Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

President and CEO Alan Mulally’s plan to integrate Ford Motor Co.’s North American and European products begins to unfold with the unveiling of the Ford Transit Connect at the Chicago auto show this week.

Already sold in Europe, the compact commercial van will make its way to North America in mid-2009, Ford says.

Designed, engineered and built by Ford of Europe, the Transit Connect has been widely heralded by critics and consumers. It was named “International Van of the Year” when it was launched in 2003 by an independent panel of leading commercial-vehicle journalists representing 19 European countries.

The van offers an additional choice to commercial customers who don’t require larger traditional commercial vans, such as Ford’s E-Series, the auto maker says.

“Ford Transit Connect is built on a dedicated commercial platform to meet the rigors of business-use demands,” Derrick Kuzak, group vice president-global product development, says in a statement.

The Transit Connect is based on Ford’s C1 architecture, or global compact car platform, and will come standard with a 2.0L 4-cyl. gasoline engine mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission. It achieves an estimated fuel economy of 19 mpg (12.4 L/100 km) in the city and 24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km) highway, Ford says.

Ford has yet to reveal the power output of the 2.0L, or whether it will offer a diesel engine, an option available in the European market.

However, John Felice, general manager-Ford Div., says a diesel and other European Transit configurations are future possibilities for the North American market.

“One of the things (Mulally) brought to the company is being one Ford globally,” Felice tells Ward’s. “And we’re looking at the all of the assets we have around the world, so anything is a possibility.”

The Transit Connect will benefit from a lack of competition in North America, Felice says, noting the vehicle fills a “white space” in the market. It will be available in North America in both 2- and 5-passenger configurations.

The Transit Connect is part of a family of Transit commercial vehicles offered across Europe and has helped boost Ford’s share of the European light- and medium-duty commercial-vehicle market to 34%.

Ford says it sold 109,900 Transit Connects and 224,925 fullsize Transit vans in Europe last year and believes the Transit Connect will appeal to smaller, urban-based businesses in North America.

“More than ever before, consumers are making the bulk of their purchases from the Internet and smaller specialty businesses, which is increasing the volume of small-package deliveries,” Kuzak says.

“Transit Connect is ideally suited to meet those delivery needs because of its flexible package, compact size and fuel-efficient powertrain. It will make the delivery process for small business owners easier and more affordable.”

The Transit Connect offers greater versatility than most commercial vans in the North American market, Ford says, as it provides dual-sliding doors on either side as well as rear doors that open 180-degrees, making loading and unloading easier.

Additionally, the Transit Connect boasts a cargo capacity of 143 cu.-ft. (4.1 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.

“Transit Connect can swallow far more cargo than its users might think,” says Len Deluca, Ford’s director-commercial trucks. “Its versatile cargo area gives (it) an unequivocal advantage, accommodating large, flat-sided loads and providing a totally flat load floor.”

The straight-and-narrow design of the Transit Connect makes it highly maneuverable in tight quarters, Ford says, noting the van’s turning radius makes it as nimble as a compact car.

Its boxy shape also makes it an ideal candidate for customized paint jobs, allowing small businesses to have a rolling billboard of sorts, says Jim Farley, group vice president-marketing and communications.

Additionally, the vehicle’s height enables it to fit into parking garages, unlike most commercial delivery vans on the market today, Ford says.

The Transit Connect will be produced at Ford’s Kocaeli, Turkey, assembly plant. Pricing has yet to be announced.

bpope@wardsauto.com