Archive for April 2010

2007 Acura TSX

Vehicle Overview
A brand-new front-wheel-drive sport sedan joined the lineup of Honda’s luxury division as an early 2004 model. Slotted between the RSX sport coupe and the midsize TL luxury-performance sedan, the compact TSX four-door was similar to the European version of the Honda Accord. Following a modest makeover for 2006, the only change for 2007 is the addition of a standard tire pressure monitoring system.

A high-revving four-cylinder engine is standard. Modifications to the intake and exhaust systems raised the four-cylinder engine’s output to 205 horsepower for 2006. A fresh hood, new grille and updated bumper were also installed, and fog lamps became standard. Inside, Acura’s available navigation system was upgraded.

Competitors include the Audi A4, BMW 325i and Lexus IS 250.

Like so many manufacturers today, Acura promotes the sport sedan’s aggressive appearance. High-intensity-discharge headlights flank Acura’s familiar five-sided grille. These xenon lights sit above lower air intakes that suggest racing brake ducts. The back window slopes into a short trunk lid, whose sharp termination is intended to help air separate cleanly from the rear of the car at highway speeds. A power moonroof is standard.

Nine-spoke alloy wheels hold 17-inch V-rated all-season performance tires. Measuring 183.3 inches long overall and 57.3 inches tall, the TSX has a four-wheel-independent double-wishbone suspension with a multilink configuration in the rear. Trunk capacity totals 13 cubic feet.

The interior features deeply bolstered seats that are upholstered in perforated leather. A three-spoke leather-wrapped sport steering wheel contains integrated audio and cruise controls. Dual-zone automatic climate control, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel and keyless entry are standard, and the eight-speaker 360-watt premium audio system includes a six-CD changer. Acura’s optional navigation system can operate with voice recognition.

Under the Hood
Acura’s upgraded 2.4-liter four-cylinder generates 205 hp at 7,000 rpm and 164 pounds-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm.

Either a close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic with a manual-shift provision can be installed.

Side curtain airbags and all-disc antilock brakes are standard. Side-impact airbags include a passenger-sensing system. An electronic stability system is also included.

Driving Impressions
Finding fault with the TSX isn’t easy, but it feels more like a family car than a sporty four-door companion to the RSX. The manual-shift TSX accelerates eagerly, and its gearshift glides smoothly between ratios.

This sedan is exceptionally quiet and easy to drive, and it maneuvers with satisfying behavior. Unlike some sport sedans, the TSX delivers a relatively gentle ride on smooth surfaces. But on urban pavement, potholes produce substantial reactions and the ride gets stiff with considerable body movement. The seats offer excellent support, and the bright gauges are easy to read.

2008 Chrysler Sebring

The 2008 Chrysler Sebring lineup gains an all-wheel-drive sedan and a 2-door convertible. The new Sebring convertible comes with a power soft top and heated glass rear window and offers an optional power-retracting hard top.

Both body styles are available in LX, Touring, and Limited trims. All sedans and the LX convertible come with a 172-hp 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine except for the new AWD Limited sedan, which has a 235-hp 3.5-liter V6. That engine is also standard on Limited convertibles and optional on front-drive Limited sedans. A 190-hp 2.7-liter V6 is standard on Touring convertibles, optional for Touring sedans. The 2.4 and 2.7 use a 4-speed automatic transmission, the 3.5 a 6-speed automatic. Available safety equipment includes ABS, traction control, antiskid system, curtain side airbags (on sedans), and front side airbags. Optional is a navigation system with digital-audio connectivity and a wireless cell phone link. It also includes Chrysler’s MyGIG Multimedia, which has a 20-gigabyte hard drive that can hold music or picture files. Other options include a heated and cooled cupholder, remote engine start, and heated leather or cloth seats. Sedans are available with DVD entertainment.

Ford’s Role in the Fight Against Breast Cancer

Ford is proud of its 16-year National Sponsorship of the Komen Race for the Cure. To date, Ford has dedicated more than $105 million to the cause. Our commitment runs well beyond raising funds. We know that awareness leads to early detection and early detection saves lives, so we are also working to increase breast cancer awareness–last year creating over one billion media impressions. We also encourage our employees to participate. More than 50,000 Ford employees have participated in The Race and thousands of our dealers support the race in their area.

For information on how to sign up for the Komen Race for the Cure® in your area, please call 1-888-603-RACE

Through a national sponsorship of Race for the Cure, Ford reached 1.5 million race participants at 115 events annually. Warriors in Pink helped Ford reach beyond participants to extend the emotion of race day to non-racers. The 2006 Warriors in Pink campaign received over one billion media impressions. Over two million people visited, 71,000 entered the Gear up with Grey’s Anatomy Sweepstakes, 2,500 essays were received in the “Warrior of the Week” contest with The View, and over $1 million in Warrior apparel was sold.

How Ford’s Sync Technology Will Turn It Into America’s Most Surprising Consumer Electronics Company

By Paul Hochman

A tall woman in a taut skirt enters. She takes my drink order, and then I watch her disappear down a burnished-mahogany-paneled hall. It’s library quiet. Through the glass walls of the waiting area, past three Marcel Breuer chairs, I can see another woman seated at a huge desk, in an enormous mahogany office, talking on the phone. Suddenly, she stands up, reflexively straightens her flannel skirt, and smiles at somebody I can’t see. Then she looks over at me. Beckons. Time speeds up. I’m ushered across the hall.

The episode of Mad Men ends and reality begins. And there he is, Alan Mulally, the chief executive of Ford Motor Co., his red hair combed in the old-timey coif of a former Boeing engineer. He leaps to his feet.

“C’mere!” he says, and puts his arm around my shoulder. “You’ve got to see this.”

Mulally drags me into his giant inner office and points out the 20-foot-long window. “Look!”

There is a broad, sweeping view of the Rouge River; a hundred factory buildings; smokestacks.

“That’s GM,” he says, “right there. Bankrupt!”

He turns to his left, still with his arm around my shoulder, spinning me with him. I’m off balance.

“See that over there? Chrysler. All gone. Unbelievable, right?”

He’s silent for a moment. He’s not gloating, just amazed at the cataclysm right outside his window. “Unbelievable.”

Mulally has steered Ford away from the brink in the four years since he arrived from Boeing. He cut labor costs by almost 22%; rallied his company around a printed four-point mantra that 200,000 Ford employees can carry around on a card in their wallet; and with his former chief financial officer, Don Leclair, even managed to raise cash the old-fashioned way — by borrowing from a bank, securing $23.5 billion in loans without asking the government for a penny. The moves paid off. In 2009, while his competition stalled, Ford made a $2.7 billion profit; by early 2010, the company had earned “car of the year” and “truck of the year” awards from the auto press and its stock price rose 700% from its 52-week low.

Mulally also culled his brand’s herd of nameplates, to fewer than 20, from 97. This achievement especially thrills the CEO, who still becomes unhinged thinking about how unfocused, how uncool, the Ford brand had become. “I mean, we had 97 of these, for God’s sake!” he says, pointing at a list of old models. “How you gonna make ’em all cool? You gonna come in at 8 a.m. and say, ‘From 8 until noon, I’m gonna make No. 64 cool? And then I’ll make No. 17 cool after lunch?’ It was ridiculous!”

Mulally has certainly benefited from his rivals’ recent tendency to slash their own tires — as when GM was repo’d by American taxpayers, or when Toyota inadvertently installed its accelerators in the “always on” position. But his most recent move is his boldest: He’s getting out of the car business. Or rather, he’s joining forces with a most un-automotive cabal, the consumer-electronics industry. In his quest to change Ford’s culture, redefine its image, thrill young customers, and even revolutionize the car itself, Mulally wants to connect his autos to the Internet and to the souls of the people who surf it.

“Look, it’s cool to connect. But it’s past cool,” he says, standing up in the middle of his sentence. (He’s getting worked up again.) “It’s a reason to buy. Tech is why people are going to buy Ford! We’re going to be the coolest, most useful app you’ve ever had, seamlessly keeping you connected.”

Ford is transforming the car into a powerful smartphone, one that lets you carry your digital world along with you and then customize it. And by the way, says Mulally, it “makes you a better driver.” How? By freeing you from the tyrannies (and dangers) of messing with that little phone while you drive and letting you command your technology, through the car, using only your voice; by establishing the car itself as your connection to the cloud; and by giving mobile developers a way to create an ever-expanding portfolio of services designed for — and around — your vehicle.

And if the thought of a slightly stooped, graying multinational hooking up with a hot young industry leaves you a little queasy, here’s the surprise: Ford is not just basking in the borrowed glow of the likes of Pandora and Twitter; the car company is generating heat as well. To the surprise of technologists and CE wonks, Ford has discovered a way to make the world’s most popular high-tech device — the phone — stronger, just by bringing it into a car. Ford’s system takes the power, features, and much of the content on your smartphone and gives it a human-scale outlet that’s easy and safe to operate at 65 miles per hour.

It’s a new foundation for the ultimate mobile device. The automobile will never be the same.

By almost any measure, Ford’s in-car Sync communications platform, introduced in partnership with Microsoft in January 2007, has been a huge success, largely because Sync enabled Fords to do something dramatic.Where once driving entailed a kind of social disappearance, Sync was a breakthrough because it allowed you to move seamlessly from the connected world contained in your phone to an equally connected one inside your car — without touching a single button. Calls are automatically transferred to the car’s speaker system, for example, when you get in. To make a phone call without taking your hands off the wheel, all you have to do is press the MEDIA button on the steering wheel and say out loud, “Make a call.” The system speaks back to you and guides you through the process, all the while accessing the address book and call information you have on your cell phone. If that feels a little old hat, consider this: Ford’s so-called Service Delivery Network can also connect your car wirelessly to the cloud. SyncMyRide, for example, a Web-based service, lets you load a destination into your kitchen computer and pull it up on your car’s navigation system, so you don’t have to print out directions and then hold a fluttering piece of paper in front of you while you drive.

Fords with Sync already sell twice as fast as identical Fords without the system. A million and a half Sync-enabled cars are now on the road. But this spring, Sync, now firmly established as Ford’s big strategic focus, will get a killer user-interface upgrade called MyFord Touch. Coming first in the 2011 Edge/Lincoln MKX, then the 2012 Focus, the new UI is a voice- and touch-activated system, layered on top of the Sync operating system in the same way new software is updated onto your PC’s OS. And it will dramatically simplify the Sync experience. (More important, it will also satisfy Mulally’s first commandment: “We won’t do it unless it lets you keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. Otherwise, you’re not adding value to the customer — you’re just adding buttons.”)

For example, the MyFord Touch interface is customizable. Two LCD panels sit on either side of the speedometer, and drivers can change the layout of the instrument cluster above the steering wheel to suit their needs. Don’t need to know about your car’s climate right now, but you’re lost? Get rid of the climate-control graphic and replace it with the navigation display. On a long stretch of highway and don’t care about the nav? Replace it with the radio-station information or phone controls — whatever is most important to you at that moment. (You can even watch video on the center console, but only when the car’s in park.)

Being able to choose which digital information sits in front of you is a nice way to reduce what Ideo, Ford’s partner in researching the system’s design, calls “cognitive overload.” But the most dramatic changes in MyFord Touch will be profoundly human. The new voice-recognition system, created by Burlington, Massachusetts-based Nuance Communications, will let you speak to the car as if it were another human being.

In fact, according to Vladimir Sejnoha, vice president and chief scientist of Nuance, the next version of Sync actually approaches artificial intelligence. It predicts what word you’ll say next based on the string of words you’ve already spoken. It also “learns,” tuning its predictions based on its past interactions with each speaker. Nuance’s software breaks down every sound you make into its most basic components and compares them against a giant database it has collected over the past decade. “It’s a what-if proposition, millions of times,” Sejnoha says. “We don’t understand the speech, per se. We’re just saying the input signal looks like this sequence of this model, so we’re going to guess.”

All of which makes sitting in the cockpit of a 2011 MyFord Touch — enabled car a little disconcerting — sort of like talking to a cat and having it understand you. Or like talking to a cat and having it listen to you and then go get you a beer. Stored in Nuance’s system are more than 10,000 commands associated with driving, allowing you to speak normally to the car. Instead of talking to the dashboard in a stilted series of menu commands, you just say, “I’m hungry,” and out comes spoken restaurant advice, matched up with the nav system. If you’re in the mood for Oscar Peterson, you don’t have to say “music,” then “playlists,” then “artists”; you just utter the phrase “I’d like to hear some jazz.” Up comes every piece of jazz music attached to the car, whether it’s in your phone or on your iPod. If you have Sirius Satellite Radio in the car, you can say, “Find talk radio” to pull up your preferences.

But perhaps the best thing about voice recognition is what it does for the devices you bring into the car. It lets you control them with your voice too. For starters, making a phone call takes one verbal command — “Call Paul at home” — instead of five or more. But even more impressively, you can control your smartphone (and run mobile applications) through the dashboard controls. No more fumbling around with your Droid as you swerve into that semi-trailer’s lane. No more thumbing through tweets (the car even reads them aloud to you). The mobile applications from Pandora and OpenBeak (a Twitter client), as well as Stitcher, an audio news aggregator, are now available to you by simply saying the word. And those are just the first three services Ford has partnered with; more will follow.

The new combination of skills has all the earmarks of being a game changer. “I’d go one step further,” says Thilo Koslowski, a VP and lead automotive analyst for Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner. “MyFord Touch could be a category killer. Right now, Ford has redefined this market, and it has made it very difficult for anybody to enter the space and compete. Ultimately, what Ford is doing is moving the automobile into the next century.”

Other car companies are chasing the same space, including Kia, which now uses Microsoft’s open platform to create some rudimentary Sync-like features. (Ford had only 18 months of exclusivity with Microsoft, which has expired.) But Ford’s hope is that in the same way the iPhone’s hardware became the platform for an international app explosion — who thought a phone would one day be a carpenter’s level, a remote control, a compass? — Sync will transform Ford.

Dearborn was not always this app-happy. In fact, by 2001, things were looking dire. To understand how far Ford has come, digitally speaking, it’s important to recognize how dark the technological night was before the dawn.

“Everybody has been through this,” says Mulally, “where they think they can manage everything. Where they make proprietary systems that don’t work with anybody else’s. The ‘not invented here’ syndrome kills all kinds of great ideas. It’s the same thing in airplanes. The minute you make it proprietary, you’re dead meat.”

Mulally’s EVP and Americas president, Mark Fields, who looks like he could bench-press a Camry, characterizes the old days of techno-tentativity more bluntly. “We used to have a saying in the company that we were a fast follower,” he says. “Which meant we were slow.”

Starting a decade before Mulally arrived in the spring of 2006, Ford had been spending millions of dollars trying to catch up with GM’s in-car phone and modem system, OnStar. Ford had good reason: OnStar, rolled out in 1996, was highly successful. Hundreds of thousands of car owners bought the system so they could make basic cell-phone calls and connect with emergency services if needed. And owners paid for OnStar three times — for the bolted-in phone/modem box, for the $199 annual subscription fee, and for the marked-up phone minutes. By 2001, GM was pulling down hundreds of millions in revenue from that feature alone.

Ford couldn’t figure out a way to counter. The company launched and killed not one but two competing “telematics” products and was $160 million into a third, Wingcast, when Doug Van Dagens, director of Ford Connected Services, realized there was a fundamental flaw in the GM model: OnStar’s phone was built into the vehicles. That meant GM wouldn’t be able to adapt to the rapidly evolving technology outside the car. Each generation of OnStar would be obsolete almost as soon as it was installed.

Weeks before Wingcast was slated to go on the market, Van Dagens had a vision. And that vision was Bluetooth. “Bluetooth was a much more affordable method of hands-free connection [than our telematics system],” he says, “and way, way, way more flexible.” Bluetooth, now ubiquitous, was then just getting started — a basic radio language that allows all brands of consumer-electronics products and smartphones to talk to one another; a cheap, wide-open, universal protocol for voice and data that, to users, is invisible, agnostic, everywhere.

Wingcast’s CEO initially kiboshed Van Dagens’s idea of integrating Bluetooth. Van Dagens went to Ford’s leadership. “Ford took steps to insert me as the CEO and chairman of the board of the division,” he says, in a diplomatic retelling. “They said, ‘Here’s what we’d like you to do. We want you to walk into the board meeting and politely tell everybody that their services are no longer required.’ That was the point at which we said, ‘We’re not going the way OnStar went.’ ”

Still, almost three years passed between the death of Wingcast and the birth of Sync. Only in 2005, after a Dearborn meeting between “the Two Bills,” Gates and Ford, was the Sync concept hatched.

When Mulally arrived as CEO in 2006, a Sync prototype was among the development projects he was presented. That’s when he surprised everyone by pointing to Sync as the future of the company. Mulally seized on a strategy already being developed to use the low end of the Ford lineup as the tech’s showcase, seeing it as a way to do what Henry Ford had done back at the beginning: “democratize a brand new technology. Make it available to the masses.” Instead of making Sync a feature for its high-end Lincolns, it would roll out in the 2008 Focus. “People said, ‘Aren’t you making a big bet on small cars?’ ” recalls Mulally. “And I said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s not a market for small cars in the U.S.? Have you heard of the Japanese?’ ”

To hear Ford executives tell it, the implosion of Wingcast and rise of Sync presented an opportunity to redefine the company. At its core, that meant meshing the slower, bigger teeth of the car business with the smaller, faster-spinning gears of the high-tech world. “These [high-tech] companies work at a very different clock speed than Ford,” says Fields, “a much faster clock speed. We had to jump in. We had to learn.” So in that new embrace of an open system, what had changed at Ford? “Simple,” he says. “We started thinking like a software company.”

As a piece of software, Sync was designed to be a basic general-purpose platform that sits in a car and allows other companies’ products to connect to it — a simple, sturdy foundation. Outside tech experts, such as smartphone manufacturers and software designers, could connect their products to a Ford (and let their customers connect to the world) by writing code that works on top of Sync’s operating system.

“It’s Windows CE,” says Walter Sullivan, a senior product manager in Microsoft’s autos division, “with a standard Win 32 API [programming interface]. Eight million developers and 400,000 partner companies around the world know how to speak it. It’s a massive community.”

Mulally sees huge advantages in this open platform, and in the community that already understands it; he knows he doesn’t have to be responsible for developing all of the improvements. He just has to make sure they meet his standards. In fact, with so many outside experts familiar with Sync’s basic OS, and with an easy-to-mate platform, upgrades come faster and cheaper. Updated services — traffic, directions, business searches, even news, sports, and weather — can just be “beamed in” from one of six data centers around the country. Pandora and OpenBeak created Sync-specific software in just 10 days.

Ford’s group VP of global product development, Derrick Kuzak, gets a wee bit emotional talking about the power of Ford’s strategic change. “That openness,” he says of the universal platform, “you don’t know how profound that impact was on some of us. We took that fundamental learning and took it all the way to the electrical architecture of our vehicles.” It’s late on a bitter cold Michigan evening, in Kuzak’s big, low-slung office on the Dearborn campus; he leans in and extends a disapproving, Dickensian finger at my BlackBerry, sitting on his desk. “You talk about gears spinning at different speeds,” he says softly. “That phone in 10 years will be lucky to be a doorstop. Everything we’re doing, we’re trying to do faster. We’re even designing new cars 50% faster than we did three years ago, because it’s all about speed… . We got that in part from consumer electronics.”

In turn, Kuzak gave something back to the CE world: the dashboard. As anyone who has fumbled with a 2-inch-wide BlackBerry knows, the miniaturization of electronics has brought devices nearly to the vanishing point, where the keys are actually too small for the meaty fingers dancing across them. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could turn up the volume on your palm-size handheld by twisting a big knob? Wouldn’t it be nice if your phone was as easy to use as a steering wheel? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just talk to it? Why yes, yes it would.

And when Kuzak and his team connected the two — smartphone and dashboard — they realized that the dashboard actually made the newest technology both more powerful and easier to use. Play Pandora through your Sync system and the result is better than your car radio ever was. But it’s also better than Pandora ever was. “Voice is far more elegant than typing or touch,” says Pandora founder Tim Westergren. “It’s like being in the audience at a concert and yelling out the song and having the band play it.” Or as Kuzak says, “When you bring your mobile device into our vehicle, you’re actually building a better one.”

The great thing for Ford, of course, is that the more Ford improves a customer’s favorite handheld device, the more likely it is that people will want to carry their handheld devices into a Ford. And if you think this is all a niche play, think about this: Pandora was the most popular Internet-radio application in 2009, with more than 40 million users, of whom 18 million listened on their mobile devices and 9 million listened in their cars. As Julius Marchwicki, Ford’s director of mobile applications, said at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, that’s 9 million people “fumbling with their phone, voting, bookmarking, changing stations — all while driving.”

None of which means Ford’s lead in this new space is secure. Competition is looming. In addition to Kia, Audi, Mercedes, and other manufacturers are working on their own systems. “They obviously have a big lead,” says Koslowski, the Gartner auto analyst, about Ford, “but sometimes being a first mover doesn’t pay off. Think of Apple. There were plenty of MP3 players in the market before it introduced the iPod. For Ford, the burden it has put on itself is to keep innovating. I think the company is capable, but it takes a commitment all the way from the top.”

Up in his office on the 12th floor of Ford’s Dearborn world headquarters, Mulally looks out the window for a moment. Then he looks me in the eye. “I’m not worried,” he says. “We’re committed to this thing. Look, this is part of Henry’s [Ford] vision, ‘Opening the highways to all mankind.’ I think this is the way to do it.”

Paul Hochman is the gear and tech editor for Today on NBC and host of [2]’s GearDaddy.

2010 Ford Transit Connect Review

This week it’s time for something different. Unless you’ve spent time on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, anyway, in which case the Ford Transit Connect will likely be familiar. The Transit Connect is Ford’s entry in the European small van class, and the first such vehicle to make it to the U.S.

It’s being marketed as a small commercial vehicle, a solution to the needs of businesses or entrepreneurs for whom the current alternatives, a minivan, an SUV, or a small pickup with a shell, don’t quite work. Small package delivery, pet grooming, florist delivery or plant maintenance, cleaning service, mobile bicycle shop, taxi… if a (now not-so) minivan is too dedicated to passenger use, as almost all are, and ditto for SUVs and especially crossovers, and a pickup with a shell
is inconvenient, the Transit Connect is in a class of one. In the U.S., anyway.

Two slightly different versions of the Transit Connect are offered, van and wagon. The difference? The van has seating for two only, with a longer, flat, load floor behind. Its dual sliding doors are windowless, for better cargo security, with windows optional. The wagon has a two- or three-place rear seat, a consequently shorter load floor, and windows in the sliding doors. Both have the same low, less than two-foot, floor load height for easy loading, and the same high double rear doors, which open 180 degrees in standard form or optionally can fold back 255 degrees for easy access.

While the Transit Connect is primarily a commercial vehicle, it can also fit personal-use needs. I’m thinking of the “active lifestyle” people that marketing types target for SUVs or crossovers, but who are more likely to spend their money on their avocation than on a vehicle filled with frills and features. And who are likely to get the inside of the vehicle dirty on a regular basis, a problem with upscale leather and carpeting. A Transit Connect can hold a lot of camping or climbing or rafting or fishing gear. The wagon version that was my test vehicle was marginally short for bicycles (I tried) unless the front wheel is removed. The van’s six-foot load length wins out there, although that’s still too short for motorcycles, except maybe small-displacement vintage bikes.

Trim levels for both the van and wagon are XL and XLT, basic and less so. The major difference in equipment between the van and wagon is that the wagon has Ford’s AdvanceTrac® with RSC® electronic stability control system.

Drivetrain choice is easy — a 2.0-liter, 136-horsepower four-cylinder matched to a four-speed automatic, driving the front wheels. If that sounds anemic for a 3500-pound vehicle, it’s not. Acceleration is no problem, and the EPA mileage estimates — 22/25 — appear to be accurate.

The Transit Connect available here is the same one that is sold in the rest of the world, built in the same factory in Kocaeli, Turkey. The XLT wagon with which I’ve spent the past week was as comfortable as any typical compact or subcompact sedan, but with far more room. Performance and fuel economy were comparable to any small crossover, but none of those compare for interior space and access. Options available from Ford include a sonar backup sensor and in-dash computer, both fitted to my test vehicle, and tool-tracking software available in the van. With its excellent space utilization and good fuel efficiency and the multitude of possible interior configurations, the Ford Transit Connect is a vehicle of many uses. And more are to come, with battery-electric and natural gas powered variants planned for 2011.

APPEARANCE: Form follows function, and the Transit Connect is pure function. If it looks like a small version of the Mercedes-Benz/Freightliner/Dodge Sprinter, blame convergent evolution driven by space efficiency and aerodynamics. Short, narrow, and high is the way to interior space in crowded European and Asian cities. Clean aerodynamics not only contribute to fuel efficiency, but also to stability in strong winds. I encountered some of that during my driving, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Transit Connect was less affected than many sedans.

COMFORT: This is an honest working-class utility vehicle
, so the interior is plain and functional. There is less (weight-adding, so performance- and mileage-decreasing) soundproofing than in even a low-budget subcompact, with most of the shell bare inside, but road, engine, and wind noise levels are comparable to a small sedan’s. All models get a six-way manually-adjustable driver’s and four-way front passenger seats, with firm European-spec padding for good comfort. Interior materials are plastic, with synthetic cloth upholstery. XLTs get power windows, mirrors, and locks with a remote fob. There are key locks for the hood and gas cap. In most vehicles, “overhead console” means a small storage space for sunglasses. Here it means a large tray above the windshield, with a net to keep objects in place. The instrument panel presents all necessary information well, including miles to empty, and the center console is basic, with two cupholders and some open storage. Headroom is absolutely not a concern. Nor is legroom, even in the rear, which in the XLT wagon is a 60/40 flip and fold bench. Access via the large sliding doors is easy. They should also help to position cargo loaded from the rear. With 78 cubic feet of cargo volume, the wagon is surpassed only by the van’s 135. Maximum payload is 1600 lbs.

SAFETY: The 2010 Ford Transit Connect has front and front-seat side airbags, four-wheel antilock brakes (disc/drum), and a tire-pressure monitoring system. XLT wagons have the AdvanceTrac® with RSC® (Roll stability Control) electronic stability control system.

RIDE AND HANDLING: It’s a commercial vehicle, but that doesn’t prevent the Transit Connect from having the driving qualities of a comparably-sized car. While the MacPherson strut front, leaf-sprung solid axle rear suspension is meant for cargo hauling, the ride quality is more “car” than “pickup truck”, with good compliance and no jarring. Moderately-weighted power steering and a tight 39-foot turning circle and short overall length mean that the Transit Connect is easy to maneuver in tight urban parking situations, and can go where larger vans can’t.

PERFORMANCE: One might expect that a 136 horsepower engine in a 3500-pound vehicle would be the formula for “slow”. One would be wrong. No, it’s not a Ford GT when called upon to merge into traffic, but the Transit Connect holds its own. It cruises happily at 65-70 on the highway, and doesn’t impede traffic getting there. The venerable “Duratec” alloy twincam four-cylinder engine makes its 136 horsepower at 6300 rpm, with 128 lb-ft of torque at 4750, but there is ample torque at lower revs. With five-speed transmissions common in cars, the four-speed automatic may seem lacking. On paper, maybe. It works just fine. A wide spread of gear ratios, with a low low and overdrive fourth, and a 4.20:1 final drive ratio mean competent acceleration and good highway mileage. In a week with more highway driving than usual, I averaged 24 mpg – and most of those highway miles were at 70 mph — life in the slow lane on I5… I’d love to see a small turbodiesel under the bonnet, er, hood.

CONCLUSIONS: Ford explores new market space with the Transit Connect.