Ford Transit Connect Electric: Impressively unimpressive

We were given a tour of the electric prototype, and then were tossed the keys and allowed to take it for a spin around the block. The BEV surprised us with just how normal it was.

Ford Transit Connect Electric
We were handed the keys to the Ford Transit Connect Electric. Ford

Ford surprised everyone earlier this year when it snagged the 2010 North American Truck of the Year award with a small-van-hatchback thingy. The Ford Transit Connect won over the judges with its big truck utility and small car footprint. Even we have to admit that it's an efficient little package.

Hot on the heels of the win, Ford announced that it was developing a battery-electric vehicle version of the Transit Connect in partnership with Azure Dynamics that will go into production in mid-to-late 2010. Well, 2010 is here and so is the Ford Transit Connect Electric. We were given a tour of the electric prototype, and then were tossed the keys and allowed to take it for a spin around the block. The BEV surprised us with just how normal it was.

The interesting thing about the Transit BEV is that--save for the gaudy electric blue graphics--there's not much different from the gasoline variant, at least not on the surface. Both vehicles have about the same footprint as a Ford Focus and both have the same 135-foot cargo volume. There are split cargo doors at the rear as well as rear-sliding doors on both sides. The Transit is designed primarily with fleet buyers in mind (such as cab, delivery, and service uses). As a result, it can be ordered with rear seats or configured as a cargo van with an empty cargo bay and a dividing wall separating the driver from the payload. She's not looker, but the general consensus is that the Transit Connect gets the job done.

If you lift the Transit BEV's hood, it's immediately obvious that this is no ordinary fleet vehicle. Ford replaced the Transit's 2.0-liter drivetrain with a high-voltage electric motor that sends torque through a single-speed gearbox to the front wheels. Behind the fuel cap is an electrical charging port that accepts 120V and 240V AC power. It then converts it to DC power for storage in the BEV's 28kWh lithium ion battery pack, which resides where the gas tank used to live. Because the electric drivetrain doesn't have the alternator or a vacuum system of its internally-combusting sibling, the electric Transit Connect features all-electric power steering, cooling, heating, air conditioning, brake boosting, and other systems. There's also a step-down transformer that takes the high-voltage power coming out of the battery and outputs lower-voltage power for running 12V accessories.

Ford Transit Connect Electric interior
The Transit's interior best described as utilitarian. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

In the cabin, it's back to business as usual for the Transit Connect Electric. The vehicle makes no pretenses about being a fleet vehicle for commercial purposes. Hard plastics and coarse fabrics straight out of a late '90s economy car cover all of the Transit's surfaces. The entertainment technology can be summed up as an AM-FM-CD player that outputs audio through two-speakers in our cargo van model. But technology and creature comforts aren't the point of the Transit Connect, particularly not this electric prototype, so we are by no means knocking it.

There is one obvious way to tell from the driver's seat that this Transit is special: the instrument cluster. In place of the small fuel level gauge is a battery level gauge that shows the lithium ion cells' state of charge. Larger still is the range meter, which replaces the tachometer. This gauge shows the Transit BEV's estimated range in miles. A first we thought these two gauges were redundant, but it was explained to us that the range gauge is based on the battery charge and current rate of electrical consumption, so two drivers may have different ranges with the same charge. This makes the range gauge more of a tool for adjusting driving habits than a mere battery gauge, which is kind of cool.

Keys in hand, we twisted the ignition the electric Transit and were met with...nothing. We're no stranger to driving electric vehicles, and we weren't expecting anything groundbreaking here. A simple ready light illuminated on the dashboard as the climate control systems sprang to life. We put the rather conventional shifter into reverse, eased out of our parking space, and we were off.

Like all electric vehicles, the Transit BEV was remarkably quiet. There's no revving through gears and the silence is particularly noticeable when the vehicle is stopped. But make no mistake, at a city appropriate 35mph, the Transit Connect Electric makes plenty of noise. There's a slight drivetrain whine, road noise rising up from the wheels, and a noticeable amount of wind noise.

Ford Transit Connect Electric engine
The Transit BEV's electric motor puts a modest amount of power to the wheels. Ford

The Transit's power delivery is merely adequate. It shuffles away from the stop at about the same pace as we'd expect from the four-cylinder version. There's a lot of weight being hauled around by the electric engine (5,005 pounds of it in fact, plus a cargo bay full of heavy equipment) but the torquey nature of the drivetrain made climbing the hills of San Francisco a painless--if not also unexciting--affair.

When coasting to a stop or rolling downhill, the Transit Connect's regenerative braking system recaptures a bit of energy from the vehicles momentum. There are actually three levels of brake-regen, selectable on the shifter, that gives drivers control of the amount of brake regeneration that Transit kicks in. Leave it in D and the regeneration is slight with very little engine braking. Pull down to 2 or 1 and the regeneration gets stronger, more aggressively slowing the vehicle as it hoards power.

Rounding the final turn of our admittedly brief spin in the commercial vehicle of the future, it dawned on us that we were utterly unimpressed with everything about the Transit Connect Electric. Seconds later, it dawned on us that perhaps that's what's most impressive about it.

With the Transit BEV, Ford aimed to create a fleet vehicle that is functional, familiar, and--most importantly--idiotproof. This isn't a gee-whiz flashy early adopter type of vehicle. It's a vehicle for contractors, delivery guys, plumbers, and government workers that just happens to emit zero tailpipe emissions. With fewer moving parts and fluids than the gasoline variant, the BEV should be easier to maintain and, with an intelligent grid fueling it, should be cheaper to run as well.

So does the Ford Transit Connect Electric have what it takes to make as big of a splash as its petrol-powered sibling does? We think so, but we won't know for sure until the electric Transit launches later this year as a 2011 model. Its initial sales may be limited to commercial applications, but, according to Ford, it plans to extend sales to customers when as the charging infrastructure grows.

 

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