Ready or not, the electric propulsion age has begun. New battery-powered vehicles are about to travel where GM's EV1, the Tesla Roadster, and a few other low-volume demonstration projects dared to venture. Thanks to the availability of more efficient battery systems, electric cars you can actually buy are finally available.
The subject of this report is Ford's Transit Connect (TC), a compact panel truck that has won an enthusiastic following from those who need a means of efficiently transporting sports gear, motorcycles, and other play toys. The TC's practical side appeals to plumbers, florists, carpenters, and other trade specialists seeking a capable work tool.
Credit Ford for filling a gaping hole in the vehicular fleet with this excellent Turkish-built import, and for realizing that converting a few of them to electric propulsion is a sensible means of spreading the Transit Connect's reach.
To fill some obvious gaps in its knowledge base and to bring the TC Electric quickly to fruition, Ford partnered with Azure Dynamics, a Canadian engineering enterprise with ample experience in both hybrid-electric and pure-electric disciplines. Azure, which was born about a decade ago, purchased Solectria -- another electric-vehicle pioneer -- in 2005. To date Azure's concentration has been in designing and developing medium-duty commercial vehicles for service, delivery, and shuttle applications. The TC is the smallest application making the leap to series production so far but Azure Dynamics is also collaborating on the Aptera ultra-high-efficiency car project.
The TC is an ideal candidate for conversion to electric propulsion because it has ample room under its hood and beneath its load floor for the necessary gear. A Siemens liquid-cooled AC induction motor provides 134 peak horsepower, 80 continuous horsepower, 173 peak lb-ft of torque, and 117 lb-ft of continuous torque to the front wheels through a Borg-Warner single-speed final-drive unit. The motor, gearbox, a motor controller and inverter, and various pieces of ancillary equipment all live under the hood. Coolant pumps, climate control systems, and power steering are all electric powered. A cylindrical-cell lithium ion battery pack supplied by Johnson Controls-Saft resides under the load floor in the space formerly occupied by the TC's gasoline tank and exhaust system. In addition, there's a charge-connection port on the right side under the original gas-fill flap with a plug that can be used with both 120V and 240V AC sources. The claimed recharge time for the 28kWh battery pack is six to eight hours with a 30-amp supply.
The TC conversion process begins with the arrival of a 'glider' -- a vehicle lacking propulsion equipment -- from Ford's assembly plant in Turkey. Units are transported by truck from Ford's Baltimore port to an AM General facility in Livonia, Michigan, where the aforementioned electric powertrain is installed. Approximately 20 man-hours of effort are required to complete a TC Electric.
Production begins later this year. Azure is planning on manufacturing several hundred per year after sales commence next spring with final volume determined by demand. No price has been announced but expectations are that it will top $50,000. What drives the cost beyond the reach of ordinary commuters is a battery pack with 75-percent more energy capacity than what powers Chevy's Volt.
Changes to the TC's interior are intentionally modest. The original gas gauge is now a battery level (state of charge) meter. The tachometer is a range meter with 85 miles at full scale, a 40-80 mile span marked solid green, a 20-40-mile span in broken green, and 0-20 markings in broken red. There's also a below-zero area where what Azure calls "derated" performance is available. It was our intention to avoid that realm for obvious reasons.
While electrically powered air conditioning will be available, the prototype unit provided for testing was not so equipped. It had a few experimental components, such as mounting brackets heavier than those intended for production, and a shift quadrant marked with positions that no longer apply with the new single-speed final drive unit. Because this TC Electric is also the vehicle that debuted at the Chicago Auto Show, its cargo hold is loaded with commercial parts bins and racks adding a couple of hundred pounds to the curb weight.
The TC Electric experience begins by twisting the 'ignition' key to the normal start position. That act is followed by total silence -- no click of relays or electronic hum is audible. The same is true when the console-mounted shifter is moved from Park to the D position. To put the show on the road, the driver goes through that familiar ritual and then simply steps on the accelerator.
You've heard about the silent smoothness of electrics but many of them -- including Teslas -- generate prodigious amounts of gear and electrical whine. The TC Electric, however, is as silent and civil as a gracious butler. This powertrain responds enthusiastically to a prod of the pedal with barely a murmur.
It also answers the call with more than expected urge. The TC Electric slips into the flow of traffic and defends its honor without hesitating. It's got enough oomph under the hood to make its moves without apology.
We conducted a few acceleration measurements with VBox test gear to assess the TC Electric's performance. The best of three runs resulted in a zero-to-sixty time of 11.7 seconds. If that doesn't impress you, consider the fact that the gas-powered TC we tested last year beat this electric by only 0.6-seconds. That gap would be narrower if we had relieved the battery-powered edition of its parts shelves payload.
The gas model easily beats the electric on top speed with 90 mph available on a long run versus the electric's governed limit at 75 mph. Sustained high speeds rapidly deplete any electric car's battery so they are naturally discouraged.
A stop at the scales revealed that the TC conversion weighs 4500 pounds (including the parts racks and bins) versus 3420 pounds for the gas version. Illustrating the heft of batteries, 54-percent of the total mass is carried by the rear wheels. Since there are no notable upgrades to the TC's brakes or tires, braking distances are longer. We measured a 70-0 mph stop in 200 feet for the electric conversion versus 164 feet for the standard TC. The disc-drum ABS brake system performed normally.
While we conducted no specific handling tests, the TC Electric's low center of gravity results in minimal rock and roll during aggressive maneuvers. It feels quite stable, nicely planted, and predictable in its moves. It should have no difficulty handling a full rated load of 1000 pounds.
To accurately measure driving range, we started this review with a fully charged battery and a bit over 80 miles showing on the available range dial. We then maintained a log of our movements. During several hours of driving, we took photos, measured performance, and cruised suburban streets at moderate speeds. We also held 70 mph for 21 miles on a local interstate highway.
After 47 miles of driving -- including three flat-out runs from rest to 75 mph -- a turtle warning lamp lit up in the range dial. At that point, about five miles of operating range remained so we headed back to this journey's starting point. We arrived at that destination with 50.1 miles logged and about three miles of range remaining.
Azure's 80 mile range rating applies more to pure low-speed city and suburban driving which is less consumptive than our mix of city and highway driving. Also, deleting the three hard charges to top speed would have added several more miles to the range we recorded. As the EPA persistently advises, your mileage will vary.
After spending part of a day behind the wheel of the TC Electric, we'd conclude that the Ford and Azure Dynamics collaboration is an unqualified success. The electric systems are impressively well mannered, performance is commendable, and there's sufficient range to support the intended mission. Reduced operating costs -- attributable to the cheaper fuel and no tune-ups or oil changes -- will help alleviate the financial sting of the high purchase price.
So, if there were doubts in your mind about the viability of electric propulsion, chalk up the Transit Connect Electric as one more piece of evidence in favor of the powertrain of the future.