If there were one undeniable business lesson to be learned from the auto industry during the past decade, it's to keep a close eye on your sales and a closer eye on your capacity. As Ferrari executives have repeatedly said over the years, the supply of any model should always be exactly one less than the demand. Less supply and you're leaving money on the table, more and you've got unused capacity.
This philosophy can be adapted to a wide array of businesses and is especially relevant to small businesses. Many small businesses need to deliver product or services to their customers. For many that operate locally, existing options like the Dodge Sprinter or Ford E-Series vans are simply too large, thirsty and unwieldy for their needs. Enter the Ford Transit Connect. Since being introduced last year in North America, an increasing number of businesses small and large have found the Transit Connect to be just the right size for their needs. We spent a week with a cargo van version to find out what it's like to live with. Follow the jump to read on.
Photos by Sam Abuelsamid / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
The Transit Connect has been a staple of Ford's commercial vehicle fleet in Europe since 2002, but it only joined the U.S. lineup about six months ago. Since that time we've seen more and more of the compact van on the streets. Like the big vans, the Transit Connect has been purpose designed as a commercial vehicle. As a result, its packaging and structure are optimized to accommodate after-market up-fitting with whatever equipment is most appropriate for a given application.
For a caterer this could include sliding racks for trays of food or insulated containers. A plumber or electrician might have tool cabinets and drawers full of parts. Unlike some of the panel versions of minivans that have been available over the years, the roof is taller and the sides flatter and more vertical, which makes fitting all of this aftermarket storage hardware easier and more efficient.
Perhaps the biggest advantage that the Transit Connect has over the larger offerings is the low floor. The big vans are all rear-wheel-drive body-on-frame designs, which means the load floor is well above the ground in order to clear the drivetrain. The front-wheel-drive Transit Connect has a simple beam axle in the back suspended by leaf springs and a cargo floor that is below the average person's knees. For the intended customer, this is a major convenience as users typically won't have to climb in and out to retrieve tools, parts or trays.
Given the primary target market, the Transit Connect's styling – or perhaps lack of styling – shouldn't be a problem. This is a vehicle designed around functional requirements and then wrapped in minimalist sheet metal. Aside from a reshaped lower front fascia that was implemented in time for the U.S. introduction, the rest of the face has remained largely unchanged since the Transit Connect debuted overseas in 2002. Thus, it has the more vertical headlight design that was typical of Euro-Fords of the time including the previous generation European Mondeo sedan.
Overall the Transit Connect has the type of utilitarian form-follows-function design that appeals to buyers of vehicles like the first generation Scion xB and Honda Element. We wouldn't be at all surprised to see a burgeoning "civilian" market for Transit Connects in the coming years. With some extra side windows in the high roof, the TC could well become the 21st century VW micro-bus.
The utility look extends to the interior of the Transit Connect, as Ford has made no effort to have the TC appear upscale. The plastics on the dashboard and door panels are gray and hard with no texturing on any surface that even attempts to look like an animal hide. This is a vehicle designed with the expectation that numerous people will drive it and climb into and out of the cabin multiple times a day. From the look of things, we would expect these plastics to hold up well over time and be easy to clean. The edges are also cleanly finished and all the seams even. Ford also took advantage of the high roof to add a shelf above the windshield header where drivers can store a variety of items as long as they aren't too heavy.
Our tester came to us in the windowless two-seat cargo configuration. The area behind the seats is covered by a simple rubber floor mat and the walls are bare metal aside from the radio frequency ID (RFID) readers. Those RFID readers are part of the installed Work Solutions package that Ford introduced two years ago on its full-size pickups and vans. The package includes an in-dash computer with a touch screen, bluetooth and integrated 3G wireless connectivity. A wireless bluetooth keyboard is also tucked into the back pocket of the passenger seat and users can also connect a bluetooth printer for generating invoices or estimates while out in the field.
A Tool Link application allows operators to stick RFID tags on their equipment and tools and then scan them all into the computer. It then creates tool lists and job lists, which can be linked together. Pressing the scan tools function triggers the system to check that all the necessary tools for a job are in the vehicle before leaving the shop as well as ensuring that nothing gets left behind at a job site. Unfortunately, Ford didn't include any extra tags that we could attach to our cameras and computers to try out the system.
The computer itself is a bit slow to boot up and the recessed screen can make it difficult to hit some of the smaller interface buttons near the edge. However, the overall functionality of the system seems like it could be well worth the price for those who are filling the van with small tools and easily lost equipment.
For now Ford only offers one powertrain option in the Transit Connect: a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder mated to a four-speed automatic transmission that generates 136 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. With the short 4.20: 1 final drive ratio, the 3,470-pound van had more than adequate acceleration off the line and no problem getting up to freeway speeds. We can't attest to how it feels with a full 1,600-pound payload on board, but given the mission of this vehicle, it should be sufficient.
We only drove the Transit Connect unloaded, so the center of gravity is considerably lower than it would likely be if fully loaded. With that in mind the van handles surprisingly well. This is obviously not a sports car, but the steering was nicely weighted and the van understeers resolutely when pushed to its limits. Devoid of cargo, body roll is kept to a minimum, and anyone actually carrying a load is unlikely to push very hard anyway. The leaf sprung rear beam axle generates a ride that is taut but not terribly uncomfortable or bouncy thanks to well tuned dampers. Mid-corner bumps also didn't upset the back end the way we've seen in pickup trucks in the past.
The Transit Connect is marketed primarily as a cargo van, but its also available with a second row bench providing seating for five and later this year will be offered with a taxi package. While no one will mistake it for the plush ride of a Lincoln Town Car or the more refined ride of passenger vans like the Honda Odyssey, the Transit Connect is neither spine pounding or nauseating.
A little known fact about the Transit Connect is that all of the vans are built in Europe and shipped to the U.S. with windows in their sliding doors and a second row bench seat already installed, which allows Ford to bypass the 1960s-era Chicken Tax on imported light trucks. Once they reach American shores, the sliding doors on most of the vans are replaced with window-less doors and the bench seats are removed to make them cargo vans. The removed parts are recycled, but this somewhat wasteful process may rub environmentally conscious buyers the wrong way.
The tall windshield and cut down glass below the side mirrors creates excellent visibility to the front and sides. Cargo vans, however, have no glass behind their front doors, which means there is no windshield-mounted rearview mirror and visibility when backing up is nil. But the Transit Connect's comparatively small footprint makes is much easier to maneuver in city traffic than a full-size van. Nevertheless, Ford should make a rear-view camera system standard on these panel vans as a safety feature.
Ford likes to promote the Transit Connect as being versatile enough for just about any conceivable application. With the appropriate racks or desks in the back, it could be anything from a plumbers van to a mobile webcast studio outfitted with a Tricaster, cameras and 3G broadband interface. The real beauty of the Transit Connect is that for many it will be just enough vehicle to provide better capacity utilization than a full-size van while offering much lower operating costs. We saw 22 mpg in a week of driving, which is probably double what most E-Series cargo vans get in the real world. Our thoroughly outfitted example also priced out at $26,500 even with the Work Solutions package, which is about $1,500 less than the starting point of a 2010 E-series.
There really is nothing else quite like the Transit Connect available in the U.S. market until Nissan brings over its NV200 and Fiat launches the Doblo, which means Ford has a monopoly on this form factor for the time being. Later this year Ford will also launch a battery electric version of the Transit Connect, which may well prove to be an ideal match for customers who operate within a limited range of their home base and give Ford even more of a lead in the right-sized van segment. Based on our experience with the Transit Connect, we can definitely understand why we're seeing more and more of them on the street.
Photos by Sam Abuelsamid / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.