Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – If American consumers are anything like their European counterparts, Ford Motor Co.’s upcoming Transit Connect commercial vans will appeal to more than just small business owners and fleet operators, the auto maker’s top engineer says.

Ford of Europe first launched the small commercial van in 2003, and more than 600,000 units have been sold since then.

At first the vans primarily were purchased by commercial users. But over time, retail buyers have been lured to the vehicle, Derrick Kuzak, Ford group vice president-global product development, tells Ward’s at the annual auto show here.

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

The Transit Connect will be sold in North America beginning this year featuring a gasoline engine, followed by an electric-range model in 2010.

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.

Although the Transit Connect won’t arrive in North American dealerships for several months, Jim Farley, director-marketing and communications, says the vehicle already has garnered interest from commercial and government-fleet operators.

“The good thing for us is we have credibility in commercial vehicles. The fleet owners and small businesses know about Ford and trust Ford,” Farley tells Ward’s “We’ve been polling a lot of our fleet customers, and we have a lot of orders already. So we’re confident we have the right vehicle for the right time.”

Farley says the auto maker initially expects to sell 2,000 units a month, with deliveries rising as awareness of the vehicle increases.

Farley expects to attract more interest from municipalities and cities with the electric version, as the vehicle boasts car-like maneuvering that makes it ideal for confined urban settings.

However, he says it’s unlikely the auto maker will introduce the fullsize commercial Transit to the North American market, as it would eat into sales of Ford’s popular E-Series cargo van.

Farley also says February is shaping up to be another dismal sales month, with the exception of a few bright spots.

“One of the surprising things we’ve seen is robustness in the used-car market,” he says. “Used cars are really coming back. Also fleet sales are coming back, but not so much as new-car (sales).”