Ford Transit Connect — A new way to work

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

 When it hit the U.S. market two years ago as a 2010 model, the Ford Transit Connect had an instant audience. It was sure to be an overnight success. And for the most part it has filled the needs of thousands of people.
The rather strange looking van with its sliding minivan doors and high-roof cargo bay is a compact work truck that offers small business owners — or bigger businesses that don’t need large vans — a fuel-efficient, spacious alternative to the gas-guzzling standard-sized van that in many cases is more than the flower shop, pet store or appliance repair business needs.
The Transit has a myriad of applications. For instance, outfitted with two rows of seats, it can transport five passengers — and cargo. It could even double as a business and family vehicle for the at-home entrepreneur.
We can also see it appealing to road warriors who would find the Transit spacious, fuel efficient and cost effective when compared to a big sport utility or to pulling a small travel trailer. 
And soon the Transit can be purchased as a full-electric vehicle. That’s another rather brilliant idea — giving those same businesses, the ones that travel less than 100 miles a day, the opportunity to drive gas-free. Just plug it up overnight and start with a full tank in the morning. In addition to the EV the standard engine can be converted for use with compressed natural gas (CNG) or with liquefied propane gas (LPG).
The Transit is not a new idea. Ford has been building the van in Kocaeli, Turkey, since 2003 and since that time has sold over 600,000 copies in 58 countries. It’s built on a truck-tough version of the European Focus platform and utilizes a transverse powertrain to drive the front wheels. 
So just how successful has this little working minivan been in the U.S.? More than 27,000 were sold in 2010 and through the first seven months of 2011, 17,762 were sold, on pace for more than 30,000 in 2011. As a small work truck it hits the spot, so much so that it won North American Truck of the Year honors in 2010. 
If you aren’t bothered by the quirky design you may be thinking the Transit would make an ideal inexpensive family vehicle. But before you get too carried away over purchasing the little Ford as family transportation, we must point out that it is rather primitive when compared to the modern small crossover or hatchback.
The small 4-cylinder engine is weak, the interior is loaded with hard gray plastic, rear-seat legroom is scant, and rearward visibility is non-existent in the full-panel version. It’s acceptable at best even with side and rear windows; the saving grace here is the van can be purchased with a rearview camera to make backing-up much less of a chore.
But the little truck is fuel efficient compared to bigger vans, it’s extremely maneuverable in tight parking lot and loading dock situations with a short 39-foot turning radius, it handles well on the road.
Transit Connect has a large cargo area for such a small vehicle, and it can be outfitted with a variety of features including racks, shelves and bins that can make life easier for the small business owner. Several specialty aftermarket companies have created interiors for caterers and bakeries with specific need items for high efficiency loading and unloading; all quite ingenious.
The Transit comes with just one engine choice, a 2-liter 4-cylinder making 136 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. On paper the Transit is good gosh slow, capable of 0-to-60 in around 12 seconds. That was acceptable for a family vehicle 25 years ago, but anything much beyond 10 seconds is considered a snail’s pace by today's standards. 
The Transit feels just fine on the road with no drama that we could dredge up from hundreds of miles of driving in virtually every situation from city stop and starts to 70-mph-interstate speedways. Put the foot down, and the Transit follows orders, even as the little four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic are tasked with some overtime work pulling the 3,400-pound vehicle.
And it’s rated at a frugal 22 mpg city and 27 mpg highway using regular gas. It may not sound like a lot but for a small business work truck it’s a winner.
The Transit exhibited good on-center feel and handled our usual twisting back-road route in exemplary fashion, thanks in part to the truck’s weighted low center of gravity. The cloth-covered front seats are comfortable even for big bodies. And the door arm rests were large and at the correct height — a very important feature too many times overlooked. The switchgear is simple and easy to use and the gauges proved easy to read. 
Here’s the really good part — the Transit can carry up to 1,600 pounds and can haul as much as 135 cubic feet of cargo loaded through swing-open rear doors and the sliding side doors. That’s more hauling capacity than a full-sized SUV and only a few cubic feet short of today’s large minivans. If for some reason you need the second row seats, the van will still accommodate 78 cubic feet of cargo behind the seats.
Loading is made easy with a low step-in height, and odd-sized cargo can be packed into a space that measures five feet high, six feet long and four feet wide.
The Transit Connect comes in four trim levels — Cargo Van XL, Cargo Van XLT, Wagon XLT and Wagon XLT Premium — starting at $22,505 including destination charge and working up to the top trim at $24,380.
The primary difference between the van and wagon is the inclusion of the second-row seats in the wagon. It is on the wagon that Transit Connect’s beefed-up taxi version is being built; a business that could add as much as 20-percent to its current volume.
We took plenty of ribbing when we drove the taxi prototype and we got plenty of nasty looks as we rolled by some folks looking to hail a cab. That taxi prototype, however, has gotten the attention of taxi fleet operators across the county.
Transit Connect Taxis are now working the streets of New York City. While now few in number the total order is for 400 for the first year. Hundreds more are now in operation in Boston, Las Vegas, Tampa, Hartford and other cities with total expected first year volume approaching 1,000 units.
This week 10 CNG powered Transit Connect Taxis began service in the Los Angeles area. It is part of a 50 unit order from California Yellow Cab of Orange County. In addition Yellow Cab of Anaheim ordered 69 units bringing the total to more than 100 CNG Transit Connect Taxis servicing Southern California.
The estimated fuel economy of a CNG-powered Transit Connect Taxi is the same as the standard gasoline version. However, operating costs are lower because the cost of a gasoline gallon equivalent of CNG is roughly half the cost of a gallon of regular gasoline.
“Taxicab operators will save up to $2 per gallon over gasoline at the pump,” said Mitchell Pratt, chief operating officer, Clean Energy.  “Because the vehicles’ tailpipe emissions are near zero, Ford’s CNG Transit Connect qualifies to drive in California’s carpool lanes and, compared to petroleum versions, will reduce greenhouse gases by almost 30 percent.”
The Transit Connect Taxi is certified to Ford Light Commercial Vehicle Durability Standards while suspension components and the underbody structure have passed requirements for potholes and curbs as set down by local governments where the vehicles are in use.
The open architecture of the Transit Connect Taxi provides excellent interior headroom and passenger visibility, and – with 6.5 inches of ground clearance – passenger step in through the sliding doors appears effortless. The rear door opening is 50.2 inches wide at the floor and has a height of 52.1 inches.
The basic van comes with tilt and telescoping steering wheel, air conditioning, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, two-speaker radio, and a full range of safety including antilock brakes, front airbags, and stability and traction control. A Power Group package adds full power accessories, rear window defroster, heated mirrors and a CD player.
Some neat options for the business owner include Ford Work Solutions Crew Chief Telematics that features an onboard telematics device that tracks vehicle location, mpg, idle time and vehicle diagnostics and maintenance reports; and Ford Work Solutions in dash computer that includes a 6.5-inch touch screen, a four gig computer with Internet functionality, a wireless keyboard and wireless mouse, and a Garmin navigation system.
Our XLT Premium test van outfitted with a backup camera stickered for $24,710.
Ford has uncovered a market for the small work van in the U.S., and we think the Transit’s popularity will continue to grow as small businesses discover the truck.
Base price: $22,505; as driven, $24,710
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 136 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 128 pound-feet @ 4,500 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 114.6 inches
Length: 180.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,400 pounds
Turning circle: 39 feet
Cargo capacity: 135.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.4 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 27 mpg highway, 22 mpg city
0-60: 12 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: No direct competitors - yet
The Good:
• Large cargo area
• Highly maneuverable in tight situations
• Good mileage
• Variety of propulsion systems
The Bad:
• Gray hard plastics dominate interior
The Ugly:
• Turtle-like acceleration