driving position is the easiest to set and forward visibility is also the best in the group.

When it comes to nifty features you would expect these top of the range vans to have a few tricks up their sleeves, but despite being top of the range models, a lot of the headline grabbing kit is actually available either as standard equipment or appears on other lower spec models. Value for money and Vito have rarely featured in the same sentence, and when it comes to equipment in this latest version the same is true with little in the way of gadgetry. A Becker sat-nav is standard on the Sport, but that aside we struggled to pick out noteworthy accessories. Attention Assist and Crosswind Assist are both decent standard safety features, but on a vehicle costing £27,500 you would think rear parking sensors would at least be standard.

The Transporter doesn’t contribute much more to the accessory battle but like the others has Bluetooth, DAB radio and navigation. It does, however, have rear parking sensors and is fitted with low rolling resistance tyres and a stop/start system as standard, while 17-inch alloy wheels are standard on this high-power model. Improving on the Tranasporter’s spec is the Transit Custom Sportvan, which gets front as well as rear sensors as standard, and what’s more the rear includes a nifty rear camera that is displayed in the rear-view mirror with parking assistance lines. Other features include heated driver and passenger seats, built-in satellite navigation and Sync voice dialling and speech.

Glancing across the key areas we have identified, it is then the Ford Transit Custom that comes out on top. It’s a surprising victory, give that it is the oldest of the three vans, but a much deserved win nonetheless.

To summarise why we think the Custom is top of the pack, think of these vans as smart phones if you would. The Transit Custom is almost certainly an iPhone, whereas the Transporter and Vito are both more sophisticated Android devices. Like Android phones, these vans are newer, more up-to-date and cutting edge, thanks to features like the Transporter’s phone and tablet mirroring and post collision braking. They make a compelling argument on paper, proving they have all the right attributes, but when push comes to shove, the iPhone and the Transit Custom just do things that little bit better.

In the technology world, manufacturers are constantly leap-frogging each other and the same is often true for new commercial vehicles. Mercedes and Volkswagen have both already launched Euro-6 versions of their mid-sized vans, whereas the Transit Custom won’t get new engines until mid-2016, so you could say they are ahead of Ford. Yet the Custom is still capable of putting a fight to the competition despite its inferior powertrain. If the Germans are ahead, it is not by much, so when Ford upgrades the Custom’s engine we expect the gulf to really open up. With luck, the Transit Custom will then have an engine to match its rivals, and its whole package will be streets ahead.

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