First Drive: 2010 Ford Transit Connect

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 Ford Transit Connect 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.

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