The new Ford Transit Connect has a strange name, a compact European delivery van appearance and a ceiling that's so tall, someone sitting in the driver's seat might only reach it with fingertips.
But these oddities are nearly endearing in one of the smartest and most practical vehicles for anyone - including a small business owner, camping enthusiast or trend-eschewing individualist - looking for something different to drive.
The front-wheel drive Transit Connect has been sold in 55 countries by Ford Motor Co. but is only coming to the States this model year as something of an experiment in downsized commercial vans.
Buyers won't find luxury accouterments. But they will get at least double the cargo room of other small, boxy, four-cylinder-powered vehicles that frequently do duty as small business vehicles, such as the Scion xB and Chevrolet HHR panel wagon.
Buyers also find on the Transit Connect window sticker a government rating of 22 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway, which is about double that for a traditional, large, Ford delivery van.
Best of all, the Transit Connect is affordable, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $21,830 for a base, five-passenger model with 136-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission.
A cargo version of the Transit Connect, with no rear seats, has a starting retail price of $21,475.
There aren't directly comparable competitors here.
For example, the 2010 Scion xB comes from Japan and has a starting retail price of $16,420, while Chevy's American-bred HHR panel wagon has a starting price of $19,350. But neither has anywhere near the 135.3 cubic feet of cargo room behind the front seats that the Transit Connect offers.
In fact, even large sport utility vehicles don't have this much cargo space. The Chevy Tahoe tops out at 108.9 cubic feet with third row seats removed and second row folded.
The Transit Connect has van-like side doors for the second row of seats that slide open and closed. So, it might compare with small passenger vans like the 2010 Mazda5 that starts at $18,745. But the six-passenger Mazda5 with three rows of seats and 5-foot-3-inch height seems conventional vis-a-vis the 6-foot-6-inch-tall Transit Connect.
The Transit Connect is based on a special version of the platform of the Ford Fiesta small car that's sold in Europe, and it is used for many commercial purposes overseas, including delivery vans and ambulances.
But in the U.S., the possibilities are endless among business owners looking to reduce gasoline use, camping fans who want to downsize, even drivers suffering from disabilities who need to carry wheelchairs and medical equipment.
Part of the appeal of this new vehicle is how easy it is to get in and out. At 5 feet 4, I just turned and sat onto the driver's seat cushion. There's no climb up or dropping down into a low-riding car seat. The tester was a passenger van version with seats for five, so I and my passengers rode with decent views out front and to the side.
The two cargo-style doors at the back meant I didn't have one large window to look out of at the back, however. So I was glad to have the optional reverse parking sensors back there to help me know when I got too close to obstacles while I was backing up.
Seats, dashboard arrangement and door trim were all no-nonsense and functional in the test Transit Connect. There was nothing fancy, and the center console area didn't even have covered storage.
I noticed how tall the side windows are, and I had to open the side windows to reach out and manually wipe away condensation that had formed overnight on the outside mirror and stationary part of the side windows.
There's just one engine - a hardworking, 2-liter, double overhead cam, Duratec four cylinder generating 136 horsepower and 128 foot-pounds of torque at 4,750 rpm. Even when the vehicle was empty, the Transit Connect didn't rocket around town. Rather, it moved with a hint of spunk. With more people and cargo, the vehicle's spunk was replaced with a more purposeful personality.
I readily heard the engine at work as well as road noises from the 15-inch tires on pavement. Sometimes, the sounds seemed to reverberate throughout the cavernous interior, which was a unique experience.
But I loved the low load floor at the back of the Transit Connect, not to mention how the two rear doors were hinged so they could swing all the way back and stay against the sides of the vehicle and out of the way. This is so much nicer than ducking under a tailgate door or walking around a single, side-opening rear cargo door.
The impressively tall ceiling meant even a 6-footer could darn near stand up inside in the cargo area, and the utilitarian floor material makes for easy cleanup.
I didn't feel as if I had the latest technology as I drove the Transit Connect. The ride was adequate but not refined. For example, the rear suspension uses uncomplicated leaf springs and solid axle. And there didn't seem to be a lot of sound insulation as wind noise came on noticeably when the Transit Connect hit highway speeds.
Unusual options complete the package. For $1,395, for example, a buyer can add an on-board computer that monitors a driver's speed, idle time and vehicle location - things a business owner might want to track.
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