A Redesign for Ford’s Surprise Hit

2015 Ford Transit Connect Wagon.

2015 Ford Transit Connect Wagon.

About seven years ago, Ford got out of the minivan business, shelving its Freestyle van, which started life as the Windstar. Before that, they’d offered the Aerostar, a very ‘80s-looking van that became dated when the ‘80s did too.

The reasoning behind discontinuing the Freestyle was that Ford’s new Flex, a multi-row crossover SUV, would fill the needs of buyers who might have chosen a minivan in the past. There was just one problem: the Flex was not a minivan and was much more expensive than one.

What Ford hadn’t counted on was the fact that people watching their money – including businesses – might actually want a reasonably-priced basic small van. So, the Transit Connect from Europe was brought in to the American market. Stubby and kind of upright, with a somewhat coarse, weak four cylinder engine, it nonetheless won the heart of lots of commercial buyers. And, it sold like crazy, really beyond Ford’s expectations, and started appearing everywhere.

From single units serving neighborhood florists to large numbers in national fleets, businesses suddenly had the choice of a reasonably priced small van. And, a small percentage were sold as passenger models with rear seats and windows.

Now, there’s a new generation of Transit Connect upon us, and in the early going, Ford is reporting that most dealerships are selling a good number of them as passenger models. What helps is that it’s much more stylish and passenger-friendly that the previous Transit Connect.

That’s not saying much, as the old one was pretty crude and gawky. But this new one is actually handsome, and might give the other minivans from Toyota, Honda and Chrysler a run for their money in the segment.

Oh, wait a minute. Ford doesn’t like to use the term “minivan” anymore. They now refer to the windows-and-seats Transit Connect Wagon as a “people mover.” You know, like a minivan. Interestingly though, they’re okay using the name “wagon,” when Americans supposedly don’t like wagons either.

Versatility is the name of the game in a family vehicle, and the versatility with the Transit Connect Wagon starts at the order form. Two different lengths are available, with the longer wheelbase getting seating for seven. The rear row of seats can be folded flat for more cargo space.

Then, trim levels come into play. Base trim is XL, which is pretty bare-bones. Next up is XLT which adds more content, and the ultimate version of this little van is Titanium. Want a panoramic moonroof and leather seats? They’re available. This is definitely not the previous Transit Connect.

Thankfully, this is not the previous Transit Connect under the hood either. That poor van had to make due with under 140 horsepower and a 4-speed automatic transmission that felt like a 5-speed with a missing second gear. The new van gets a 6-speed automatic standard, mated to either a 2.5 liter four (169 horsepower) or an optional 1.6 liter turbocharged EcoBoost four (178 horsepower). Both engines are smooth and capable, and Ford is claiming that the smaller engine is good for 30 mpg on the highway.

Another huge and welcome change with this generation of the Transit Connect is the styling. The look is sleek and futuristic, though the long wheelbase version does seem really…long. Part of that may be due to the fact that it has a much lower roofline than the old Transit Connect, which accentuates the appearance of the length.

Step inside, and you’ll immediately recognize Ford’s current interior design language. Much like other offerings such as the Focus, C-Max and Fusion, the instrument cluster has a real European vibe to it. The seats are extremely comfortable as well.

The 2015 Transit Connect Wagon starts at $24,525 for a 5-seater in XLT trim. I went on Ford’s online configurator to load up a 7-seater Titanium, and came away with a $34,000 van. In reality, a lot less than fully-loaded competing minivans.

But Ford still won’t call this a minivan. Okay, fine. It’s not a minivan. And yet, it is.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunzT

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