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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Mike Hanley
April 16, 2010
It's not every day we review a commercial van, but Ford's new Transit Connect is too intriguing to pass up. Originating from Ford's European operations, it's designed to fill a niche in the U.S. by providing businesses with a less expensive, more fuel-efficient alternative to the full-size vans that have been sold here for years. While the Transit Connect is also available with a second-row bench seat for passengers, this van seems destined to appeal to contractors and florists much more than families.
Even though I have no business renovating a kitchen or arranging a bouquet of roses, I think people with equipment, materials or merchandise to transport will like what the Transit Connect has to offer. The van has responsive steering, decent power, comfortable bucket seats and great forward visibility. Apart from the cargo hold behind the seats, the driving experience is very car-like, which isn't the norm among commercially oriented vans. A Circus Escapee? The Transit Connect has a bit of a dorky vibe to it. When you first see it, you almost expect a few clowns and a circus monkey to jump out one of the sliding side doors and throw a pie in your face.
What makes it so goofy-looking? The Transit Connect's proportions are similar to the larger, more expensive Dodge/Mercedes Sprinter, but the tall-and-narrow look seems even more pronounced on this van. The Transit Connect is nearly 71 inches wide — about the same as a Ford Fusion midsize sedan — but it's 79 inches tall, or about 2 feet taller than a Fusion. The Transit Connect is nearly as tall as a Ford E-Series full-size van but about 8 inches narrower.
The design is a win for maneuverability, and the van's height enhances interior cargo room — which totals 135.3 cubic feet behind the front seats — without preventing the van from entering normal-height parking garages. Plus, with the Transit Connect's tall roof you'll never have to worry about not remembering where you've parked — you can see it from across a full parking lot. An Easy-to-Drive Van, Just Don't Back it Up I wasn't sure what to expect when I got behind the wheel of the Transit Connect, but I was happy with how easy it was to drive.
The last time I spent any significant time driving cargo vans was years ago when I worked a summer job making deliveries for a bakery, whose small fleet consisted of a GMC Safari and a Savana. In addition to the aroma of fresh Italian and sourdough bread wafting around the cabins of those vans, both had a distinctly truck-like quality to them. In comparison, everything about the Transit Connect's driving experience resembles that of a car.
One of the biggest contributing factors to the van's car-like driving experience is its steering response. The Transit Connect is surprisingly nimble, and it reacts quickly to steering-wheel corrections.
The van's drivetrain has a small-car feel to it, too. Power comes from a 136-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine that drives the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission, and the van gets an EPA-estimated 22/25 mpg city/highway. I can't speak to the van's performance with a full load of cargo, as I didn't have anything particularly heavy to move, but when it's empty, the engine offers quick-enough acceleration in the city. Passing power was much more modest at highway speeds.
Though it can get a little loud in the cabin — thanks to exhaust sounds that seem to drift forward from the cargo area along with tire noise and wind roar — the Transit Connect isn't taxed trying to keep up with fast-moving highway traffic. If you need to pass someone on the highway, though, you mostly get more engine noise as the transmission kicks down — raising engine rpm — and only a slow increase in speed. The four-speed automatic transmission seems well-matched to the engine, and it's fairly responsive when you need a lower gear. Commercial versions of the Transit Connect are rated to carry up to 1,600 pounds, but that much weight will take a heavy toll on the van's acceleration — as will any hills.
In addition to being easy to drive, the Transit Connect is easy to get into thanks to its car-like ride height. That low ride height is also a boon for loading cargo, because it means the cargo floor is close to the ground.
The Transit Connect has great forward visibility. The windshield is absolutely huge, and the hood drops completely away, so the only thing you're left with is an expansive view of what's in front of you. Large side windows in front and very upright A-pillars also help visibility.
The standard cloth-upholstered bucket seats are supportive, comfortable and have manual adjustments, including a height adjustment for the driver. Its chair-like driving position — your lower legs are more vertical than horizontal — is suitable for longer stretches behind the wheel, but I had the driver's seat back as far as it would go, and I'm just slightly over 6 feet tall. I would have preferred a little more seat travel, so I can see how especially tall drivers might feel a little cramped, legroom-wise.
Unfortunately, rear visibility in our panel van is as bad as the forward visibility is good. In fact, it's nonexistent; panel vans don't have any glass behind the front doors. The situation is better in versions of the van that have windows both in the rear and in the sliding side doors.
If you're accustomed to driving a panel van, the lack of rear visibility probably isn't a big deal for you. For someone like me, who had rear windows in the delivery vans of his youth, it was a significant departure, and likely would be for any first-timers. You really have to use — and trust — your side mirrors when driving this thing. Fortunately, Ford offers rear parking sensors to help when backing up, but they're a $280 option that's available only on XLT trim levels. A backup camera would be a godsend in panel versions, but one isn't offered. Business-Oriented Technology The Transit Connect is available with Ford Work Solutions, which offers commercial users high-tech features that make life on the job easier. The $1,395 in-dash touch-screen computer runs Windows CE and can be configured to access an office computer and the internet, send and display text messages, and provide directions courtesy of an integrated Garmin navigation system. The system includes basic productivity software for word processing and working with spreadsheets, among other things, and can be paired with a wireless keyboard and printer.
A $1,220 Tool Link feature builds on the capability of the onboard computer by adding tracking technology for tools. The system uses radio frequency identification to make sure tagged tools are secured in the van and not left behind at a job site.
Finally, the $550 Crew Chief option helps manage a fleet of Transit Connects by making vehicle diagnostic information available on the internet and giving businesses the ability to track things including vehicle location and idle time to make sure drivers aren't cooling their heels while on the clock. Safety Standard safety features include antilock brakes and side-impact airbags for the front seats. An electronic stability system with Ford's Roll Stability Control technology is optional.
For a full list of safety features, check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page. Transit Connect in the Market Though the Transit Connect is new to our shores, it's just one of a number of small vans that are as common in Europe as traditional Chevrolet and Ford full-size vans are here. The smaller size of these vans is better for the tighter quarters found in many European cities and towns, and also reflects the emphasis on fuel efficiency that's been driven by high gas prices.
Does the Transit Connect have a chance in the U.S.? I think it does, especially against the Dodge Grand Caravan cargo van. Businesses that have gravitated to that model will find the Transit Connect a more than suitable replacement, and even companies that have used full-size vans might be able to adapt to this Ford if they don't need all the cargo space a full-size van offers. The Transit Connect's available technology and greater fuel efficiency — something that can't be overlooked when fielding a large fleet — will surely appeal.