2011 Ford Transit Connect XLT - Click above for high-res image gallery
You are no doubt familiar with the Transit Connect, the panel van that Ford began importing from Europe in mid-2009. You've probably noticed them in your neighborhood with things like custom cakes, cable companies, cat groomers and cleaning services advertised on their flat, windowless sides. You'll be seeing even more of them soon as the Transit Connect Taxi begins replacing the Crown Victoria in taxi fleets across the country.
Transit Connects are everywhere now. It turns out business owners were tired of only being offered a full-size truck or van for their commercial fleet needs, because in many cases a small, fuel efficient panel van can do the same job far better and more cheaply.
And sure, automakers have tried selling windowless commercial versions of their passenger vehicles before, but how many Chevrolet HHR Panel vans have you seen in your neighborhood? The Transit Connect has done a better job appealing to businesses because the precious cargo that it's purpose-built to carry are tools, supplies and maybe a six-tier buttercream-frosted red velvet wedding cake... not kids.
So what happens when Ford takes its popular new commercial van and creates a version for moving people? The result is called the Transit Connect XLT Premium Wagon, and it is not at all what we expected.
What did we expect? Looking at pictures of the Transit Connect XLT gave us the impression of a mini-minivan like the Mazda5 or even Ford's upcoming Grand C-Max. It's certainly taller than those, but still looks more compact than a traditional minivan like the Toyota Sienna or Dodge Grand Caravan. The numbers don't lie: Compared to a Grand Caravan, the Transit Connect is almost 22 inches shorter and exactly eight inches narrower, though it is an astonishing 10.4 inches taller.
That's why finally seeing the Transit Connect XLT in person created a very different impression than what we got from pictures. It is tall, like Kareem Abdul-Jabar tall. Actually, it's only six-foot, six-inches (79.3 inches), so it's more like Kobe Bryant, but that still shadows a Cadillac Escalade by 3.4 inches, and it's one inch taller than a Ram 3500 4x4 Crew Cab and just one-tenth of an inch shorter than Ford's own full-size commercial van, the E-150 Econoline. And those vehicles are tall partly because they have more ground clearance. The Transit Connect XLT sits as close to the ground as a Focus.
Height is definitely the Transit Connect XLT's defining feature. On the one hand, the van – sorry, wagon (Ford calls the Transit Connect a "van" when it's used for commercial purposes and a "wagon" when ordered in XLT trim) – looks comically out of proportion, but on the other, it's impossible to forget where you parked at the mall. Just look for the red roof sticking up above every SUV and minivan. Works every time. The fact is, Ford figured out that to get the maximum amount of cargo room in the smallest footprint possible, the only way to go was up.
The Transit Connect XLT does look descent without its coveralls and steel-toed boots. Our tester wore an exceptionally rich coat of Torch Red paint and added such off-duty accessories as fog lights, plastic covers for its 15-inch steel wheels and four very large side windows, the latter because getting a clear view outside is only optional when manning a Seawolf class attack submarine. For passenger vehicles, it's a must no matter where you're sitting.
Though clean and simple, the Transit Connect's design does look somewhat dated thanks to its front end, which looks similar to Ford's first-generation Fusion mid-size sedan. It's a styling language that started in Europe, migrated to the U.S. and has already evolved into something else. Hopefully the Transit Connect's popularity in its home market of Europe will result in a refresh of its exterior relatively soon.
The inside, however, is where everything falls apart for this people-moving version of Ford's compact commercial van. If you were thinking the Transit Connect XLT's cavernous interior would be stuffed with a dozen cup holders, an available rear-seat entertainment system, stowable seats and any of the other modern conveniences that minivan owners take for granted, think again. The Transit Connect XLT has a grand total of three cup holders, entertainment tops out with an auxiliary port for iPods and the rear seats (there is no third row) mechanically folds forward against the front thrones to give you even more cargo room for anything but people.
Let's start up front, where the driver and front passenger sit low to the ground on thin seats with inadequate cushioning. The fact they're upholstered in a playfully monochromatic giraffe hide pattern doesn't help, even if it does elicit chuckles. The driver's armrest is a luxury that the front passenger will quickly covet, and both will probably be annoyed at the Euro-placement of the power window switches on the center tunnel instead of the doors. The material used for the dash and doors is hard, cheap-feeling textured plastic that sounds hollow when tapped with a finger, and wind noise enters the cabin like it owns the place. None of these things would bother a business owner buying a fleet of Transit Connects, but non-commercial customers will miss optional niceties like power adjustable seats, leather seating surfaces and those little touches of luxury that remind you you're not someone else's employee. Certain commercial options are still available on the XLT model, like Ford's Work Solutions in-dash computer, but they hardly make sense in a consumer application.
The TC XLT does surprise, however, with an optional Reverse Sensing system and rear view camera. Its small screen is mounted in the rear-view mirror, which is just as well because the vertically split rear doors make seeing what's behind you impossible. Those doors do, however, open an impressive 255 degrees. Combine that with the completely flat load floor and sub-two-foot loading height, and the ease with which the XLT can be stuffed with stuff becomes one of its most compelling features. We were also fond of the unusually deep parcel shelf that sits above the driver and front passenger, which is a great place to put purses and other small items you don't want rattling around the interior.
Manually open either of the two sliding doors (there's no option for power sliders) and you'll find the most perplexing thing about the Transit Connect XLT. Despite the incredible amount of interior volume, there is no third row of seating, just a second row that sits slightly elevated behind the driver and front passenger. A third row isn't even optional, so the Transit Connect XLT is a strict five-seater with a giant 78.4 cubic-foot cargo area. Oddly, despite all that empty space behind the second row of seats, leg room is incredibly tight and the seats don't slide. What the chairs can do is fold forward against the front seatbacks, creating a downright silly 118.7 cubic-feet of cargo area. With nearly 60 inches of interior height and a payload capacity of 1,600 pounds, these specs make it easy to understand why the Transit Connect is so popular with small business owners.
Another part of the Transit Connect's allure is how easy it is to drive thanks to its compact size. It's a simple steer compared to a full-size commercial van or truck, but we wouldn't describe the experience as charming. Unless you order your Transit Connect XLT from the factory prepped for compressed natural gas or liquid propane gas conversion, the only available engine is a good old fashioned 2.0-liter four-cylinder producing 136 horsepower at 6,300 RPM and 128 pound-feet of torque at 4,750 RPM – hardly stellar numbers that move the 3,470-pound wagon to the tune of 21 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg highway. That's great efficiency for a commercial vehicle considering your other options, but unremarkable among passenger vehicles where larger, more powerful options often top 30 mpg on the highway. And the Transit Connect's 2.0-liter is anything but smooth, with its raspy voice only rising in volume with each shift of the four-speed automatic transmission.
Like the engine, the suspension and steering also feel out of place when pressed into passenger vehicle duty. The front independent MacPherson strut suspension and rear multileaf spring setup, both with stabilizer bars, feel unsettled without hundreds of pounds of cargo on their backs. We imagine the suspension would be more buttoned-down when burdened with weight, but unladen it feels like its walking around on tip-toes. The light-to-the-touch and uncommunicative steering makes matters worse, requiring corrections that only accentuate the vehicle's height and proclivity to body roll. The brakes, as well, with discs up front and drums in the rear, feel as if they're expecting more weight to arrest than what's actually there. All that said, the Transit Connect XLT is genuinely easy to drive, especially in tighter spaces like parking garages and congested urban environments.
So it turns out that the Transit Connect XLT is as bad at being a passenger vehicle as most passenger vehicles are at being commercial vehicles. It was named the 2010 North American Truck of the Year, but would easily earn last place in a comparison test with any modern day people mover. So why then has Ford chosen to sell this consumer application of its commercial van? Because it can. Easily.
The explanation starts in Turkey where the Transit Connect is built. Because it's foreign-made, the TC is subject to what's known as the Chicken Tax, a tariff of 25 percent on light trucks imported into the U.S. established in 1963. Though meant to protect domestic automakers from foreign light truck competition, which it's done exceptionally well for coming up on 50 years, the tax sometimes has the unintended consequence of hampering our domestic automakers.
In the case of Ford, each Transit Connect shipped to the U.S. arrives with a full set of windows and a second row of seats, thereby earning it the classification of passenger vehicle and exemption from the Chicken Tax. Then, in a brick warehouse somewhere in Baltimore, these Transit Connects have their rear seats removed and their windows replaced with steel panels to earn their new classification as commercial light trucks. All of the seats, steel and glass that get removed go on to be recycled, and despite this rather inefficient process, Ford gets to sell a cheaper Transit Connect than it would if the Chicken Tax were applied. Starting at $23,050, our tester rang in at $24,755 including $805 in destination charges.
The Transit Connect XLT wagon, then, is just a Transit Connect that hasn't seen the inside of that brick warehouse in Baltimore.
Still, if not an alternative to the increasingly homogeneous minivan market, what's the purpose of the Transit Connect XLT? Our guess is that, unlike the commercial Transit Connect van that may be bought a dozen or even hundreds at a time by mid- to large-sized corporations, the Transit Connect XLT wagon is for the very small business owner whose daily driver might double as his delivery vehicle. It's still better at hauling cargo than kids, but unlike its commercial brother, the XLT model can be driven home and parked in the driveway, perhaps taken to Costco on the weekends and maybe used to help a friend move.
The Transit Connect XLT is a gas price-conscious generation's new small pickup, gifted courtesy of the Europeans who know a thing or two about getting work done amidst high gas prices and narrow roads. And while it will never be the favorite of moms everywhere like the Grand Caravan, Sienna and Odyssey, the Ford Transit Connect XLT should be near the top of any entrepreneur's shopping list.