Review: 2010 Ford Transit Connect XLT Cargo Van
By Chris Haak
I can sum up the Ford Transit Connect in one word: visibility. Approaching the van, it’s hard to miss it. I caught more than one fellow motorist gawking at the oddly-shaped little van as I navigated traffic or parked it in public places. It’s not that the Transit Connect’s shape is unconventional – it’s a two-box van, like so many other two-box vans. But the Transit Connect is just built in an unexpected size for a work van, and you don’t see many of them on the road. It almost looks like a shrunken Dodge/Freightliner/Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, but one that was left in the dryer too long. The little van is short and stubby, with minimal overhang front and rear (in spite of its front wheel drive and transversely-mounted engine), and has a stubby hood, giant windows (particularly its windshield) and tall roof. People do notice the Transit Connect, which may only be due to its relative scarcity in the US.
Back to the visibility theme, from inside the van, the tall windshield collects a lot of bugs in warm-weather months, but offers an amazing forward view. There is no crouching forward to see traffic lights above your head, and the tall windshield necessitates tall sun visors, which look kind of funny, but do the trick. The front doors have large windows that dip lower by the mirrors for additional visibility (in the same way the Ford Super Duty pickups’ windows do), and the side mirrors are large. At this point, outward visibility ends, at least in the full-fledged cargo version of the Transit Connect that Ford provided to us for a week.
At this point, I should note perhaps the most interesting sidebar of the Transit Connect story. Transit Connect vans are assembled by Ford in Turkey, and US-bound vans all have full windows and back seats installed, regardless of whether they will wind up as passenger vans or cargo vans. The reason? Imported trucks are subject to the “chicken tax,” which dates back to a 1960s trade war and slaps a 25 percent tariff on imported trucks. Passenger vehicles have a 2.5 percent duty instead.
Jacking the Transit Connect’s price up by 25 percent would either destroy Ford’s margins on the vans, or completely price them out of the market, so Ford devised a creative workaround that follows the letter of the law. The vans, upon arriving at the port in Baltimore, Maryland, have their rear seats and side windows removed. The seats are recycled (which is cheaper than shipping them back to Turkey for use in other Transit Connects), solid metal panels replace the windows, and the floor is covered. The net result is that Ford absorbs the 2.5 percent tax instead of the 25 percent one, and has to spend just a few hundred dollars per van to convert it from a people-mover to an item-mover. There were at least two humorous examples of orphaned switches left on the Transit Connect that no longer served a purpose: the rear defog button was still on the dash, and even illuminated and made the “click” sound to indicate that it was turned on when pressed, even though my test vehicle had no rear windows. There was also a fog light switch and fog light indicator on the dash when they were “turned on,” but as you can see from the accompanying photos, this particular van had no fog lights. for a more detailed back story on the Transit Connect’s journey from wagon to cargo van from the Wall Street Journal.
There are a number of reasons why professionals would not want to have windows in the rear of their vehicle: security, more storage opportunities, a larger canvas for exterior signage – you name it. But as someone who is used to having windows all around me, it was nerve-racking to look at the windshield for a rearview mirror only to find a black spot where it would have been, and the gigantic blind spots that make parking difficult.
Eventually, I managed to hone a parking technique that worked. Basically, I’d just back the van into every parking space I could. Backing into a space upon arrival ensured that I knew who and what was around me when I arrived at the lot, and avoided situations where my safety (and the van’s well-being) would be put in jeopardy by blindly backing out of a parking space into a street or aisle invisible to the driver. My test van had a lot of technology (which I’ll discuss in a moment), but did not have a backup camera. It did have bumper-mounted parking sonar sensors, which helped a bit.
Even driving down the road is a challenge; I never realized how often I used the center rearview mirror when traveling down the road as when I did not have one to refer to. I also never realized how often I depend on the back windows in a car to have good situational awareness of where my fellow motorists were. Turning left at a four-way intersection that is more than a 90-degree angle also meant leaning far forward to see if there were any cars coming from the right, and any lane changes on the expressway require the same degree of vigilance.
Another adjustment for me was getting used to manual sliding doors. I wish I had a nickel for every time I reached around the B-pillar for the auto-closing button that doesn’t exist. There are also some odd European quirks present in the Transit Connect. For instance, the rear barn doors don’t unlock until the key fob’s unlock button is pressed three times. The gas cap is only opened with a key, as is the hood (via a lock hidden behind the Ford blue oval on the grille). The key itself is a foreign shape; it’s built off of a metal rod rather than a flat piece of metal.
The Transit Connect’s interior reeked of rubber; it smelled more strongly than the typical new car, but that may be due to the large rubber mat covering the entire cargo area. Even so, my clothing would smell like the van (not a bad smell, mind you, but a strong polymer smell) after exiting following an hourlong stint behind the wheel. My wife really did not care for its scent at all, though. Being a work-oriented vehicle, literally the entire interior is constructed of hard plastic, painted metal, or rubber, with the exception of the carpeted front floor area. Storage nooks are abundant, with perhaps the neatest one being a shelf the width of the vehicle above the driver’s head, behind the top of the windshield. Of course, there are warnings all over the place not to put heavy objects there, because otherwise, the van’s neck-snapping acceleration might cause them to fall on someone’s head.
As this particular Transit Connect was equipped with GPS navigation and the Ford Work Solutions in-dash computer, it had a large, color LCD display front and center on the dash. The air conditioning works well (and is activated using simple round dials that clicked at each different mode) and my nicely-equipped XLT was equipped with power windows, remote keyless entry, and cruise control. I was impressed by the Work Solutions computer, but will not cover it in this review; instead, I plan to give Ford Work Solutions its own review over the next few weeks. I will say that the biggest frustration I had with the computer was its lack of speed; it reacted slow to inputs and took a considerable amount of time to boot up after starting the van.
The cargo area has what looks like a flat load floor, and it is primarily flat. But underneath the veneer of the rubber mat, you can still feel tracks from the seats that used to – well – sit there. The tracks stick up enough that it hurts one’s knees to crawl over those spots. Ford installs a small platform over the area where the second-row passengers’ feet would have resided to lengthen the flat load floor by another foot or so. There is no barrier standard between the cargo area and the passenger area.
Driving the Transit Connect, aside from the visibility issues I’ve already beaten to death, is very easy. There is practically unlimited headroom, and the coarse cloth on the seats holds your rear end onto them fairly securely. It reminds me a bit of the Honda Odyssey when driving, in terms of feeling like a slightly heavier, slightly taller car with a long back end. And this impression makes sense, as it shares Ford’s C170 platform with the current North American Focus, and an empty cargo van with no sound insulation or seats doesn’t weigh a lot more than the related car.
Acceleration is surprisingly lively off the line from the 2.0 liter four cylinder. Though its power output is fairly meager at 136 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque, the right gearing for the application an perhaps an overly-aggressive throttle tip-in make the van feel like it has adequate acceleration. Begin loading up the cargo hold, though, and it stands to reason that acceleration would quickly begin to suffer. And even though it feels adequately powerful, we’re still talking about a vehicle that Car and Driver needed 11.1 seconds to get from zero to sixty miles per hour on a test track. Maximum payload is 1,600 pounds, by the way, and there is 135.3 cubic feet of cargo area in the Transit Connect cargo van.
The Transit Connect is equipped with rear drum brakes, but they’re fine for this application. They last longer than disc brakes, are cleaner, and the van will hopefully never encounter sustained high-speed driving with multiple high-speed stops that would tax the braking hardware. Steering is hydraulically-assisted rack and pinion, and though slow of ratio, was accurate in low-speed parking lot-type maneuvers.
The Transit Connect’s four-speed automatic – the only transmission choice available in the US, while much of the rest of the world may also choose a five-speed manual – predictably forces the engine to stay in a gear forever, then to drop well out of its powerband after finally upshifting. The limitations of the four-speed automatic also mean that the engine has to hum along fairly busily on the highway during inter-city trips in the 3000-RPM neighborhood. It’s likely that this is the reason the EPA city and highway fuel economy numbers are so close: 22 mpg city/25 mpg highway. There was only a distance-to-empty meter in the gauge cluster, so I’m not sure of my observed fuel economy, but the EPA numbers sound very reasonable.
Wind noise is less than expected from the large, fairly upright windshield. Most noise comes from the cargo area, where there is no sound insulation (other than a furry cardboard headliner) and a lot of bare metal. The cargo area noise is mostly road noise rather than wind noise. Forget about any hope of the stereo system drowning out ambient noise; the stereo is barely a stereo, with just two front door-mounted speakers and nothing in the rear. If you adjust the stereo’s fade to the rear, the music stops.
Though I had no deliveries to make during my week with the Transit Connect, I’m confident that I could have done so with aplomb if called upon. Perhaps this little European van, imported from Turkey, is just the right vehicle size and capability for many small business owners who don’t need all of a full-size van’s capabilities, but want double the fuel economy of the poorly-named Econoline. With my loaded (for a cargo van) tester having a $22,940 base price and a $26,215 price as tested. Options on the tester included rear cargo door check arms ($215), roll stability control ($545), reverse sensing system ($280), front carpeted floor mats ($50), Ford Work Solutions in-dash computer with Bluetooth keyboard ($1,395), and DeWalt Tool Link for Ford Work Solutions ($1,220). Skip the computer and Tool Link, and the van is out the door for $23,600.
That’s not cheap, but the van is so efficient that a business that right-sizes its vehicle fleet could easily make an economic argument that fuel savings will pay for the Transit Connect quickly if it’s driven a lot (versus a V8-powered full-size van). It’s also easy to park (if you’re used to not having windows) and drives far better than the super sized-dinosaurs do. I personally feel that businesses are smarter vehicle-fleet purchasers when their workers drive Transit Connects; I’m sure Ford hopes many more people have that impression.