Full-sized vans were once massively popular. A whole culture around van life popped up in the 1970s, and using big vans as family vehicles and personal transportation was not uncommon through the end of the 20th century. These big, ungainly boxes have fallen out of favor in recent years with the popularity of SUVs and minivans. But if you have a big family — I mean a really big family — what are your options to take the brood anywhere? You’d either get a big, full-sized SUV or take two cars.
Might I suggest a third alternative that doesn’t cost any more money but provides far more space and comfort?
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The behemoth you see above is a 2019 Ford Transit, a nine-passenger commercial van turned road-going luxury jet courtesy of Minnesota-based upfitter Waldoch Crafts. As such, it’s known as a Waldoch Galaxy Transit. But wait, you ask: Isn’t this the commercial truck my plumber uses? Why would I want to load my family into one of these things and road-trip anywhere?
Consider: For the same price as a full-size, seven- or eight-passenger luxury SUV, you can get something with roughly the same footprint but amenities you simply can’t buy in an SUV. How does a fold-flat bed sound? Or a power-activated 32-inch LED TV in the ceiling? Or six captain’s chairs?
Despite its apparent bulk, the Transit drives remarkably like a full-sized SUV. It takes up little more space than a traditional American truck-based SUV — at 235.5 inches long with the middle of three available lengths, the Transit is about a foot longer than a Lincoln Navigator L or Cadillac Escalade ESV. But it’s just a couple of inches wider than those monsters, designed originally as a European van to slink through the narrow streets of old-world cities and villages. That means it’s exceptionally maneuverable in town, with a tight turning radius and responsive steering that inspires confidence whether you’re negotiating urban environments or cruising down the highway. The brakes make quick work of hauling the Galaxy Transit down from highway speeds, and panic stops are calm and controlled. The van doesn’t even feel all that top-heavy around corners despite considerable height — ours was the “mid-roof” version (Ford also makes low-roof and high-roof models). With a height of 99.2 inches, or more than 8 feet, the Transit should avoid parking garages or automatic car washes, and you’d best exercise caution at fast-food drive-thrus, too.
The Transit offers three powertrains for 2019: a base 3.7-liter V-6, a turbo-diesel 3.2-liter five-cylinder or the motor in my Waldoch test vehicle, a twin-turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6. It makes a formidable 310 horsepower and 400 pounds-feet of torque, which reaches the rear wheels through a standard six-speed automatic transmission. (This engine lineup gets an update for the 2020 model, which we saw in March.) The EcoBoost V-6 is fantastic, with plenty of grunt to move the big Transit with ease, plus whooshing turbo noises more commonly associated with tuner cars like the Subaru WRX. Over 1,400 miles of city and highway travel, it also returned a respectable 18 mpg. Compared to the other big family haulers, that’s not quite as good as the highway mileage on an Escalade ESV (21 to 23 mpg, depending on driveline), but as a combined average, it’s about even with the combined rating for a rear-drive Escalade ESV (17 mpg) or Navigator L (18 mpg).
For such a large vehicle, the Transit is surprisingly fun to drive. It’s responsive in ways you wouldn’t expect, with tight steering and taut ride quality. The commanding seating position and low beltline lend an exceptional view out the front and sides. The view out back is another story, however: The Transit can accommodate up to seven more people seated (or even standing) behind you, but the biggest impediment to rearward visibility are the double rear doors. A raising liftgate would be far too large, as would a single side-opening door, so you get two vertically hinged doors that open toward the middle of the vehicle, which obscures anything directly behind. To see what’s behind, expect to use the big side mirrors more often than the rearview mirror.
Dynamically, the Transit behaves as well as a big luxury SUV. But the compelling case for a Waldoch-upgraded example over an Escalade comes when you must carry people. My application was a four-day visit to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, the network of whiskey distilleries around and between Lexington and Louisville, as well as random others scattered through the rolling bluegrass countryside. Six of us wanted to take a few days to see the sights (and sample Kentucky’s most famous libation, which we recommend you do responsibly if this sort of trip appeals to you), but loading six people into even the biggest full-sized, extended-length SUV would mean someone was bound for routine discomfort. The smallest among us would undoubtedly be voluntold to take that third-row seat, and no full-size SUV can make the six hours from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Bardstown, Ky., anything short of torture — not to mention we’d have six small suitcases to accommodate, as well.
This is where the Waldoch conversions excel. You can get a regular Transit passenger van from Ford that can cart anywhere from five to 15 passengers, the larger numbers courtesy of extended-length, dual-rear-wheel configurations. Now, passengers in that van are going to sit in smallish seats, crammed against each other on stiff, thin chairs intended for 15-minute jaunts between luggage claim and airport hotel. That’s why Waldoch starts with the Transit cargo van instead, and puts in its own interior.
It’s a far nicer place than a regular Transit passenger van. Everything is lined with leather and wood, and it smells more like a craftsman’s workshop than a new car. Sound deadening is just about everywhere, and the windows have custom powered shades. There are four full-size captain’s chairs larger than anything you’ll find in an SUV, or six if you include the upgraded front seats. They feel like something out of a motorhome or private jet. They swivel and recline, and you can even install a table in the middle for cocktails and snacks (when parked, of course). The seats have beautiful quilted leather, and they’re ridiculously comfortable over extended highway trips. They also slide so passengers can negotiate their own legroom.
At the back is a three-position power-folding bench seat that’s even cushier than the captain’s chairs. And once you reach your destination, the Waldoch Galaxy Transit can turn into a camper of sorts. Open the cargo area doors and push a button, and the bench transforms into a bed large enough for two. Pop some sleeping bags on it, lower all the shades and you’re good to snooze. The only drawback of the big bench and folding bed mechanism is that cargo space is severely limited. You might have room for nine people — but not for their luggage. We had to get creative with just six roll-aboard suitcases, a few backpacks and some souvenir bags from various distilleries. If I were to spec a vehicle like this for my own personal use (say, for a big family of six or seven), I’d likely go for the even longer version or eliminate one row of captain’s chairs and skip the folding bed mechanism in exchange for considerably more cargo space.
But this is much more of a party van than an RV. A Jensen electronic multimedia module affixed to the cargo shelf over the front passengers controls a stereo that’s independent from the Transit’s own Ford Sync 3 system. You can hook it up to personal electronic devices, a built-in DVD player, optional satellite radio or even portable game consoles or laptops that you connect through an HDMI or RCA port. All of it functions through a smartphone app via Bluetooth. The system does have a learning curve — it doesn’t have the user friendliness of most factory automotive entertainment systems — but the results were worth it. When a hotel we stayed at turned out to not have HBO, an HDMI-tethered laptop and smartphone data stream allowed us to watch “Game of Thrones” on the van’s 32-inch TV. That’s true van life in the 21st century.
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Expensive and Unique
For people with big families, the Waldoch Galaxy Transit offers a compelling alternative to a full-size luxury SUV. And for 2020, Ford now offers a power-sliding side door on the Transit, making it even more of a family-capable vehicle. The beauty of this conversion van is that you can buy it at just about any Ford dealer, complete with a full warrantee for all the modifications. It’s competitively priced as well: Start at $46,790 for the EcoBoost-equipped Transit MR 250 cargo van itself, then add another $52,000 for the Waldoch conversion for a total of $98,790 as tested. Granted, this is on the extreme end of the spectrum; you can certainly go a little easier on the options list and get a less expensive, less opulent van. In fact, a totally plain, bare-bones Ford Transit 150 10-passenger van starts at around $36,000. But a comparable full-size SUV is going to run you a lot more: The Chevrolet Suburban starts at around $51,000 and can easily reach up to nearly $80,000. And if you want any amenities or luxury appointments, a Cadillac Escalade ESV or extended-length Lincoln Navigator Black Label will easily top $100,000, which falls squarely in the Galaxy’s, er, galaxy.
While those luxury models might have better multimedia systems and more opulent trim (despite Waldoch’s considerable upgrades, this is still a commercial van, after all), none can hold a candle to the Waldoch Galaxy Transit’s unbeatable passenger space, massive seats or outrageous amenities. Having room to move around for hours on end without squashing fellow passengers is truly a luxury in itself.
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