Ford Motor Co. calls this compact van a “game changer,” and it could be true. After all, the first American mini-vans in the early 1960s caused the demise of “panel trucks” — conventional-cab pickups with full steel bodies — that had been around for more than 30 years and a popular choice among remodelers and other contractors. Detroit’s Big Three automakers, responding to the popularity of Volkwagen’s “bus” and Transporter trucks, brought out small vans on purpose-built chassis with small power trains. One was Ford’s Econoline, which evolved into today’s E-series full-size vans that are now best sellers.
|Tim Horton, a kitchen and bathroom remodeling contractor in Royal Oak, Mich., says the Transit Connect is “the right size” to haul supplies for his jobs and that it looks green. He said he’d likely buy a window version with a folding rear seat.|
Painfully high fuel prices in recent years prompted Ford executives to bring its European-style Transit Connect to America. They claim that since its introduction overseas in 2003, customers in 57 countries on four continents have bought more than 600,000 of them. The recession has more recently pulled down petroleum and fuel prices, but they’re edging up again and sooner or later they’re likely to go back up. Then this vehicle will make immense sense.
For now the Transit Connect merely makes good sense. The TC, as we’ll call it, has a powertrain familiar to any American who’s owned a front-drive sedan with a transverse 4-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission. A TC is roughly 2 feet shorter and weighs about 1,500 pounds less than an E-150 van. The TC’s high roof makes it roomier than it might look; its cargo area measures 59 inches high by 48 inches wide by 72 inches deep, for a volume of 135.3 cubic feet. Its floor sits less than 2 feet off the pavement for easy loading and unloading, and its rear and side doors allow excellent access. With a fold-down rear seat it can carry up to five people and still a goodly amount of cargo, for a total payload of 1,600 pounds.
The TC is nimble and quick on city streets and can more than keep up with freeway traffic, though I had to put my foot into it to properly merge from on-ramps. This was during a show-and-tell event for news reporters at the Royal Oak (Mich.) Farmers Market near Detroit, one of a series of events Ford was hosting across the country.
My assigned TC was set up for a tradesman, with shelves and cabinets along the walls of its roomy rear compartment. Ford has partnered with three upfitters so buyers can specify a wide array of shelving, drawers and boxes. Or buy it bare and arrange your stuff to suit yourself.
The TC’s powertrain — a 2-liter Duratec inline-4 and 4-speed automatic transmission — delivers 22 to 25 miles per gallon of gasoline, Ford says. That’s maybe 5 to 10 mpg better than the hefty V-8s that propel most full-size vans.
TC product developers spoke to hundreds of businesspeople across the country and learned they’d probably buy one to complement larger trucks in their fleets because it’d be just right to haul smaller loads, especially the make-up kind that are needed because somebody forgot to take something out to a job. With the Transit Connect’s starting price of $21,475, you have reason to check it out.
Our press contingent convoyed over streets and expressways, scooting easily through traffic and turning tightly where we had to. This TC was quick, but carried only one other guy and no cargo. However, our hosts had loaded another TC with 1,200 pounds of bagged sand, and my driving buddy and I piled in with a Ford rep — maybe 600 pounds worth of people — and we took turns driving it around the block. Now about 200 pounds over its payload rating, the TC’s ride was well settled and its acceleration adequate. On a freeway it would’ve been sluggish but workable.
A basic TC comes as a panel van with windowless sliding side doors and rear “barn” doors with darkened glass. A buyer can keep or delete the rear glass, and can spec windows in the side doors and rear-quarter panels. The customer can also choose a windowed wagon version with a rear seat that accommodates three people and folds up to expand cargo space.
Up front is a pair of bucket seats flanking a small console that houses the shift selector and rises to form an arm rest. A businesslike instrument panel includes a speedometer, tachometer and the usual engine-temperature and fuel gauges. A handy package shelf above the big windshield holds the wireless keyboard for an on-board PC, one of the Ford Work Solutions options — a whole 'nother subject.
The small van has a sporty feel and drives that way. It reminded me of Chevy’s HHR Panel — a direct competitor — and Chrysler’s PT Cruiser. But the Transit Connect is larger and, Ford reps insisted, built from the bottom up as a truck. It feels very stout and our near-new examples were rattle-free. Ford says the Transit Connect has been rigorously tested, successfully operated overseas, and will last many years here.
With its 15.4-gallon gasoline tank, a Transit Connect should go about 500 miles between fill-ups, Ford says. For operations that keep trucks closer to home, sometime next year Ford will have a battery-electric version that’ll go 100 miles between plug-ins. Meanwhile, if you need a bigger, heavier truck of this sort, Ford will happily sell you one of its E-vans. But if not, and with the Transit Connect’s starting price of $21,475, can you afford not to check one out?