The U.S. auto market may be fast-moving and competitive, but one subset, commercial vans, is neither. Looking much the same as it did during the Nixon administration, it has seen few innovations and fewer new entries. The only real change is that the big Dodge van–dressed in the same duds since the early ’70s–finally expired a few years ago, when the Mercedes-Chrysler tie-up brought us the Sprinter van to replace it. Half-hearted attempts to make work vehicles out of passenger haulers, such as panel-truck versions of the Dodge Caravan and the Chevy HHR, have met with little success.
All of which might help explain why the arrival of the is such a strangely compelling event, even for those of us who don’t own a gourmet catering service, a floral design shop, a hardware store, or a mobile dog grooming business–to name but a few examples of the types of enterprises Ford hopes to entice with this vehicle.
We spent the better part of a day bopping around Manhattan in a Transit Connect, and everywhere we stopped our mini-fleet of five mini-vans elicited comments and questions from passersby. On the Upper West Side, one man approached the orange-shirted Ford guys and admonished them. “This is exactly the type of thing I’ve been waiting for from the American car companies!” Who says New York isn’t a friendly town?
An untraditional layout
The Transit Connect stands out from traditional vans because of its carlike front end, low ride height, and compact dimensions. It’s more than 2 feet shorter than the smallest E-series van and rides on a similarly chopped wheelbase. But thanks to the raised roof, there’s still 135 cubic feet of space behind the front seats. That’s about 100 cubic feet less than a big van but almost twice as much as, say, a Honda Element. Like the Element or the Chevy HHR Panel, the Connect uses a transverse engine driving the front wheels, but unlike them it is built on what Ford says is a unique platform, with a simple leaf spring and solid axle rear suspension, giving the Transit a 1600-pound payload capacity–as much as some light-duty full-size pickups.
One powertrain, for now
There’s also only one powertrain, a 2.0-liter, DOHC four-cylinder paired with a four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy blows the doors off a gas-guzzling full-size van, with EPA ratings of 22 mpg city and 25 highway. Particularly in our test vehicle–which was laden with built-in racks and bins–the engine’s 136 hp and 128 pound-feet of torque did not make for snappy acceleration, but do you really want your delivery drivers racing around town?
Next year, Ford will offer an EV conversion, powered by a lithium-ion batter pack. It promises a 100-mile range, a top speed of 70 mph, and an only slightly diminished payload (1400 lbs), although presumably not all three at once. Recharging will take 6 to 8 hours.
If the Transit Connect‘s nimble size and relative fuel efficiency make it seem modern, its available technology is positively of-the-moment. In an era when employers read workers’ e-mails, monitor their web surfing, and test samples of their bodily fluids, a feature like Ford’s optional Crew Chief ($550) seems perfectly in keeping with the times. Crew Chief enables a budding Montgomery Burns to track the van’s location, its time spent idling, its speed, and hard braking or accelerating.
Another option, called Tool Link ($1220), is slightly less Orwellian. Two antennae in the back of the truck scan for Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags that you stick on your tools. That way, a driver can make sure he hasn’t left any tools at the job site. He can also create a list of tools for a specific job and make sure he has everything with him before heading out.
The most versatile option is the in-dash computer ($1395). It’s controlled via a 6-inch touch screen (and stylus) or a Bluetooth wireless keyboard. (The latter stores in the large overhead shelf when not in use.) Sprint mobile broadband ($50/month for unlimited data) allows for web surfing. Programs include Microsoft Office and a function that allows remote access to your desktop computer. The unit also incorporates a hands-free phone and a Garmin GPS navigation system. A Bluetooth wireless printer is optional.
The high-tech accoutrements are the very impressive icing on the cake. The Transit Connect fills a hole in the marketplace that has been vacant for a shockingly long time. Given the reaction this vehicle has elicited, it could find a much wider audience than the small business people Ford is targeting. The thing just seems so darned useful.
For a long time, we assumed Ford wasn’t interesting in bringing one of its modern, efficient European-market vans here because it would rather sell customers the ancient, and therefore more profitable, E-series van. Of course, that notion assumes no other manufacturer is going to step in with its own smaller, more up-to-date offering. That might have been true of GM and Chrysler, but what about, say, Nissan? Recently, Nissan unveiled the NV200, a smaller sized commercial van that it plans to start building later this year.
Granted, Nissan made its announcement after Ford had already revealed its plans to import the Transit Connect, but it does show that Ford’s action comes not a moment too soon. No subset of the market remains a backwater forever. And if you’re not offering innovative new products to meet customer needs, then someone else will. That’s something that any successful small business owner understands; it’s good to see the leadership of the Ford Motor Company grasp it too.
- Base price (with destination): $21,475/$22,535 (XL/XLT)
- Fuel economy: 22 / 25 mpg (city / hwy)
- Engine: 2.0L DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder
- Horsepower: 136 @ 6300 rpm
- Torque: 128 @ 4750 rpm
- Transmission: 4-speed automatic
- Suspension (f/r): damper struts/solid axle, leaf springs
- Brakes (f/r): Disc/drum, ABS
- Wheels/Tires: 15″ steel wheels, P205/65R15 tires