Ford unveiled a new vehicle Tuesday that looks like a minivan, carries as many passengers as a minivan and has sliding doors like a minivan. Just don't call it a minivan.

Such is the searing shame, for some, of the minivan, the family car of choice for allegedly soulless suburbanites, that Ford and its executives took pains to detach that label from its latest offering, the 2014 Ford Transit Connect. The wagon was unveiled to a group of reporters at the company's Dearborn, Mich. product and tech center.

"Vans don't have seats in the back and wagons do," said Tim Stoehr, Ford's marketing manager of commercial vehicles, differentiating between the two. "That's what the general public recognizes as the difference between a van and a work van, or a wagon and a van. ...

"If you asked 100 people, 100 would know exactly which one was a van and which one was a wagon."

Semantic debate aside, the Ford Transit Connect Wagon certainly has the boxy proportions of a minivan, just smaller and more angular. It has two sliding side doors like a minivan), albeit unpowered (the only minivan in the category that doesn't). It seats seven passengers in a 2-3-2 three-row configuration. Ford calls this non-minivan the next-generation "people mover." Ford expects the Transit Connect Wagon to attract buyers that have young families and compete against – wait for it – minivans.

Whatever its species, the Transit Connect Wagon does hold promise for Ford, which abandoned the minivan with the end of the Freestar production in 2006. It is not merely a re-entry to segment--unless it's not as Ford says--which saw sales peak at 1.3 million annual units a decade ago and has since dwindled to roughly half that number. The Transit Connect Wagon, for all intents and purposes, is a mini-minivan.

It "creates a segment of its own," said Mark Fields, Ford's president of The Americas.

The decline of the minivan's popularity stems in part from its own success, as its juice-box holders and sliding doors became ubiquitous for suburban living. Eventually consumers shifted to better handling crossovers and more fuel efficient cars in recent years. Ford is banking on the continued shift away from traditional minivans as fuel economy cements itself as the main shopping criteria.

For example, Ford has opted to forego motorized sliding doors not only because they would add to the vehicle's overall cost, said Hau Thai-Tang, Ford vice president of global product development and engineering, but because the added weight would dent fuel efficiency. However, Moms and Dads who will look at this vehicle as a potential alternative to a Chrysler, Toyota or Nissan minivan, will probably just think, "What the heck? Manual sliding doors?"

Executives said they expect the Transit Connect Wagon to attain 30 miles per gallon, two MPGs better than the Honda Odyssey and Mazda5 and 5 MPGs better than the Toyota Sienna and Dodge Caravan. Ford is touting the Connect as the most fuel-efficient seven-passenger vehicle on the market.

In certain trims, it can tow up to 2,000 pounds, 500 more than the four-cylinder Toyota Highlander SUV. Customers can choose between a 2.5-liter and 1.6-liter Ecoboost powertrains. Pricing was not announced Tuesday, but executives said the Transit Connect Wagon would be priced "thousands" below its traditional minivan competitors. That could be Ford's niche since Kia killed its price-leading Sedona minivan for the 2013 model year, and is planning on a new minivan in 2014 that wil probably reach higher on the price ladder.

The Ford Transit Connect Wagon has been sold in the U.S. since mid-2009 as a commercial vehicle, moving approximately 35,000 units in 2011. Small-business owners, corporate fleets and taxi operators have all valued the space and versatility it offers. The fact that Ford is merely building this minivan off that existing vehicle platform makes the wagon/minivan gambit a very low-cost risk.

As a personal-use vehicle, the underpinnings are the same as the Transit Connect. But the exterior styling is "much more advanced, Stoehr said. The interior is overhauled. Beyond the obvious addition of seats, the Transit Connect Wagon, which will be imported from Spain, adds features like a full-glass panoramic roof, rear-view camera and the MyFord Touch infotainment system.

With its conversion from all-purpose commercial vehicle to family-friendly non-minivan, "we're very confident we'll open it up to a new market we're not meeting today – and no one else is," Stoehr said.


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