The Transit Connect Family One concept, set to debut at the upcoming New York auto show, signals a renewed interest by Ford Motor Co. in the family-hauler segment, which the auto maker largely abandoned with the discontinuation of the Freestar minivan in 2007.

Although the Ford Flex fullsize cross/utility vehicle boasts three rows of seats and can accommodate seven people, the auto maker has been careful not to label it a family vehicle, instead saying it is meant for “progressive urban buyers.”

The new concept is based on Ford’s Transit Connect small commercial vehicle, which has been on the market in Europe since 2003 and is slated to hit U.S. shores this summer. A full-electric version is due in 2010.

Ford previously hinted the Transit Connect could be adapted for personal use. During the recent Chicago auto show, Derrick Kuzak, Ford group vice president-global product development, told Ward’s that in Europe, commercial users initially were the primary purchasers of the vehicle.

“A significant percentage (of buyers in Europe now are) retail customers using (the van) for families, basically as a people mover,” he said. “In Europe, there are tonneau versions, which are configured for retail customers. They’re nicely outfitted, and they’re very successful.”

Ford says the Transit Connect Family One concept was designed for the “coolest mom.” Intensive research was conducted during development to determine the unique wants and needs of families.

“The customers we envisioned when developing the Family One are cosmopolitan parents in their mid-30s with highly refined design sensitivities,” says designer Chiwei Lee. “They waited until they were ready for children and see parenthood as adding to their aesthetic portfolio, instead of smashing it.”

A team of Ford product planners, designers and marketers recently displayed five “family friendly” vehicles at the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, MI.

Guests representing more than 200 families were invited to the event and questioned regarding their likes and dislikes and how they would describe the type of person that would drive each vehicle.

From the test subjects’ responses, the team concluded the Family One should be fuel efficient, provide interactive technology and offer plenty of space in a stylish package.

Based on Ford’s C1 architecture, or global compact-car platform, the concept boasts 135 cu.-ft. (3.8 cu.-m) of space and seating for five.

Like most concepts, the Family One is chocked full of cutting-edge technologies. However, it differs from others in that many of the systems are production feasible.

One such technology is the Family Works application, which is based on the Ford Works Solution, currently offered on the auto maker’s lineup of commercial vehicles.

Family Works combines an in-dash computer with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to keep “children and parents organized, on schedule and properly equipped,” Ford says.

The computer is able to track various items, such as backpacks and sports equipment, that are affixed with RFID tags.

The Family Works software uses predictive algorithms, based on learning from past usage, to remind parents of scheduled events and the required equipment.

For instance, if the system knows a child will have band practice on a particular day, it will notify the driver if the necessary musical instrument is not on board.

The system also is able to synchronize with smart phones, enabling hands-free calling, scheduling, reminders and to-do lists.

Additionally, Family Works can detect whether a child seat is properly tethered and notify the driver if it is not. According to the 2005 LATCH study published by the National Highway Safety Traffic Admin., nearly 40% of child seats are improperly attached.

The concept also boasts a version of Ford’s SmartGauge instrument cluster, currently found on the Ford Fusion hybrid-electric vehicle. Through the use of an intuitive graphic interface, the specialized cluster tells drivers how economically the vehicle is being driven, helping to improve fuel economy.

For entertainment, the concept features a transparent sunshade mounted on the bulkhead behind the driver’s area, which “transforms” to become a digital infotainment center with a pair of high-resolution floating screens.

The screens can display digital media entertainment, 3-D gaming, interactive educational software and wireless Internet connectivity.

Other Transit Connect Family One concept amenities include:

  • Twin folding scooters mounted to the inside of the rear cargo doors.
  • Integrated sunscreen and hand sanitizer dispensers.
  • Erasable whiteboard on the rear side-door interior surfaces.
  • Rechargeable walkie-talkies.
  • Backpack attachments and integrated storage bin.
  • In-floor storage for folding stroller.
  • Protracting, roof-mounted awning over rear opening.
  • Lava-lamp effect rear headliner graphics.

The concept is powered by a 2.0L inline 4-cyl. engine mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission that delivers 22-25 mpg (10.7-9.4 L/100 km) city/highway fuel economy.

bpope@wardsauto.com