The Ford Econoline has carried cargo and families alike for more than 40 years, and it has led the segment for longer than the past two decades. But the rise of the minivan in the 1980s put consumer full-size van sales on the decline, and the still-prominent SUV craze has further eroded sales. Hence, Ford's E-Series, much like the Chevrolet Express GMC Savana twins, has received limited funding for further development, and therefore looks and drives much like it has for the better part of the past decade. While full-size vans remain the standard bearer for airport limousines, service workers, boxless RV platforms, and conversion vans, they can also provide an extreme solution for personal needs, especially with the recent demise of the rear-drive Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari leaving a vacuum in the narrow family tow van niche.
If you liked the styling of Ford trucks of the early 1990s, the 2005 E-Series will be comfortably familiar. Ford has made an attempt to keep the big van fresh with a new grille every few years, but the utilitarian mission of the E-Series precludes any flair. The design is as square as square can be, and the van hasn't kept up with styling trends in such areas as lighting and wheels. While production trim levels vary in appearance only by virtue of chrome bumpers or two-tone paint, many of these vans will either be used to take people to the surgeon's table in ambulance guise or end up in the operating room themselves, being chopped up into extravagantly decaled conversion vans.
The longest series of options found inside the Econoline's massive interior involves seating options: 7-, 8-, 11-, 12-, 14-, or 15-passenger versions are available to suit the particular needs of your small army. Regardless of how massive the interior feels with the rear benches removed, though, the Econoline's 256.5 cubic feet of cargo space is laughable compared to the 473 offered in the taller Dodge Sprinter cargo van. Other options offered as you move up among XL, XLT, and Chateau trim levels include power windows and locks, a CD player, adjustable captain's chairs, cloth seats, and even carpeting. Air conditioning is standard even on the base XL.
Ford recognizes the Econoline's commercial use by offering a number of no-charge features designed for workaday duty. EconoCargo uses thick foam padding to retain heat or cold more efficiently, giving the van an edge on the competition in the food-service community. Masterack and Quietflex rack and bin systems are aimed at tool-toting trades, with the former providing a set of steel drawers and shelves, and the latter using a composite material to create a less squeaky, more flexible system. Like the exterior, cabin styling is very Clinton-era, with smooth black dash plastics reminiscent of those in the previous-generation F-150 pickup.
With the E-Series van, there isn't much to discuss in the way of safety features--except the lack thereof. ABS and dual front airbags are standard, but that's where the list ends. The Dodge Sprinter and the Chevy Express/GMC Savana twins offer stability control, and the GM vans even offer all-wheel drive. The protection offered by stability systems on large vehicles can make an important difference, especially with up to 15 lives at stake. We hope to see these measures implemented on future Ford vans. The National Highway Safety Traffic Safety Administration has awarded the E-150 five stars for its front driver and passenger side crash protection, and three stars for the rollover protection. (Both the Express and Savana also received five-star front ratings; rollover assessments were not performed on 2005 models.)
Every Econoline is rear-driven, and four different axle ratios are available. All gasoline engines are bolted to the same four-speed automatic, while the diesel powerplant gets a tougher five-speed auto. There are three different gasoline engines to choose from: a 4.6-liter/225-horse and 286 lb-ft V-8; a 5.4-liter/255-horse and 350 lb-ft V-8; and a burly 6.8-liter V-10 pushing out 305 horses and 420 lb-ft of torque.All these engines are found elsewhere in the Ford truck line, but each faces a power reduction when settling into an Econoline.
Same goes for the lone turbodiesel engine, a 6.0-liter V-8 that drops sharply in performance from the variant used in the Super Duty pickups, offering 235 and 440 lb-ft here, compared with 325 hp and a battleship-like 570 lb-ft in the trucks. With the proper final-drive ratios, both the V-10 and turbodiesel can tow up to 10,000 pounds.
Ford's Econoline van drives exactly as you would expect an outdated three-ton box to drive. Steering is loose, and the brakes are soft. Without so much as traction control, the E-Series isn't the best performer when rain or snow is present. And due its large, boxy proportions, ascertaining what's beside and behind an Econoline is more of a guessing game than a science. The larger engines provide adequate passing power, and these people-movers can keep up with highway traffic, especially when unladen. But if you don't absolutely need seating capacity for nine adults, or have a true commercial-grade use for the van, there's no good reason to burden yourself with driving such a large, unsophisticated vehicle, especially when prices quickly rise far north of $30,000.
Ford's Econoline van is better suited for church-mission trips, day-care services, and tool-toting tradesmen than as daily transportation. Minivans such as the Honda Odyssey can comfortable carry up to eight passengers and feature all the creature comforts and safety features expected of a modern conveyance. Even competing full-size vans offer more than the Ford: Chevy and GMC have added new safety features, and Dodge has more safety features, finer build quality, and more cargo space. The onus is now on Ford to catch up with the competition.
Large, versatile, and powerful, the Ford E-Series vans can be configured for a wide variety of work duties, though this aging tradesman staple is losing ground to the competition.
10,000-lb towing capacity Room for up to fifteen No recalls with such a time-tested vehicle
Limited safety gear Lack of creature comforts Price rises quickly beyond its refinement
This year or this decade? Either way, nothing significant is new.
Don't miss such luxuries as carpeted floors, power locks and windows, a CD player, and an extended-travel gas tank. The aptly named Chateau trim level offers seating for seven including four captains chairs and more room than the last villa you rented. Although leather seating and a CD changer are optional, to get some of the more exciting options available in Econolines--card table, beds, and even plasma TVs--you'll have to look to the aftermarket.