Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – Ford Motor Co. takes the wraps off an electrified version of its Transit Connect small commercial van designed for fleet use and expected to carry a price tag in the $60,000 range.

Unveiled today at the Chicago auto show here, the Transit Connect’s electric powertrain was developed by specialty upfitter Azure Dynamics Inc.

Azure Dynamics CEO Scott Harrison says his company was enlisted late last year to replace the original powertrain supplier, Smith Electric Vehicles U.S. Corp., which pulled out of the project to concentrate on developing and marketing its own vehicles.

Despite the mid-development switch, Harrison says the Transit Connect’s electric powertrain is entirely Azure Dynamics technology.

“We didn’t utilize any work that (Smith) had done,” he tells Ward’s. “So for us, this is a fresh project.”

Azure Dynamics has extensive knowledge in EVs, having developed its “Force Drive” powertrain for electric vehicles used by the U.S. Postal Service and other large fleets, he says, noting the technology had nearly 25 million miles (40 million km) of real-world testing.

The zero-emissions Transit Connect EV aims to lower the amount of carbon dioxide spewed by traditional fleet vehicles in the U.S., which account for 12% of total miles driven annually but are responsible for 25% of total emissions, Harrison says.

Azure Dynamics will source lithium-ion batteries for the Transit Connect EV from Johnson Controls-Saft Advanced Power Solutions LLC. JCS currently supplies Li-ion batteries for Ford’s test fleet of Escape plug-in cross/utility vehicles.

The batteries are designed to last the lifetime of the vehicle, which Harrison says is 10 years or 120,000 miles (193,121 km).

Ford says the Transit Connect EV accelerates at a similar rate to a gas-powered version, reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) in about 12 seconds. It has a top speed of 75 mph (121 km/h) and a range of up to 80 miles (129 km) on a full charge, which take six to eight hours using a 240-volt power source.

The vehicle also can be charged with a standard 110-volt household outlet, but neither Ford nor Azure Dynamics reveal the required time.

The battery pack is tucked between the rear wheels and underneath the floorboards in order to maintain the same ground clearance as the traditional Transit Connect. The location does not encroach on the EV’s 135 cu.-ft. (3.8 cu.-m) of cargo space, Harrison says.

Ford’s Otosan plant in Turkey will provide Azure Dynamics with Transit Connect shells, and the electric powertrain will be installed by the supplier at an undisclosed location in Michigan, Harrison says.

Neither Ford nor Azure Dynamics are revealing volume projections, but Harrison says his company can “more than cover any demand for the vehicle.”

Ford also will offer a taxi-cab version of the Transit Connect with a new engine option.

The Transit Connect Taxi will come standard with the standard 2.0L inline 4-cyl. gas engine, the only powertrain currently available. However, fleet operators will be able to order a special package that allows conversion to compressed-natural gas or liquefied-petroleum gas.

Ford says CNG and LPG vehicles are popular among taxi operators, given their low cost of ownership.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says CNG is less expensive and burns cleaner than gasoline, resulting in 30%-40% less greenhouse-gas emissions. LPG also is cleaner than gas, Ford says, without revealing specifics. Many of the auto maker’s cars in Australia run on LPG.

“Compressed natural gas and (LPG) offer more than sufficient power for vehicles, because they are high-energy fuels,” says Rob Stevens, Transit Connect chief engineer.

Ford says it will provide the required calibration specifications for CNG and LPG conversions, which will not void the engine’s warranty.

In an effort to enhance the passenger experience, Ford teamed with Creative Mobile Technologies LLC to develop payment processing and information technologies in the Transit Connect Taxi.

The technology, which still is in development, will allow passengers to swipe their credit card from the comfort of the back seat to pay for their journey. A rear-mounted infotainment and navigation screen that shows cab fare, news, weather, sports scores and a stock ticker also is in the works.

Ford has yet to announce pricing for the Transit Connect Taxi or when the optional processing and information system will be made available.

bpope@wardsauto.com