|Bradford Wernle covers Ford for Automotive News|
LOS ANGELES -- In England, they call vehicles like the Ford Transit Connect Wagon "cheap and cheerful" basic family transportation.
Over in Europe, where it was conceived and designed, the Transit Connect competes with the likes of the Renault Kangoo, Citroen Berlingo and Peugeot Partner as inexpensive and versatile haulers of people and goods.
What distinguishes those vehicles from minivans is that they have their origins in the commercial-vehicle market. Visit any European city and you'll find scores of panel van versions plying the narrow streets delivering cargo day and night -- very handy in places where gasoline costs $8 a gallon.
By bringing the seven-passenger Transit Connect Wagon stateside next year, Ford is taking a calculated gamble that this kind of people hauler will find buyers here. Ford is careful not to use the dreaded "M word" (minivan) when referring to the Transit Connect Wagon. People mover is Ford's preferred term in keeping with what it would be called in Europe.
Speaking at the Ford stand at the Los Angeles Auto Show this week, Ford truck communications manager Mike Levine said: "We believe there's an opportunity. The Transit Connect Wagon is virtually the same size as seven-passenger minivans were when they were introduced during the 1980s. Since then, they've gotten too big, too expensive and consume too much fuel."
Levine says the Transit Connect Wagon will get more than 30 mpg and will get 5 mpg better than the Toyota Sienna on the highway, though Ford hasn't issued mileage numbers yet.
Says Aaron Bragman, analyst for IHS Global Insight: "I think it's very much a white-space vehicle. Some people must have sliding doors. It's a good experiment to see if there's interest beyond the commercial realm."
Since Ford introduced the first-generation Transit Connect in 2010, about 80 percent of sales have been commercial cargo haulers and 20 percent five-passenger wagons designed to haul people. Ford expects those numbers to change dramatically with the introduction of the seven-passenger version.
"We expect that 60 percent will be the wagon and 40 percent the cargo version," Levine said. Of the wagons sold, Ford believes about 60 percent will be sold as taxis and livery vehicles while 40 percent will be private retail buyers.
And Ford hopes to lure more of them by giving them a much more upscale van. There will be three trim levels: XL, XLT and Titanium.
Titanium is the top trim level on many Ford vehicles, and Ford hasn't offered it with the Transit Connect. It will come with leather seats, also not offered on the current Transit Connect passenger versions. It will also be offered with the MyFord Touch infotainment system via a 6.5-inch screen.
But customers in search of other modern minivan amenities won't find them. Take those sliding doors, for example. Unlike most modern minivans, the sliding doors won't be electronically operated. Nor will a power rear liftgate be offered. Ford will offer a choice of a manually operated rear liftgate or side-by-side pantry-style rear doors.
"We want this to be affordable," Levine said. He declined to divulge the price except to say that it will sticker at "thousands" less than the Toyota Sienna or Honda Odyssey.
A journalist asked Ford COO Mark Fields at the L.A. show if Ford wasn't perhaps going too far with its One Ford plan by bringing the Europe-bred Transit Connect Wagon to North America.
"This is a minivan replacement," the journalist said. "But is it American-sized?"
Fields replied: "People are like snowflakes. Everybody is a little different. It [the Transit Connect Wagon] serves an important need, and people aren't expecting this type of vehicle from us. It's kind of like the C-Max."
The C-Max Hybrid, a brand-new nameplate also designed originally in Europe, has been out only a couple of months now but has far exceeded the company's sales expectations. Maybe Ford will get lucky twice.