Van gets a refresh for a very specific demographic
The cheerfully compact Ford Transit Connect wagon and van created a new small-commercial-van segment in the U.S. when it arrived in late 2009. Early success attracted copycats from Nissan (the NV200 in 2013 and its rebadged twin Chevy City Express in 2014) and from Ram (the 2015 ProMaster City). By 2015 the segment had swelled to 91,000 sales, but it has shrunk by almost 14,000 units since. Last year Ford’s Transit Connect sales dipped below their 2012 no-competition level. Queue the urgent refresh, with a new target audience!
Who’s Ford planning to lure now? Baby Boomers on a budget engaged in “Third Act” leisure or entrepreneurial activities that require hauling stuff around. The near-ideal hip-high slide-in driver seat, the low 2-foot lift from the ground to the load floor, and the seven-passenger occasional grandchildren seating are touted as AARP attractions—you know, like the ground-floor master bedroom of the automotive world. Ford also promises to drive home the marketing message that it delivers “everything you need in a minivan, with nothing you don’t—such as DVD players and vacuums—at an unbeatable low price.”
Just in case that’s not enough, for 2019 Ford is further sweetening the Transit Connect’s recipe with two new engines, a new transmission, and redesigns of the nose, tail, dash, and rear suspension. There’s also new connectivity gear, easier-to-operate seats, and seven new driver-assist features—perfect for when principle driving senses and reaction times start to dull. Of course, the refresh preserves everything that made the second-generation Transit Connect wagon (all new for 2014) so versatile and popular: a choice of short and long wheelbases with seating for five, six, or seven, a choice of 180-degree opening rear doors or a liftgate, and a 2,000-pound (907-kg) towing capacity (with the gasoline engine). Let us just say right here that most of what follows is likely to hold true for the panel-van version of the Transit Connect, but info about that one is under wraps until next month when Ford unveils it in Indy at the National Truck Equipment Association’s Work Truck Show.
Let’s start with the engines, about which no specific output numbers are being shared yet. New for the Transit Connect is a 2.0-liter direct-injected flex-fuel four cylinder that’ll likely produce output similar to that of its Focus fitment (160 hp and 146 lb-ft). The more interesting one is a segment-first offering: a 1.5-liter turbodiesel dubbed “EcoBlue.” This engine was designed in Europe in a joint venture with PSA (Peugeot-Citroën-DS), though Ford took the lead on the 1.5-liter variant. Techie features include a variable-nozzle turbine on its single-scroll turbo, an electronically controlled thermostat that maintains higher engine temperatures to thin the oil for lower friction, a variable-displacement oil pump that saves energy at idle and lower speeds and loads, and diamondlike low-friction coatings throughout the engine. U.S. models get an intercooler and a structural plastic oil pan that increases sump capacity and reduces noise. The basic block design is inherited from the 1.5- and 1.6-liter Euro-Ford Duratorq engine, but the new engine upgrades from single- to dual-overhead cams, and the injection pressure jumps from 23,000-29,000 psi and can provide five injection events per combustion cycle to smooth and quiet the engine’s operation. Ford anticipates an EPA highway rating of at least 30 mpg (7.8 L/100km), and claims the payload capacity will exceed that of the Ram EcoDiesel 1500 pickup (1,100-1,600 pounds (499-725 kg)). This engine will hit the road first in the Euro-market EcoSport small crossover. (We should note that the 2.5-liter Duratec four- and six-speed automatic will remain available but only to fleet purchasers of the base XL wagon running propane or compressed natural gas conversions.)
These new engines will be mated to a new eight-speed automatic transaxle derived from the GM/Ford joint-venture nine-speed by pruning one gear for lower-cost applications. The Transit Connect will be among the first vehicles to offer this transmission, which will support standard auto stop/start on both new engines.
Other dirty bits coming in for a redo include the rear suspension, which gets revised geometry. Repositioning the spring mounts allows them to induce a bit of preload to the torsion beam, which in turn permitted a switch from dual-rate to simpler single-rate rear coil springs and allowed for a wider range of damper tuning with an aim to improve ride quality without any handling degradation. The only other changes of note are to the brake pads, all of which get a new copper-free compound, and the Continental tires, which feature new construction that improves rolling resistance at little or no cost in terms of ride/handling/wear.
In terms of styling, the whole nose is new and aligns with the vaguely Aston-Martin-esque look that has spread throughout the Ford range. New front lighting features HID headlamps with LED fog and accent lighting. Beneath the new front-clip sheetmetal lie a few structural reinforcements for surviving small-overlap crashes.
Inside a new dash design features a high-mounted “floating” 6.5-inch screen supporting the latest SYNC3 connectivity with Ford+Alexa personal assistant functionality and a standard 4G LTE modem capable of connecting 10 devices to the internet. There’s also wireless device charging in a cubby beneath that screen and two USB ports to charge devices from. Rear passengers can have their own temperature and fan controls, plus both 12-volt and 110-volt outlets. The suite of new driver-assist features is headlined by standard forward collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking with dynamic braking support. These features and side-wind mitigation are all standard. Active cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane keep assist are also available.
Seat foam material is changed to improve comfort, and although the folding mechanisms carry over, the controls and levers that operate them are apparently redesigned for easier use. Due to the fragile nature of the prototype parts on display, we were not permitted to verify this claim.
Expect the new Transit Connect wagon to appear in dealers in the third quarter of 2018 as a 2019 model, available as before in XL, XLT, and Titanium trim levels with only a modest price increase from 2018 levels ($26,925-$31,555 USD).