The car maker has not yet released EPA fuel-economy figures for the Transit but said the various iterations of the Transit line will get 25- to 50-percent better mpg than the E series it's replacing. For comparison, a 2014 E-150 passenger van powered by a 4.6-liter V-8 is rated at 13 mpg city/16 highway/15 combined.
With the rollout of the Transit family, Ford is replacing a proven market leader with something radically different — but not totally new. Ford has sold more than 7 million Transits in 119 markets since introduction in 1979.
In the U.S., the E series has been shouldering the load for Ford's commercial and large passenger van business since Richard Nixon was president, dominating the market almost as much as the F series rules the pickup field.
In 2013 Ford sold 125,356 E-series vehicles — 102,705 cargo vans and 22,651 Club Wagons for passengers. Ford held a 48 percent share of the full-sized van market last year, a slight drop from 2012, when it had 49 percent. Ford has been the leader for nearly three decades.
"Many people have asked me, with E series being so successful, why are we making a change?" said Minyang Jiang, brand manager for the Transit, Transit Connect and E series.
There are a number of answers. Under the company's "One Ford" plan, Ford is consolidating its offerings around the globe onto a few common platforms. The Transit is a global vehicle and fits that plan, while the E series has been primarily a North American van.
"Taking a successful product strategy and leveraging it across multiple regions, instead of having to design unique offerings for different regions, that's a big advantage" for Ford, said Mike Jackson, director of North American forecasting for IHS Automotive.
With "all the different types of build configurations, that's a radical shift from the outgoing E series. That offers consumers a much broader range of choices. At the same time it would offer Ford meaningful opportunity for higher transaction prices and to deliver more value."
The Transit comes in an almost bewildering array of configurations: 58 in all. Ford will offer three roof heights, three body lengths, two wheelbases and three powertrains.
The E series hasn't changed much from the original Econoline of the 1970s. It comes in one wheelbase, excluding cutaway versions, and only one roof height.
"Transit offers a lot more payload and cargo capacity than we ever did with E series," Ms. Jiang said.
"With the small cargo van all the way up to the full-sized Transit, we're able to cover all kinds of businesses, from small businesses to large fleets. It [Transit] allows them to customize the fleet to the right size.
"Customers are telling us there's a lot of right-sizing," Mr. Jiang said. "It's not one size fits all. It's the ability to customize it to exactly what your business needs."
Jeff Carlson, president of Glenwood Springs Ford in Glenwood Springs, Colo., said: "The market was evolving away from the Econoline van. Businesses were looking either for a larger van or a smaller van."
What to order?
But that versatility has caused some head-scratching since Ford began taking dealer orders in January. For starters, dealers have never had the tall roof option before.
"It's going to be head and shoulders above what we were able to do with the vans before," said Ed Joliffe, owner of Gorno Ford in Woodhaven, Mich. "Our van was good for a long time, but it needed to change because businesses today are so much different. The hard part for us is to know what to stock."
Mr. Carlson added: "You can't have all the configurations in stock. When you stock configurations, you have to be sure you have the right vehicle. It will be a launch we'll have to pay careful attention to. Initially we're just going to have to see what the reception is. There are a lot of permutations there. We had the same issue when they extended the configurations on the Super Duty truck in 2007-2008."
Even though Ford is taking fleet orders, the company has not released prices. They should be announced in late spring or early summer, a spokesman said. Pricing will be crucial, since fleet customers are very cost-conscious.
"It's very complex. It's a lot of configurations," Ms. Jiang acknowledged. But she said Ford anticipated that and set up a system to help dealers narrow the choices.
"We've created a dealer-facing tool called transitbodydecoder.com" accessible only to dealers, she said. "If you're an inventory manager, by answering a few questions you can take the choices down from 58 to 12 to four to two. That's a tool we've created to minimize complexity."
Chris Ramos, president of Detroit Custom Coach, a suburban Detroit company that converts commercial vans into limousines, food trucks, mobile marketing vehicles and other units, said his company has big plans for the Transit.
"We've dubbed it the Sprinter killer," Mr. Ramos said, referring to the commercial van sold under the Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner brands. "In the limousine and chauffeured-vehicle world, the Sprinter is taking over where the chauffeured vehicle used to be. With Ford bringing out the Transit, they're going to give Sprinter a run for their money."
Mr. Ramos, whose company has been buying mostly Sprinters the last couple of years, said the Transit is an attractive option because Ford has a more extensive network of dealers to repair the vehicle. Ford has a network of more than 3,000 dealers including about 600 in its Business Preferred Network dealers.
IHS Automotive expects Ford to sell more Transits than it did E-series vehicles, though it doesn't expect the change to be dramatic. "We expect sales volume will peak near the 140,000 unit mark," Mr. Jackson said.