Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

Ford Motor Co.’s Transit Connect commercial van will be the first among the auto maker’s product portfolio to venture into the electric-vehicle market.

The small van, which has been available in Europe and other global markets for years, will be sold in North America beginning this year with the internal combustion model, followed by an EV model in 2010.

Both versions of the vehicle will debut at this week’s Chicago Auto Show.

The electric-powered Transit Connect was developed by Ford in conjunction with Smith Electric Vehicles, a leading European electric-commercial vehicle up-fitter.

Smith, which has converted tens of thousands of vehicles to battery-electric power for European markets, already offers battery-electric versions of the medium Transit commercial vehicle to fleet customers.

The company began producing electric “milk floats” in 1920 for the U.K. market, which were used to quietly deliver milk in the early hours so as not to disturb residents, says Mike Tinskey, Ford’s manager of hybrid programs.

Smith’s extensive background in developing EVs, and its desire to make inroads in the U.S. market, is what brought the two companies together for the Transit Connect EV program.

“There was mutual interest to electrify the Transit Connect,” Tinskey says. “It was a good arrangement.”

The electric Transit Connect will be powered by a lithium-ion battery pack that boasts a range of up to 100 miles (161 km).

Recharging time will depend on the size of the battery pack, with the larger unit taking just under eight hours and the smaller version requiring four to eight hours, Tinskey says, noting the voltage output of the recharging outlet also is a factor.

The supplier of the Li-ion battery has yet to be disclosed, but Smith will be making an announcement in the coming weeks, he says.

The battery packs will power a 50 kW/hour induction motor driving the front wheels. The vehicle will have a top speed of 70 mph (113 km/h) and be capable of towing or hauling about 1,600 lbs. (726 kg).

The electric van will be built alongside its gasoline counterpart at Ford’s Kocaeli, Turkey, assembly plant, minus their powertrains.

The vans then will be shipped as “gliders,” a term Ford uses to refer to vehicles lacking a powertrain, to undisclosed sites in the U.S. and the U.K. operated by Smith, where the electric drivetrains will be installed.

Ford will avoid the so-called U.S. “chicken tax” tariff imposed on imported commercial vehicles by equipping them with seats, which will be removed at the shipping ports, says Andy Georgescu, Ford marketing manager-commercial vehicles.

“They will be modified at that point as cargo vans,” he says. “But all (Transit Connects) shipped to the U.S. will be as passenger wagons with seats.”

Validation testing now is under way, Tinskey says, adding the EV version should be just as robust, or more so, than its gasoline counterpart.

“The electrical (drivetrain) has less moving parts than the combustion (version),” he says. “The ideal fleet customer (for the vehicle) is someone who has an (established) route every day, so these probably won’t be high-mileage vehicles.”

Once the electric-powered Transit Connect enters service, Ford will be able to gain valuable insight into how EVs operate in real-world conditions.

This will be helpful as the auto maker continues with its electrification program, which calls for a battery-powered small car in 2011, followed by next-generation hybrid-electric and plug-in electric vehicles in 2012.

“We’re going to get data on how the (electric Transit vans) are charged; how far they go and apply those learnings to (future) products,” Tinskey says.

Georgescu says the standard Transit Connect and the electric version should attract two distinct customer groups. “(EV customers) want to make a statement about greenness and, because of the battery (range), are going to be more urban in nature.”

Georgescu and his team have been crisscrossing the country training Ford dealers on the unique attributes of the Transit Connect, a vehicle unlike others in Ford’s lineup. Dealers won’t learn about the electric version until later this year.

The gas-driven Transit Connect will be powered by a 2.0L Duratec 4-cyl. engine producing 136 hp and 128 lb.-ft. (174 Nm) of torque. The engine will be mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission that Ford says will provide fuel economy estimated at 20-24 mpg city/highway (11.7-9.8 L/100 km).

No other powertrains will be available at launch, Georgescu says. “Our research shows customers we’re targeting are comfortable with the Duratec.”

Georgescu describes Transit Connect customers as independent, small businesses, but the van could appeal to large fleets as well.

The Transit Connect offers greater versatility than most commercial vans in the North American market, Ford says, thanks to its dual-sliding doors and rear doors that open 180 degrees, making the handling of cargo easier.

The Transit Connect boasts a cargo capacity of 135 cu.-ft. (3.8 cu.-m) and can accommodate loads up to 6.5 ft. (2.0 m) in length and 4.7 ft. (1.4 m) in width.

The vehicle comes in a variety of configurations, including a cargo van with no windows in the sliding doors; a panel-van version; and a wagon model that comes with a folding second-row bench seat.

While the Transit Connect primarily is geared toward commercial uses, Georgescu says retail consumers may be attracted by its versatility. “I think it will be fun to see how personal-use buyers grow (in numbers),” he says. “We’ve shown it to some families and hobbyists.”

The gas-powered Transit Connect will be sold at all Ford dealerships, with a base price of $21,475. The electric models only will be sold at select dealers. Pricing has yet to be announced, although Ford says the EVs will carry a premium over their gasoline counterparts.

bpope@wardsauto.com