Func­tion be­fore form for Ford van

Tran­sit Con­nect boasts large cargo ca­pac­ity, small foot­print

Austin American-Statesman - - STATESMAN CARS - By Pete Szi­lagyi

I can’t get into a van like Ford’s new Tran­sit Con­nect with­out think­ing road trip and look­ing for the best place to put a bed and Cole­man stove.

This is nostal­gic, re­call­ing mem­o­rable road trips — in­clud­ing when I learned to re­place axle bear­ings on a 1953 Chevro­let van in the weeds out­side Gallup, N.M.

The Tran­sit Con­nect is un­likely to have such prob­lems since it has been proved over mil­lions of miles world­wide for sev­eral years. Amer­i­can deal­ers first re­ceived the small, front-wheeldrive van in 2009 when Ford started ship­ping them here from a plant in Turkey.

This would ap­pear to be just the right ve­hi­cle for leaner times, and the in­evitabil­ity of higher gaso­line prices makes it all the more ap­peal­ing. Even with the slow econ­omy, I al­ready see plenty of Tran­sit Con­nects in ser­vice as de­liv­ery vans and in use by plumbers and other trades­peo­ple.

How long can it be un­til some Austin en­tre­pre­neur con­verts a Tran­sit Con­nect into a mo­bile res­tau­rant? And it’s a nat­u­ral for our hard-rockin’, three-piece in­die bands.

Tran­sit Con­nects are sold in both cargo and pas­sen­ger it­er­a­tions. In fact, all are shipped to the States in pas­sen­ger trim, and then most are stripped of the back seats, which were only in­stalled to side­step an ar­cane U.S. tar­iff on trucks.

Al­though out­fit­ted with elec­tronic pas­sen­ger safety sys­tems and a wel­come ar­ray of crea­ture com­forts, it’s a pur­pose-built cargo hauler, with a low lift-over for ease in load­ing and more cargo ca­pac­ity than Ford’s largest SUV, the Ex­pe­di­tion EL. Yet the Tran­sit Con­nect’s foot­print is no big­ger than a com­pact cross­over’s, say, the Toy­ota RAV4 or Hyundai Santa Fe.

My op­tioned-up $25,000 Tran­sit Con­nect test model, a pas­sen­ger ver­sion painted jet­liner sil­ver, was equipped with a re­verse sens­ing sys­tem — which beeps if the van is backed close to an­other ob­ject — and an un­con­ven­tional in­dash com­puter and nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem. The base cargo model is $21,500.

The In­ter­net-ready com­puter, a $1,400 op­tion, sup­ports some pro­duc­tiv­ity ap­pli­ca­tions and can be con­nected to a printer. One avail­able pro­gram tracks job-site tools en­coded with ra­dio fre­quency ID chips — and pre­sum­ably ID chipped chil­dren, too.

I ap­proached the Tran­sit Con­nect with the same sus­pi­cion as the new Dodge Sprinter van in 2004. That ve­hi­cle, an­other un­usual for­eign de­sign, looked too tall to re­main up­right in a West Texas wind and un­der­pow­ered, too. The

Con­tin­ued from D Sprinter proved me wrong, and I learned my skep­ti­cism about the Tran­sit Con­nect was un­founded as well.

The Ford van has a two-liter, four-cylin­der en­gine that makes 136 horse­power, not abun­dant for a truck with a 1,600-pound load ca­pac­ity, at least on paper. Per­for­mance was sur­pris­ing, how­ever, and at nor­mal traf­fic speeds, the Tran­sit Con­nect had no dif­fi­culty keep­ing up with the Saabs and BMWs in North Dal­las, where I drove it.

I wasn’t able to load the truck with the kind of weight it might see in com­mer­cial ser­vice, but the en­gine felt will­ing and un­bur­dened by the van’s bulk. The Tran­sit Con­nect’s four-speed au­to­matic was pro­grammed to work smoothly and con­serve fuel. Still, with just four speeds, shifts were fre­quent in traf­fic.

EPA mileage for the Tran­sit Con­nect is a rea­son­able 21 city, 26 high­way, al­though I can pre­dict mileage dip­ping well into the teens in city traf­fic with a load aboard and the air con­di­tioner blast­ing.

For 2011, Ford plans elec­tric and com­pressed nat­u­ral gas pow­ered ver­sions of the Tran­sit Con­nect, as well as units out­fit­ted as taxi­cabs. I think this truck is go­ing to be around for a long time.

Tran­sit Con­nects with pas­sen­ger van in­te­ri­ors of­fer bucket seats up front — de­cent ones — and a three-across rear split bench seat that tum­bles for­ward to in­crease the al­ready vo­lu­mi­nous cargo floor.

Seat cov­ers and car­pets had a faintly in­dus- trial look, and some bulk­heads in the pas­sen­ger area were painted metal. No third-row seat­ing is pro­vided, and sec­ond-row pas­sen­gers don’t have side air bags. Rear doors are huge, and the side doors eas­ily slide open and closed.

Pas­sen­ger units have enor­mous win­dows, which are filled in with metal pan­els on cargo ver­sions. Vis­i­bil­ity when back­ing is a se­ri­ous is­sue with the Tran­sit Con­nect, mak­ing my test model’s $280 rear sens­ing sys­tem a de­sir­able op­tion.

Even in Tran­sit Con­nect pas­sen­ger units, the rear floor is just hard coated metal. With no sound in­su­la­tion, the cabin can be noisy and a bit “boomy” from tire roar and the thump­ing sus­pen­sion. I ex­pected worse, how­ever.

Dash­board and in­stru­ments are quite at­trac­tive for a truck, with the bonus of a deep, wide stor­age shelf above the wind­shield, an easy reach from the driver’s seat.

I’d like to say the han­dling and driv­ing dy­nam­ics of the Tran­sit Con­nect were light and car-like, but re­sponses were slower and more de­lib­er­ate. Still, the ride qual­ity was a pleas­ant sur­prise, and this small­ish van is much eas­ier to drive in traf­fic than any full-size van I’ve tried. It’s a solid high­way cruiser, too.

Now down to busi­ness, out­fit­ting the Tran­sit Con­nect as a road-trip­per: First, we need a thick car­pet in the rear, and cur­tains for the side win­dows, and some kind of in­su­la­tion in the walls, then …

Pete Szi­lagyi

The com­pact front-wheel drive Ford Tran­sit Con­nect han­dles bet­ter than many full-size vans and has more cargo ca­pac­ity than Ford’s largest SUV. It comes in both cargo and pas­sen­ger mod­els.

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