2010 Chicago: Our First Drive of the 2011 Ford Transit Connect

A few of us were perplexed why Ford’s Transit Connect Electric, arguably the green darling of the 2010 Chicago auto show, was quickly ushered away from the show floor following yesterday’s press conference. The answer, it seems, is it was charging outside, being readied for a series of short test drives. We managed to sneak behind the wheel and take Ford’s great green commercial hope for a quick spin.

Like the Focus BEV program, Ford's handed development of the electric powertrain to an outside company -- in this instance, Azure Dynamics. Ford will build “gliders” -- vans without engines or transaxles -- that Azure will then convert into electric vehicles. That’s nothing new for the firm. It was originally the Solectria Corporation, which made its name in converting vehicles to electric power (click here to read a quick drive we took in a Solectria E10).

Azure, then, took the lead in engineering the electric powertrain. While the three-phase DC-AC inverter is designed and built in-house, it turned to other suppliers for key components. Siemens supplies a 55-kW AC motor that powers the front wheels through a Borg-Warner single-speed gearbox. Power comes from a 28 kWh lithium-ion battery pack built and supplied by Johnson Controls-Saft.

There are few visual ways to discern a Transit Connect Electric from its gasoline-powered brethren. Azure managed to stuff the battery pack underneath the cargo floor, where it doesn’t encroach upon interior space. Engineers had to modify a few structural crossmembers towards the nose of the vehicle, but inverter, motor, and gearbox all are tucked nicely within what is normally the engine compartment. In lieu of a tachometer, the Electric gains a range meter, while the fuel gauge now displays battery charge.

Ford and Azure reps are quite proud of the battery technology within the van, but we think they should be beaming about the subsystems the driver regularly interacts with. More often than not, hybrids and electric vehicles equipped with electrohydraulic power steering pumps return wildly overboosted steering. Not here -- steering feel in the Transit Conncet Electric is incredibly hefty.

Better yet, regenerative braking isn’t too aggressive, and the switch to service brakes is virtually undetectable. The only real difference we felt was with the throttle tip-in -- it’s slower in the Electric, in order to help eke the most range from the battery packs. A firm, deliberate push is required to instigate a sprightly start, which was necessary to keep pace with the aggressive cabbies congregating outside of McCormack Place.

In short, the Transit Connect Electric drives just like any other passenger vehicle. That’s a good thing, too. Seeing as fleets and small businesses are Ford’s target market with this vehicle, drivers should be able to seamlessly jump from a gas-powered van to an EV without any additional training or adaptation. We think they’ll be able to do so -- and we really hope the battery-electric Focus, due to hit the market in 2013, allows the driving public at large to do the same.

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