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It’s Time for a Reset to Minimalist Cars, Don’t You Think?

For one, this Ford van is proof cars don’t need a boatload of options.

I'm on a simplicity kick. Call me a minimalist. After my recent time with the basic-spec Toyota Land Cruiser Prado in England, I arrived back into the good ol' U.S.A. and climbed behind the wheel of another less-than-loaded, utility-focused automobile: a Ford Transit Connect. The experience—well, both experiences, really—reminded me basic automobiles provide great enjoyment. In fact, maybe it's time for a massive reset when it comes to our daily transportation needs.

The Ford in question is a 2014, the first year the Spanish-built, second-generation Transit Connect came to the U.S. Under the hood is a Mazda 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 169 horsepower and 171 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic. Ford also offered its 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine, making a bit more power and providing a nice addition of low-end torque. The Transit Connect is not to be confused with the Blue Oval's other van, the full-size Transit. That one's a direct competitor with the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and Ram ProMaster. Ram has its own Transit Connect competitor, the ProMaster City. But I digress.

My time with the Transit Connect was eye-opening despite the fact nothing really stands out about it on the surface. The powertrain is just alright. It's also not a notably quiet vehicle, especially on the freeway. Fuel economy is decent instead of impressive, given the moderate pace. The cabin is nothing special outside of firm but wicked-comfortable cloth seats. All that said, the steering and overall chassis feel is excellent, especially for a commercial-focused utility vehicle.

The Transit Connect drives like a tall Ford Focus around town, making it nimble and fun. There are three rows of seats inside the long-wheelbase version I drove. You can fold down the back two rows as well as the front passenger seat to yield an impressive cargo hold. And there are dual sliding doors. Parking is easy due to good visibility and a small footprint. With winter tires fitted, it's a tractor in the snow. And the workhorse-focused platform means it laughs at rough roads. It feels like you could keep driving the Ford for many, many years to come no matter how its treated. Like I noted about the Land Cruiser Prado, the Transit Connect boasts a wonderful mule-like character.

Carrying on with the theme is a distinct lack of extras, especially on this early XLT-spec model. There's no Bluetooth, satellite radio, automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers, or auto headlights. The seats are adjusted manually and there's a proper handbrake. If you want to adjust the radio, you reach for the actual radio. To open a sliding door, you pull a handle and physically glide the door open and closed. There are no electric releases or power mechanisms to wait for (or to break in the future). This all forces you to take a more involved approach when driving and living with the Transit Connect. I found myself making far fewer phone calls from the road and passed on replying to text messages via voice, waiting to communicate until I reached my destination. And guess what? The world didn't come to an end when I delayed my correspondence. Crazy.

Many automotive journalists—me included—talk about the need to buy old cars to get a pure driving experience. In truth, there are modern options out there if you look around—and if you pass on unneeded extras. The Transit Connect is just one example. Really, it's truly an example. Whether you agree or not, it's time we all step back and think about what we really need in an automobile. The amount of money spent on ever-more-expensive, feature-rich new vehicles used solely for commuting or daily family transport duties is crazy. And don't get me started on the trend for longer and longer auto loans to "afford" those more complicated and pricey models. It's staggering. Sure, the extended-period loans feature lower monthly payments, but they significantly raise the risk of negative equity—owing more than the vehicle is worth.

Maybe we also need to think about the environmental advantages of durable, simple automobiles for daily use. Instead of overdosing on bucket loads of technology and complicated features the marketing department tries to convince buyers they "need" (very much in quotes) and that soon become outdated, companies should produce vehicles that are designed to last for decades.

Build them like a brick shithouse and easy to work on, allowing vehicles to last through many, many owners down the road. Fit a small, torquey engine that's good on fuel and is bulletproof reliable. Make upgrades to the basic technology easy and straightforward, adding a future revenue stream to both the car company and its dealers. Follow Ford's lead when it comes to nimble, responsive handling despite any utilitarian nature. This macro theme could be used on all types of daily-use vehicles—SUVs, sedans, wagons, pickups, etc. If this overall idea were done correctly, there might even be people out there who'd open up their minds a bit and smartly buy such an automobile for their daily needs. I know I would.

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