Sweeping away the old Escort and Courier, the Transit Connect blasted on to the scene at the end of last year, promising higher levels of ruggedness and a new weight and volume which bridges the gap between the old car-derived and light panel van sectors.
As yet, the press has failed to come up with a name for this new market – 'heavy light van' would suffice if the phrase was not such a contradiction in terms. Connect is offered in two guises – short and long wheelbase – and there are two payloads. Prices range from £9,450 to £11,725 ex-VAT, with a three-year/100,000-mile warranty.
The smaller models have a low roof and offer payloads of 625kg or 825kg and load volume of 2.8 cubic metres, while the larger models have high roofs and offer payloads of 825kg and 900kg and load volume of 3.67 cubic metres.
Under the bonnet, there is a choice of a 1.8-litre petrol engine offering 115bhp and 118lb-ft of torque, a 1.8 TDdi diesel with 75bhp and 128 lb-ft of torque and a 1.8 TDCi common rail diesel offering 90bhp and 162lb-ft of torque.
The Connect offers a generous standard package with a host of add-on extras so fleets can pick and mix for their own particular requirements. Standard equipment across the range includes driver's airbag, six-way adjustable driver's seat, pollen filter, remote central locking with double locks on all doors, load floor liner and, of course, the indispensable 'curry hook'.
Among the options on offer are twin side loading doors, fold-flat passenger seat, full bulkhead, air conditioning, alloy wheels, ABS brakes and passenger and side airbags. Ford's efforts were rewarded when Connect was named International Van of the Year by a panel of European motoring journalists recently.
After handing over the award at the Brussels International Motor Show, panel chairman Pieter Wieman said: 'Ford took a different path and did not use car-derived major components in its construction. This has resulted in a no-compromise commercial vehicle with a long list of clever and practical solutions.'
The first thing to notice about this van is that Ford has eschewed any pretensions of styling and has instead gone for a solid, square look.
Renault, Citroen and Vauxhall may be happy to create vehicles which cut a sartorial dash on the roads but in Blue Oval land, it is very much a matter of function over form. There are few rounded corners on the Transit Connect – even the headlights are square.
The front and rear bumpers are massive and made of workmanlike plastic and there are rubbing strips down each of the vehicle's sides. The upshot is that when this vehicle finally reaches the auction room, it should be free of those annoying dents and knocks that can do so much to damage residual values.
Entry to our test van was by remote plip lock – a commendable standard feature as it means drivers won't accidentally leave load doors unlocked and risk valuable cargo being stolen – and the massive doors clang shut like the gates of Fort Knox. The high seating position means the driver gets a good view of the road ahead while entry and egress are easy and painless. That's an important point if this van will be used for multi-drop work.
The driver's seat is large, solid and comfortable with good side support and a height adjustment facility means everyone will be able to find their ideal position. The steering wheel is height adjustable too, and so are the seatbelts. Even with a full bulkhead fitted, my 6ft 3in frame found plenty of room to fit in comfortably.
The dashboard carries on the square theme and looks well engineered. With a tall roofline and large windscreen, this van feels a whole lot bigger than it really is. The big screen means the sunshades have to be huge – nearly 11 inches deep to be precise. But there is a large area of unprotected glass between them – especially with the central mirror removed as in our test van – and it proved a problem several times with the winter sun sitting low on the horizon. Conversely, the side mirrors are relatively tiny.
The heating and ventilation controls are simple and the dash features a 12-volt power point in addition to the cigarette lighter. The radio/cassette player controls are big and simple too and the unit features a removable panel to deter thieves. Whether this item actually works or not is a moot point, as here at Fleet Towers we have had several stereos stolen over the years despite us having removed the front panels.
There are a good few storage places, including a holder for a wad of A4 papers on top of the dash and the centre console has two holders for drink cans or coffee cups.
But the passenger seat on our test van lacked the fold-down facility which is standard on all but the base models of the Citroen Berlingo and Peugeot Partner. This model had a single side loading door (a second door is an extra £150 ex-VAT) and rear doors which swing out through 180 degrees.
Opening those doors reveals that the rear bumper incorporates a handy plastic step and two nets in the doors will stop smaller items from rolling around the load bay. Also fitted was a full bulkhead (a £100 option) and a wipe-clean ribbed plastic floor. There are six load lashing points in the floor and the eyes can be removed and placed in 10 different screw holes around the sides of the van. There are also six hooks near the roof for tying-in purposes. Neat stuff.
On the road
A fast run from Peterborough to Belgium and back to cover the Brussels International Motor Show gave me plenty of time to appreciate the finer points of the new Transit Connect.
After almost 1,000 miles of hard driving in two days, I was left convinced that this vehicle has earned its title of International Van of the Year. The Connect's TDCi common rail diesel engine is found in everything from the Focus to Mondeo and has already proved itself as a smooth, powerful performer.
In Connect, it starts up quietly and without the old diesel rattle on cold mornings and will pull like a train in every gear. Clutch and gearchange are both light and with a nicely weighted power steering set-up, the Connect is as car-like to drive as any van can be.
Ford has pulled off a clever marketing coup by labelling this van a Transit. Transit is a legend in its own lifetime and means one name will fit virtually all commercial vehicle needs.
Durability and reliability are the two top requirements for fleet customers and the Connect has an abundance of both. Look out for many Transit Connects on UK roads in the future.