Down on the showroom floor, the guys talk about the “Needs-Payoff:” trying to turn a customer’s perceived need into a coveted sale. This marketing concept finds its Ford translation in the highly anticipated solution, the Transit Connect. The Blue Oval Boyz see gold in them there panel vans—assuming gas prices go north of the three dollar mark as their number crunchers and street-walking doom preachers predict. Gas prices be damned; the Transit Connect screams success for many self-made citizens, provided they don’t carry more than 1600 lb or tow anything to bring home the bacon.
Aside from the droopy-lip front bumper, Ford’s cargo van (in XL trim) succeeds where the first Dodge Caravan “CV” failed: it’s elegantly utilitarian, not frumpy and cheap. The wicked fast A-pillar climbs above the door frames for a quirky dash of style, much to the wannabe-SUV Scion xB’s disappointment. In fact, I reckon the Transit does the vanning thing like the VW Microbus. Plus, I felt so cheeky and European just standing next to it.
But automotive Mennonites rejoice, because there’s no mistaking a Transit Connect for a CUV. Hard but rich-grained plastics surround your fingers, there’s painted sheetmetal elsewhere. Ford threw in some retro masonite paneling on the rear doors for that unfinished art studio feel. Combined with the cargo’s rubber floor, RV-worthy overhead storage, perky seat fabrics and surprisingly high quality buttons and vent registers, the Transit Connect appeals to more than the ordinary work truck buyer.
Not all is perfect: the center console with floor shifter is a waste of space, especially since it lacks an armrest for the passenger seat. But (optional) features like Ford’s laptop Work Solutions system makes sitting on the Transit Connect’s modest yet accommodating bucket seats better than a day spent in your average cubicle. And it’s reasonably fun to drive, much like today’s taller, fatter Ford Focus. No surprise then, the Transit Connect handles like a hot hatchback that’s taken an Octomom-like fancy for in-vitro fertilization.
Unlike any other van, the Transit Connect corners flat in most situations, with stunning lateral grip and less push than expected from a nose heavy beast: I clipped a freeway underpass at twice the speed of our Ford Econoline tester, realizing the Transit Connect had plenty more.
And just like the Focus, there’s a 2.0L Duratec I-4 and a four-speed slushbox under the hood. The gutsy and thrash-free four cylinder made for effortless merging on a Texas highway filled with larger hauling machines. An unladen Transit Connect moves at a decent clip, but the intimidation level rises considerably when reaching the van’s cargo limit: a small-bore motor takes time to build steam when a wide ratio gearbox keeps the revs down and out for the count. Europeans will find it immediately familiar, Americans will find it slightly annoying.
So keep a loaded Transit Connect in the city and enjoy the ergonomics: the (optional) rear doors swing out 255° with the push of a button, and the mid section’s sliding doors open effortlessly, sans motorized assists. All 135 cubic feet of cargo space is easy to reach, and users shorter than six feet tall can walk inside without folding in half. If there’s enough space for a service tech and his storage shelving system back there, every other work vehicle is screwed. Sell your camper shell futures now!
But nobody’s perfect: like every other portal on the Transit Connect, opening the hood requires the ignition key. Which means you have to turn off the van to get under the bonnet. And the hood’s latch/lock combo resides under the grille’s Ford Oval. Missed that in the owner’s manual? Fear not: the instructions are under the grille’s logo, where your less-than-attentive employees cannot find it. Unless the logo is misaligned like our tester, refusing to latch shut. Hey, Europe, what’s so bad about an in-cabin hood release?
And the ignition key that opens everything is still in trouble. Lose it back beyond the radiator after opening the hood and Ford charges $200 for a replacement key, which you cannot buy anywhere but a FoMoCo dealer since it isn’t shared with another US-bound Ford product. Uh-oh.
While the Transit Connect is influenced from the USA Ford parts bin, the lessons learned from the Dodge Sprinter are obvious: component cost, availability and downtime from poor dealer training/servicing can kill Dearborn’s latest, brightest idea. Eventually.
If so, a comparable Econoline is only two grand more, and it’ll keep food on your plate if Ford turns this (showroom) hero into a (service department) zero. But let’s hope this gas-sipping global sensation gets the C-level Executive love it truly deserves, and, unlike the Ford Contour/Mondeo, meets its potential in the USA. If not, chalk up this idea with the rest of Ford’s famous American nameplates that bit the dust from corporate greed and product neglect. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.