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Ford Transit Connect: Urban utility vehicle

CNET gets a drive in the Ford Transit Connect, an economical commercial vehicle designed for today's cities.

Now playing: Watch this: 2011 Ford Transit Connect XLT

Ford launched a European invasion of the U.S. passenger vehicle market with its Fiesta and Focus, while at the same time adding a little continental flavor to its commercial offerings with the Transit Connect. To Ford, each vehicle is a response to a U.S. population density more resembling Europe's every year.

The funky little Transit Connect gives commercial operators, which long relied on truck-based vehicles such as Ford's E-series vans, an economical utility vehicle more appropriate for urban and suburban areas. With its price starting at $21,290, a business can start a five-vehicle fleet of Transit Connects for a little more than $100,000.

2011 Ford Transit Connect
In Wagon form, the Transit Connect gets a second row of seats, which easily fold up. Josh Miller/CNET

The 2011 Transit Connect is not much of a tech car, so you may be wondering why CNET put it to the test. In truth, we were fascinated by the truck's utility, and wanted to get a hands-on look at its quirks. Ford is also testing out an electric version of the Transit Connect, although ours was driven by a simple 2-liter four-cylinder engine from Ford's Duratec line.

The Transit Connect can be bought in Van or Wagon configurations, the latter coming with a second row of seats. And Ford also makes Sync and navigation optional, although these are tech niceties that a fleet operator may not want to pay for, and may even not want to give employees access to.

But one very interesting tech option is a system called Crew Chief, which integrates fleet management services. With this option, a fleet manager can not only check the current location of the vehicles, but will also have access to automated maintenance records.

2011 Ford Transit Connect
With the roof cap, there is a lot of vertical space in the back of the Transit Connect.

Another very useful piece of tech in the Transit Connect is a rearview camera, coupled with parking distance sensors. The rear view from the vehicle is partially obstructed by the double swing-out doors in back, so a camera image set into the rearview mirror makes it possible to see the distance between the bumper and any obstacles.

The real beauty of the Transit Connect is that it's something of a blank slate. Get the Van version with no side windows, and you can bolt on rails for racks, shelves, and drawers. In both versions, the roof is high, with a cap that adds another foot above the side walls. The rear seat in the Wagon version easily folds up against the backs of the front seats, opening up almost as much cargo space as in the Transit Connect Van. Easily accessible bolts let you pull out the rear seats entirely.

A number of useful little features add to the Transit Connect's usefulness. The rear doors initially only open straight out from the back, but push big yellow buttons in those doors and they can be opened wide. This little safety feature keeps them from swinging out and banging into walls, other cars, or people.

There is no central lock/unlock button in the cab, which could be seen as an annoyance or a security feature. But a yellow tab on the rear door locks the Transit Connect up, useful when you've unloaded and are about to leave the car for a bit. The key is of an odd pinhole design, and is needed to open the hood. The metal load floor has its share of tie-downs.

2011 Ford Transit Connect
The cargo area offers plenty of width, depth, and height. Josh Miller/CNET

We got to imagining a number of different uses for the Transit Connect. Our model was painted in Torch Red, which made it seem a perfect fit for the San Francisco Fire Department. Put an SFFD emblem on the side, and the Transit Connect would serve well for plenty of non- or minor emergency uses.

As two of the car's six speakers were mounted in the sides of the roof cap, the Transit Connect seemed like it might make a good tour vehicle. Fit a third row of seats in the back, run a microphone into the stereo through the auxiliary input, and the driver could be showing tourists the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and Fisherman's Wharf. The large windows of the Transit Connect make for a good view all around.

And we couldn't resist imagining the Transit Connect as a conversion van, an image of three wolves howling at the moon airbrushed on the sides. Along with the speakers mounted in the cap, two others of the six face into the cargo area, suggesting good vibrations in back. The 12-volt power point in the cargo area could keep a lava lamp running.

Of course, Transit Connects are already seeing use as utility trucks, such as running elevator repair jobs for Otis. Ford has also shown off a taxi-cab modification, and a mobility package is available that loads a wheelchair on board.

2011 Ford Transit Connect
As a security feature, the hood requires a key to open. Josh Miller/CNET

One big advantage the small Transit Connect has over traditional vans for these types of jobs is fuel economy. Where a full-size van uses a V-6 or V-8, the Transit Connect gets away with a 136-horsepower 2-liter four-cylinder. This engine is not very advanced by today's standards, only earning a fuel economy rating of 21 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, but that's a far cry from a Ford E-150's 13/16 mpg.

Even more primitive in the Transit Connect is its four-speed automatic transmission. With only four gears to choose from, it leads to some uncomfortable shifts. Put the hammer down when passing another car on the highway, and the transmission slams down to something like second gear, the engine winds up to a gritty sounding 6,000rpm, and the Transit Connect still shows little in the way of acceleration. But in low-speed, around-town work, the transmission is perfectly adequate.

Besides, this low-tech power train fits the mission of keeping the Transit Connect affordable for fleets, which also usually are deployed for niche-specific work. A direct-injection engine, although getting better fuel economy, would entail a higher upfront cost.

In sum
We admit to being unreasonably fascinated with the 2011 Ford Transit Connect. It isn't much of a tech car, but the $200 Sync option would go a long way toward adding capability. The simple double-DIN head unit could be replaced with a much more capable aftermarket unit. The engine and transmission limit the car's long-distance capability, unless you don't mind cruising in the slow lane. But that power train, along with the Transit Connect's size, contributes to easy drivability. It is the kind of car where you can just jump in and go, with few complications.

It's really the vehicle's utility that hooked us. We contemplated different lines of work or sidelines just as an excuse to get one. Our camera crew's full-size van started to look like a dinosaur, when we considered filling up the Transit Connect's large cargo area with tripods, lights, and other equipment.