It stood by as first Citroen and Peugeot, and then Renault, Fiat and Vauxhall, launched new light vans built on dedicated platforms, offering only Escort van and Courier as an alternative.
Now Ford is back with a vengeance. The Connect - dubbed the baby Transit - is set for launch in August and after a first drive of the vehicle in short and long wheelbase formats, Fleet News can confirm that a new LCV star is born.
Ford has eschewed the 'Postman Pat' styling favoured by the other manufacturers and has instead gone for a chunky, macho look that promises serious muscle power and doesn't disappoint.
Paul Morel, Ford of Europe's director of commercial vehicles, told Fleet News: 'We have a market leader in the Transit but it is no longer sufficient to just have one good product. We need a whole range and the Transit Connect gives us just that.
'We have now shown fleet buyers the Transit Connect in long and short wheelbase formats at the RAI show in Amsterdam and at the CV Show in Birmingham and the response has been very warm.'
Set for launch in August, Transit Connect will be available in three guises - short wheelbase standard roof, long wheelbase high roof and Tourneo, a five-seater with side windows.
There will be three engines, all 1.8-litres - Ford's proven TDdi unit offering 74bhp at 4,000 rpm and 129lb/ft of torque at 1,800rpm; the common rail TDCi with 88bhp at 4,000rpm and 162lb/ft at 1,700rpm and a petrol engine with 113bhp at 5,700rpm and 118lb/ft at 4,400rpm. The petrol unit will allow for LPG and CNG gas fuel conversions.
Morel said: 'Our aim with Transit Connect was to set new standards in durability, payload, loadbox flexibility and security and I believe we have achieved this. We decided to keep the Transit name for the new van as it is synonymous with dependability and will be appreciated by the customers who already know it. 'Our motto is: it drives like a car and works like a truck.'
But surprisingly, Morel added: 'This van is overdesigned for some applications. It has been built to work hard and some fleets which want a vehicle for lighter use may have to look elsewhere.'
Already Ford is putting 10 Connects in service with British Telecom and they will be monitored closely for any problems over the next few months.
A party of specially selected journalists was flown to the state-of-the-art Ford plant at Kocaeli in Turkey to watch the vans coming off the line and to drive the various derivatives through the Turkish countryside.
Outside, the Connect has a large front screen for maximum visibility and it shares its big brother's dropped side screen, which gives extra vision via the large side mirrors. In the cab, the driver's seat adjusts for height and rake, as does the steering column.
The passenger seat folds down level with the load floor for extra cargo space and there is a multitude of options, including air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, ABS brakes and CD player. Such is the attention to detail that the Connect features space for a pen and mobile phone and even a curry hook. In the Tourneo, the rear seats fold forward or can be removed from the vehicle altogether to maximise loadspace.
In the rear, the SWB version offers a class-leading 3.4 cubic metres of loadspace with the passenger seat folded and 4.36 cubic metres for the LWB version. Payload is 625kg for the SWB (with an option to increase to 825kg) and 700/825/900kg for the LWB.
Up to two sliding doors can be specified at a price and both models can incorporate two Euro pallets. A ladder bulkhead is an option, along with a folding full width or full height alternative.
On the security front, the Connect boasts Transit's lock-in-latch system which is claimed to make the van almost impossible to break into, shielded wiring and a key-operated bonnet lock.
The success or otherwise of the Transit Connect depends largely on pricing and this will not be revealed until July.
In the meantime the opposition is not resting on its laurels in blissful ignorance of the storm about to erupt around it. Citroen has already announced cashback offers of up to £1,300 on Berlingo, so this summer looks like a good time for fleets to snap up a tasty light van deal.
Behind the wheel
FORD describes the new Connect as the baby Transit, but if this van is a baby, it must be a cuckoo in the car-derived nest, standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
Citroen and Peugeot set the ball rolling in the sector with the Berlingo and Partner, the first of their kind that were built as a van from the nuts and bolts upwards, rather than starting as a car and being adapted. These vans have been phenomenally successful and the Berlingo has won the Fleet News light van of the year award every year since its conception.
Not far behind was Renault with its stylish Kangoo. Fiat followed with the outlandish looking but best-in-class load volume Doblo Cargo and last but not least was Vauxhall with the new Combo.
The great thing about lagging behind the pack is that you can assess what is good and what is not so good about the opposition and act accordingly to avoid the pitfalls. But with Transit Connect, Ford has done much more. For starters, while the opposition all looks fairly similar, the Connect style stands apart. If the Berlingo looks like Postman Pat's van, the Connect must surely belong to Desperate Dan. Its muscles ripple and Ford's claim that it has set new standards in ruggedness appear to be true.
Climbing aboard, the first thing you'll notice is that beautifully supportive driver's seat, which not only adjusts every which way but has adjustable lumbar support and an armrest.
The dashboard is solid, chunky and businesslike with no pretension at style and the centre part will hold an A4 clipboard, as will the glovebox. There is also a document rack over the driver's head and a small pocket on the front of the driver's seat. With curry hook and space for a mobile phone, it is obvious that a great deal of thought has gone into driver comfort. There are can and coffee cup holders but unfortunately, no space for white van man's precious two-litre cola bottle.
Ford boasted about the number of different bulkheads available but disappointingly, all are paid-for options.
The thoughtful touches carry on in the rear of the van, where Ford has provided a 12-volt powerpoint near the rear doors as well as in the cab.
And there are a number of drilled holes in the sides of the van which can be used for racking systems. Alternatively, the six load-lashing eyes in the floor can be unscrewed by hand and positioned in these holes. Damned clever stuff - simple but very effective.
On our 20 kilometre test route through the dusty villages around Kocaeli, Ford wisely chose to provide us with common-rail diesel engined versions of the Connect and Tourneo.
As most of the opposition now offers only these new technology engines, it would not do Ford any favours to let us journalists drive both back to back - once you've tried common rail, nothing else will do.
The 88bhp engines proved quiet and smooth, yet lusty and gutsy on the road. Ford claimed it was aiming for Focus levels of handling and it has achieved just that. The Turkish roads did their best to faze the Connects I drove - dirt, dust, potholes, crazy hairpin bends and suicidal lorry drivers who didn't seem to know which side of the road was theirs. But not once did the Connect bat an eyelid and with ABS brakes and brake assist provided, I was assured of arriving back at Ford's Turkish factory safely in one piece.
FORD has let the opposition have its own way too long. The Transit Connect is everything it is claimed to be and a lot more. The local florist won't like it and neither will the baker, but Ford is happy to let these customers go elsewhere.
Big men (and women!) with tough fleet needs only need apply - and apply they will.
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