This year will certainly go down in history as the year of the small van.
So far we’ve seen the new Volkswagen Caddy Maxi, Citroën Nemo, Peugeot Bipper, Fiat Fiorino, Citroën Berlingo and Peugeot Partner.
Amid all the razzle-dazzle of these new arrivals, it’s easy to forget some of the older contenders that are still offering great service – and indeed developing with fresh variants being launched.
Take the Ford Transit Connect for example.
It was launched in 2003 amid a huge fanfare of publicity and since then has proved a rock solid performer, winning the coveted Fleet News small van of the year award along the way among other prizes.
Now in its fifth year, the Transit Connect can still hold its head up against the younger rivals and will soon be available in the dazzling new suit of sporty clothes that we see in the pictures here.
The launch of the Connect Sportvan follows the success last year of the larger Transit Sportvan, with white stripes and various chrome accoutrements, and as only 300 will be built, it’s fair to assume that they’ll be snapped up like hot cakes, as was the bigger version (600 of which were made).
Steve Kimber, commercial vehicle sales director at Ford, told me: “The reaction to the Connect Sportvan concept shown at last year’s CV Show left us in no doubt that there is strong showroom demand.
"It looks great and we anticipate it will be just as popular as its big brother. The Sportvan is all about style and individuality.
“It’s for people who want to be a bit different – and there are plenty of our customers who feel that way.”
Indeed the Connect Sportvan is entirely about image because under the bonnet is a standard 1.8-litre TDCi turbodiesel powerplant offering 110bhp and 184lb-ft of torque.
Mr Kimber said: “We think our engine is good enough as it is and we don’t go in for the faster engines that some of our rivals offer. This way you get the looks without the extra cost and the higher insurance.”
For £15,325 ex-VAT, the Sportvan offers striking Performance Blue paintwork with sporty white ‘go faster’ stripes, full body-coloured bumpers, chrome grille and side skirts, a roof spoiler, silver door mirror housings, a chrome exhaust finisher and 18in alloy wheels with 225/40 low profile tyres.
Inside there’s a leather-wrapped steering wheel, silver centre stack surround and leather seats, ABS brakes and traction control.
Behind the wheel
Looking back at the past dozen or so issues of Fleet Van, it’s true that the Transit Connect hasn’t occupied many column inches – there have just been so many other new offerings to write about.
But Ford is rarely out of the limelight for long and this new model is set to turn a few heads, just as the Transit Sportvan did.
The first thing to notice about the Transit Connect in general is that it’s bigger and chunkier than most of its rivals.
It isn’t exactly handsome to look at but it does exude its own brutish muscly charm.
The Sportvan, though, looks superb – in a chavvy kind of way – although it was a bit disappointing to discover that those chrome exhaust pipes aren’t actually attached to anything – they just hang there on the underside of the van while a standard exhaust system does the real work.
Climbing aboard, the doors are heavy and chunky and slam shut with a mighty thwunk, which speaks volumes about the solid build quality of the vehicle.
The cab is bigger than most of the rivals too and is light and airy thanks to the oversize windscreen and high roof line.
Under way it’s interesting to feel how quick this van seems, bearing in mind that it carries a standard engine.
The secret is in the torque, which is at its maximum from as low as 1,500rpm, thus giving the Sportvan an enormous amount of low-down grunt.
Top speed isn’t any better than an average van but you do seem to get there very quickly.
The engine may be standard but those chunky low profile tyres certainly aren’t.
The result is that this variant can be thrown into corners at speeds that would frighten the pants off its standard brother.
The Connect is about the only small van still to have a floor-mounted gearlever – most of the others have migrated to the dash – but it’s a short-throw stick mounted on a square plinth and the changes are as slick and sure as with any dash-mounted van.
But the question is – can the Transit Connect Sportvan be called a fleet vehicle in any way, shape or form.
Well, yes and no.
It is undoubtedly aimed at one-man business users who fancy giving themselves a treat but how about this for an idea for van fleet operators ... if you have, say a fleet of 30 Connects, why not take on one of these Sportvans?
Then you offer a competition for your drivers (say most fuel-efficient person in the firm) and whoever wins each month gets to drive the Sportvan for the following four weeks.
Just watch you staff’s driving improve!
Anyone who wants to buy a Sportvan had better be quick. Those 300 models on offer will be flying off the shelves.
Gross vehicle weight (kg): 2,240
Max power (bhp): 110
Max torque (lb-ft): 184
Price (ex-VAT): £15,325