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Operating economy and maneuverability are key attributes of the Ford Transit Connect. Most up-fitters and accessory manufacturers make bulkheads, racks, trays, dividers, and compartments for the vehicle to maximize utilization. Photo: Ford Motor Co.

With more than 600,000 units sold worldwide, the Ford Transit Connect's popularity in Europe has grown steadily since its introduction in 2003. But in North America, where big V-8s and SUVs on truck chassis are the norm, it took a recession to make our market receptive to this small vehicle.

Ford Motor Co. brought the carrying capacity of a half-ton pickup and the interior cargo volume of an SUV to a mini-truck barely 15 feet long. Payload for the cargo van is 1,600 pounds The wagon variant has rear seats, side windows, sliding doors on both sides, and rear windows. The seats' weight reduces wagon payload to just over 1,400 pounds and cuts cubic capacity behind the back seats to 78.1 cubic feet. The two-seat cargo van holds 135.3 cubic feet.

Access to cargo or tools is easier with mini-van-style sliding doors. Rear doors open to a standard 180 degrees or, optionally, 225 degrees. Lift-over height is less than 2 feet. The floor between the wheel wells is 48.1 inches. Behind the front seats, it's 72.6 inches. Floor-to-ceiling height is just shy of 5 feet.

Base prices are $22,535 for the cargo van and $23,045 for the wagon. When well accessorized, the prices are less than $26,000 for each.

To hold the price down and provide 22-mpg city/25-mpg highway fuel economy — for fewer trips to the pump — the vehicle's only power train is a 2.0 liter Duratec dual-overhead cam engine mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. It generates 136 hp at 6,300 rpm (redline is 7,000) and 128 pound-feet of torque at 4,750 rpm. Not too long ago, 1.12 hp/cubic-inch would have been respectable for a sports car, let alone a utility truck.

Braking is through front discs, with rear drums. Discs all around might improve the 130- to 135-foot stopping distances from 60 mph. The seating position is comfortable, with proper consideration given to the ergonomics of sitting, ingress, and egress.

Ford's Work Solutions package is optional. It includes an in-dash computer with wireless keyboard, Internet access, productivity software, and even printing capabilities. Another option, Crew Chief, helps track and manage fleet vehicles, while Tool Link assures that necessary tools are brought on board before dispatch and are back on board before leaving the jobsite.

THE DOWNSIDE

With a curb weight of 3,470 pounds and a loaded weight just north of 2½ tons, the truck's performance is adequate, but not outstanding. It is helped, however, by the low gearing of the front drive transaxle (4.20:1). To get good fuel mileage, third gear is direct and the fourth gear is a 0.73:1 overdrive.

The engine's power is sufficient for urban traffic, as is handling and braking. Visibility could be improved upon, since the van has no rear windows. Ford should enlarge the mirrors or add a rear-view TV for the Work Solutions' computer screen.

Transit Connect brings a new look to urban utility vehicles. It's economical, maneuvers well in city traffic, and is reasonably priced, especially when compared to current fleet utility vehicles. It gives up performance, but still merges well enough into freeway traffic. In today's economy, this vehicle may be the ideal solution for departments looking to stretch budget dollars as far as possible.

— Paul Abelson (truckwriter@anet.com) is a former director of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Association, a board member of Truck Writers of North America, and active in the Society of Automotive Engineers.