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First Drive: 2010 Ford Transit Connect [Review]

In the midst of a thorough product shake-up led by chief executive officer Alan Mulally, Ford looked to Europe for a "right size" hauler to fulfill what it believes is an untapped segment of the North American market. Unlike the automaker formerly known as DaimlerChrysler, which rebadged a big Mercedes-Benz-built commercial van to make the Sprinter, Ford picked the Transit Connect, the smaller of its two European offerings to complement the robust, evergreen E-Series in its domestic commercial lineup.

Let's be frank: The commercial van industry doesn't exactly inspire much interest or passion - other than a few extended middle fingers and taps of the horn aimed at lumbering fleet drivers. Yet for millions of Americans, the Chevy Express, GMC Savanna, Dodge Sprinter and Ford E-Series are trusty tools of the trade that put up with a lot and ask for little in return.

A different beast all together, the Transit Connect slots below the Sprinter-like Transit in Europe - thus the rather verbose nomenclature. Famous on tight European streets for its ability to block an entire rue, strasse or corso, the Transit is perhaps best known to Americans for Sabine Schmitz's 10 minute Nürburgring hustle. The Connect is its front-wheel-drive, car-based little brother used typically for lighter-duty courier and delivery service. This is a segment of the industry that has included everything from Fiat Pandas and Citroen 2CVs with tacked-on boxes in Europe but is almost unheard of in North America.

The only modern equivalent on this side of the pond is the Chevrolet HHR panel van, a rather useless hauler that makes more sense as a rolling billboard than anything else thanks to its miniscule 62.7 cubic foot cargo area. Further illustrating their knack for brilliant product planning, up until the end of the 2009 model year, the bow-tie boys built a 260 horsepower turbocharged and direct-injected HHR SS panel van apparently aimed at sadistic fleet operators.

Sibling rivalry
With no direct competitors here, Ford anticipates losing some E-Series sales to the Transit Connect. Compared to the 1992-vintage E-Series, the Transit Connect that was introduced to Europe in 2001 is state-of-the art.

Sized about like a Volkswagen Jetta with a really tall forehead (a fivehead?), the Transit Connect's styling is clearly derivative of Ford's European operations circa 2000. Displaying little of the swoopy pizazz of the Fiesta or Mondeo, the Transit Connect is nonetheless pretty ritzy by commercial vehicle standards. At 180.7 inches long, it's a whole 56 inches shorter than the gargantuan E-Series.

Inside, you'll also find a Ford of Europe parts bin affair that even extends as far as the Jaguar-like key (see photo gallery). Comfortable and firm captain's chairs are easy to slide into but won't sit you up nearly as high as you'll find in the E-Series, but at least the passenger has plenty of leg room - a sore point in the big van. The five-passenger variant, called Wagon in Ford-speak, has a 40/60 split-fold rear seat and reasonable leg room, but it's claustrophobic as there are no windows aft of the C-pillars. Most Transit Connects will be ordered as cargo vans with no rear seats and blocked-out side and rear windows, anyway, but Ford skirts a tax law by importing the people hauler.

Minivan-like Dual sliding side doors and rear panel-wagon doors that, optionally, open 180 degrees combine with a low cargo hold to offer excellent accessibility with no compromises.

Ford's Work Solutions system, introduced in the F-Series pickups for 2009, makes an appearance. Albeit pricey, the system would supplement a basic cell phone to allow users to share documents with the home base and surf the Web. An optional wireless printer seems a natural choice for printing off receipts and estimates. The system can be further upgraded the Crew Chief status, which allows fleet operators to track vehicles from a home office or from a truck itself. And then there's a tool tracking system that uses RF ID tags to keep track of tools to alert the driver if he's left something at a job site.

On the road
Two trim levels and two models are offered, though Ford expects the vast majority of sales to mirror our XLT two-seater cargo van test vehicle. Base XL and five-seater passenger van configurations are also available.

All come with a Focus-sourced 2.0-liter Duratec engine mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Not exactly the height of technology, the motor puts out a middling 136 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 128 lb-ft. of torque at 4,750 rpm. The powertrain gives a decent 22 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway using regular grade fuel, a vast improvement over the guzzling E-Series.

With front-wheel-drive and unibody construction, the Transit Connect offers a combination that hasn't traditionally gained favor among commercial users. Its stout MacPherson strut front/solid rear axle suspension does help it deliver impressive 1,600 lbs. payload capacity that should be ample for most users. The cargo area is tall enough to accommodate aftermarket commercial shelving and it's wide and long enough to fit plywood.

Where the E-Series is ponderous and ungainly - not surprising given its rather vintage underpinnings - the Transit Connect rides firmly and compliantly and offers almost sporty handling. The direct, well-weighted steering comes courtesy of Ford's European engineering office since this platform is vaguely related to the C170 architecture that underpins the current U.S.-spec Focus.

Its light weight and compact packaging makes it immensely more maneuverable, which should instill confidence in inexperienced fleet drivers. Ford says that fleet operators complain about the intimidating mass and sloppy handling of full-size vans.

A league of its own
With no real competition to speak of other than big body-on-frame cargo vans, the Transit Connect is a wholly unique vehicle. We spent the better part of a hot July day visiting a trio of businesses in Dallas' design district, each of which operates a fleet of underutilized big vans. All three establishments - an upscale florist, a nationally-recognized cake maker and a large-scale holiday decorator - agreed that the Transit Connect would fulfill a role in their fleets. They raved about the drivability, the fuel economy, Ford Work Solutions and the low initial purchase price.

Leftlane's bottom line
While those companies we visited were hand-selected by Ford to participate in a media drive, we're not surprised with their positive reactions - which seemed genuine. But Ford simply cannot loan a Transit Connect to every business owner in North America to show off the new hauler. The automaker's biggest challenge will be to convince buyers to step out of their trusty big vans and into a much cheaper and more efficient little European delivery shuttle. That won't be an easy task, but it will certainly pay off for those who make the jump.

2010 Ford Transit Connect XL Cargo base price, $20,780.
2010 Ford Transit Connect XLT Cargo base price, $21,840.
2010 Ford Transit Connect XL Wagon base price, $21,135.
2010 Ford Transit Connect XLT Wagon base price, $22,350.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.