Minivans used to be practical, inexpensive and — most of all — mini.
They are still practical.
If you’d like something that’s also inexpensive, practical and mini, you might want to check out the Ford Transit Connect and its two chief rivals, the Nissan NV200 and the Dodge Ram ProMaster City (which is also mini except for its name).
All three are retakes on the original minivan concept: They’re about the same size as a circa mid-1980s Dodge Caravan, which was 175.9 inches long (the Ford is actually a bit shorter at 173.9 inches) and several feet stubbier than a current not-so-mini-van like the 2016 Dodge Caravan (which is 202.8 inches long).
Like the ’80s-era vans, they have not-too-thirsty four cylinder engines (current not-mini-vans all have thirsty V6s) and not-too-hefty MSRPs.
But you get dual sliding doors — standard in the Ford — and the low floor height and comparatively huge (vs. a same-size car) interior volume that made the ‘80s-era vans so useful.
Which is why they became so popular.
Plus, some other things.
Like interiors that can be configured with … nothing. Or, almost. A driver and front passenger seat — and lots of open space behind that. Haul a load of firewood. Or a motorcycle.
Side windows — or not.
Line the interior with shelves and racks for your business.
Or trick it out jitney bus-style, with three rows of seats (a Ford exclusive).
Make it into a mini-me RV.
Lots of possibilities, potential uses — and even some fun, too.
WHAT IT IS
The Transit Connect is a modern take on the original minivan idea — and a counterpoint to the modern not-so-mini-van idea.
Like the ’80s-era vans, it’s fairly small overall (about the same length as a current compact sedan) but has lots of space inside — 128.6 cubic feet of it for the long wheelbase cargo van (a short wheelbase version is also available; it has 104.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity).
Or, carry up to seven people in three rows — almost as many as a current not-so-mini-vans like the Dodge Caravan — and more than either of its two rivals, which max out at five (two, for the appliance-like Nissan NV200).
The Ford’s base price is $22,900 for a regular wheelbase cargo van with two person (driver and passenger) seating and no side glass and dual sliding doors.
The same thing but with a longer wheelbase — and more room for cargo — stickers for $23,900.
A top-of-the-line Titanium long-wheelbase trim — dressed with heated leather seats (and three rows of seats), power folding exterior mirrors, automatic climate control and a 6.5 inch LCD touchscreen — stickers for $30,215. You can get a minivan-style one-piece liftgate with this one, too. Or stick with the dual side-opening doors that are standard on other trims.
The Ford’s chief rivals are the Nissan NV200 and the Dodge Ram ProMaster City.
The Nissan (also sold under the Chevy label as the City Express) is the cheapest (and most basic) of the bunch — $20,870 to start, topping out at $21,760. But it’s only available in the one (short) wheelbase and only in two-seater configuration.
The Ram has the most cargo capacity of the three (as much as 131.7 cubic feet) and uniquely offers a “high roof” body and can carry 1,900 lbs. of cargo (much more than the Nissan NV and more than the Transit Connect) but only offers five-passenger seating and doesn’t offer higher-end amenities like the Ford’s available panorama glass sunroof.
Base price for the ProMaster City is $23,445 for the two-person/commercial-duty Cargo trim — topping out at $26,070 for a five-person SLT Wagon.
Some bad news.
The Transit Connect used to be the only one of the three that offered an engine upgrade. For about $800 extra, you could sub in Ford’s 1.6 liter EcoBoost (turbocharged) four cylinder in place of the otherwise standard 2.5 liter (and not boosted) four.
Well, the option to kick up the power/performance is now off the table. The standard — and only — engine available in the ’17 Transit Connect is the boilerplate 2.5 liter four.
The good news is the base engine — now standard across trims — is only slightly less strong, much less complex and — it’s free.
Well, no extra charge.
There’s also a cosmetic refresh (with a less utilitarian-looking front clip) and cruise control is now standard in all trims, including the base cargo trim.
The available LCD touchscreen has been updated with Ford’s Sync 3 software/layout (a huge improvement over the previous MyFord Touch rig) and you can get the top-of-the-line Titanium trim in short wheelbase form.
Last year, you had to accept the longer wheelbase layout, if you wanted the Titanium’s high-line features and amenities.
More versatile than its rivals. Short and long wheelbase versions; 2-7 person capacity.
Take your pick of rear door styles.
Nicer than its rivals, even in base Cargo trim.
Can tow 2,000 lbs. — which is 2,000 lbs. more than the Nissan NV200 can tow.
Huge windshield frontal area gives outstanding view of the road ahead.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No more engine upgrade.
Can’t haul as much as Ram ProMaster.
If you don’t order side glass, the view to the side is not outstanding. Be extra careful pulling out from side roads. One-piece rear liftgate limited to Titanium trim.
UNDER THE HOOD
While the exterior (and interior) get an update — and more features — what’s under the hood is a carryover from last year.
And your choices are limited to one.
The ’17 Transit’s standard and only available powertrain is a 2.5 liter four paired to a six-speed automatic and (like the Nissan NV200 and the Ram ProMaster City) front-wheel-drive.
On the upside, the 2.5 liter four is much stronger (169 hp) than the Nissan NV200’s 2.0 liter four (131 hp) which barely has enough gumption to pull the van along and forget about a trailer (the NV200 is rated to pull zero; “trailer towing is not advised”).
The Ford can pull a 2,000 lb. trailer and carry 1,620 lbs. of whatever inside (like a load of logs, for instance).
And, the 2.5 liter engine is a regular fuel engine. The now-retired 1.6 needed premium.
The Ram ProMaster City is a closer shave. It comes standard with a somewhat stronger 178 hp 2.4 liter four, paired with a nine-speed automatic. It has the same 2,000 lb. maximum trailer rating — but you can pile 1,883 lbs. of logs or whatever inside the thing. The Ram’s mileage is best of the bunch, too: 21 city, 29 highway — vs. 20 city, 28 highway for the Ford.
The NV200 comes in third: 24 city, 26 highway.
Shamefully, the 40 MPG-capable diesel engines that are available in the European-spec versions of these vans are not available in the U.S. For example, the 1.5 liter Duratorque diesel that you can buy in the UK and Western Europe.
But it doesn’t meet federal emissions standards — so we can’t have it.
This does not mean these diesels are “dirty.” No vehicle engine made in decades (whether gas or diesel-engined) is “dirty” in any meaningful sense. Only in the bureaucratic sense of not complying exactly with the EPA’s hair-splitting ukase — which defines “dirty” as tailpipe exhaust that’s fractionally less “clean” than a hybrid or electric car’s tailpipe emissions.
It’s too much bother to deal with the EPA’s rigmarole — so even American car companies like Ford won’t sell Americans the clean and efficient diesels they happily sell to Europeans.
Is Paris or London choking under a blanket of dirty air?
And neither would Atlanta or Denver — if it weren’t for Uncle.
ON THE ROAD
Like the ‘80s-era vans, none of these vans are exactly swift. They all take about 10 seconds to get to 60, which will keep pace with a Prius hybrid but leave you eating pretty much everyone else’s dust.
If the guy next to you at the light wants to race — or even has it in mind to try to outrun you. Probably, he doesn’t — and won’t even notice the light has gone green until a few seconds after it already has.
In which case, you win.
Despite the potential quickness of almost any modern vehicle, not many drivers actually use that potential. They mostly slow-poke along, no matter what they’re packing under the hood. Which is good in a way because it makes up for the deficit of actual power in a vehicle like this — whose driver is prepared to use every bit of it.
So, the Transit (and its rivals) is only “slow” if you let it be.
It’s also worth pointing out that last year’s version with the available 1.6 liter EcoBoost engine was only slightly speedier (just under ten seconds) but cost $800 more. That was apparently too high relative to what you got, so not enough people ponied up.
Which is why Ford dropped the 1.6 engine from the roster.
And — on the upside — the 2.5 liter engine is a less complicated (and less stressed) engine than the turbocharged 1.6 liter engine. It’s probably a better choice for the boilerplate duty a vehicle like this is destined for.
A big difference exists, transmission-wise.
And not only in terms of layout.
Of the three, the Ford is the only one with a conventional six-speed automatic. The Nissan has a continuously variable (CVT) automatic and the Ram has a nine-speed automatic, sourced from Fiat (which owns Chrysler, which owns Dodge and Ram).
The Transit’s transmission behaves conventionally — which means, unobtrusively. It shifts, the van goes. Nothing unconventional about it.
In the Nissan, you’ve got a shift-less CVT.
No gears changes because there are no gears to change. CVTs are basically variable speed transmissions that transition (rather than shift) from range to range, depending on how much the driver pushes down on the accelerator pedal. If he pushes down hard, the engine won’t do the usual thing of revving — followed by the transmission shifting (and engine revs decreasing with each upshift). Instead, the engine will rev — and stay revved. RPMs will climb to near redline and remain there for as long as the driver keeps his foot in it.
Because there is no upshifting to the next -highest gear.
If the engine is under-powered for the application (as in the NV200) there will be a lot of noise and other signs of struggling during acceleration.
Ironically — because CVTs are used in lieu of conventional automatics with fixed gears in order to boost fuel economy — the Nissan’s mileage and performance stats are the worst of the three.
The Ram ProMaster’s nine-speed automatic, on the other hand, shifts too much.
It spends a lot of time hunting for the right gear — which is a hard gear to find sometimes, given how many of them there are. And going downhills, the vehicle sometimes feels like it’s jumping forward — which it is. The transmission is trying to get into the highest possible gear — to reduce engine RPM — for maximum economy. But leap-frogging from say sixth to ninth results in a weird forward-surging sensation, even though your foot’s off the accelerator.
As with the CVT, the Ram’s nine-speed box is there for maximum efficiency. And while it does deliver, it’s not much of a difference. Just 4 MPG in city driving and 1 MPG on the highway. In combined driving, it’s a negligible difference vs. the Transit.
Which doesn’t surge forward on the downslopes.
Ride (and handling) wise, all three of these jitneys do their best work at lower-than-highway speeds. As speed increases, they put you more in tune with the sounds of the outside world, including wind and tire noise.
Wagon/passenger versions are better — because they’re insulated. But they are all noticeably noisier than not-so-mini-vans like the Grand Caravan, Nissan Quest and Kia Sedona.
The Transit — which shares its suspension/chassis underthings with the Escape crossover and C-Max wagon — actually handles not-badly. The ride is a bit bouncy, but that’s true of all three.
Even more so for the Nissan NV200, which is the most Kenmore-like of the bunch.
The Ram also leans toward the utilitarian. It is taller (74 inches vs. 72.5 for the Ford) and while that’s helpful in terms of cargo space (and versatility; you can get taller objects inside) it is a liability in terms of road noise at highway speeds. The ProMaster is also more susceptible to being knocked around by crosswinds.
Like the Nissan NV, it also comes in just the one (long) wheelbase: 122.4 inches vs. either 120.6 (long wheelbase) or 104.8 inch (short) wheelbase for the Ford. The short-wheelbase Ford is much more close-quarters friendly and on the highway, it handles more like a car than a UPS truck.
One thing to know about all these rides is that without the extra-cost side glass, visibility to the side is awful. Making a left turn onto a busy road from a side street in the base Cargo trim will make you wish you’d spent the extra few bucks for the door glass.
AT THE CURB
They are all a little weird looking.
It depends on your point of view.
Proportionately over-tall and stubby — with snout-like noses. They’re also a type of vehicle still fairly unusual to see on American roads because of something called the “chicken tax,” which makes them more expensive to import. The tax basically punishes anyone who imports small pick-ups by hitting them with a fat tariff upon entry. We’d see more (and cheaper) vehicles like this were it not for the tax.
The Transit and its main rivals all have the minivan virtues of very low step-in (and floor/loading) height, which makes them easier to get into and out of — and get cargo in and out of.
Ramps are not necessary.
And most of all, they lack the hugeness of no-longer-mini traditional vans.
The Transit in particular.
In regular wheelbase form (104.8 inches) it is only 173.9 inches long. A Honda Civic sedan (just to give you a sense of things) is 182.3 inches long. The “compact” Civic is 8.4 inches longer overall than the Transit. But its maximum cargo capacity is just 15.1 cubic feet vs. 103.9 cubic feet for the Transit.
And a compact sedan like the Civic seats only five — while the physically more compact Transit can handle as many as seven.
A standard-sized not-so-mini-van like the Dodge Caravan has more room for cargo — 143.8 cubic feet — but it is also almost two-and-a-half feet longer overall (202.8 inches vs. 173.9) and also has — no surprise — a three foot wider turning circle (39.1 feet vs. 36.1 feet).
Current not-so-mini-vans like the Caravan can be a lot to live with. Mini-vans like the Transit are much less of a handful.
This includes the long wheelbase version (120.6 inches) which is still only 189.7 inches long overall (only a few inches longer than the Civic) but offers 128.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity.
It’s nice that Ford offers you the option.
The Nissan NV comes only in short wheelbase (115.2 inches) form but it’s still longer overall (186.3 inches) than the regular wheelbase Transit. It does have more capacity for cargo than the regular wheelbase Ford — 122.7 inches — but it’s not available with seating for more than two and it can’t pull anything.
The Ram ProMaster comes only in long wheelbase (122.4 inches) form and has the most cargo capacity 131.7 cubic feet and its taller roofline makes the space more usable, particularly for tradesmen, who might line the walls with tool racks and shelving. But despite its cargo-utility room advantages, it still seats a maximum of five and is less suitable for use as a smaller-scale RV or modern actually mini-van.
Ford goes after that end of the market much more aggressively, offering not just three rows of seats but also genuine niceties such as leather seats, climate control, a panorama roof, sound-deadening acoustic exterior glass, rain-sensing wipers and a 6.5 inch LCD touchscreen.
Dual sliding doors and four-wheel-disc brakes are standard (the Nissan charges extra for the second slider and comes standard with rear drum brakes). Forget the heated leather seats.
You’re lucky they offer AC.
And in addition to the minivan-style dual sliding side doors, the Ford also offers something no conventional minivan does: The option to go with a minivan-esque one-piece liftgate or a pair of sideways-opening doors.
While we can’t have the high-efficiency Duratorque diesel engine available in the Euro-spec Transit (which is called the Tourneo in Europe) we are allowed to buy a factory compressed natural gas (CNG) prep package. This lets you run the thing on either regular unleaded (easier to find) or CNG (cheaper than gas and cleaner-burning than gas). This could lower your operating costs, if you plan to use your Transit for commercial/business purposes and will lower your maintenance costs for things like oil changes, because service intervals are longer in between when burning CNG.
The new Sync3 interface — with its smartphone-like pinch/zoom controls and larger tap/swipe icons — is a big improvement over the prior MyFordTouch rig. The available heated windshield (electric grid embedded in the glass) is another plus, if you have to deal with winter. Without this assist, all that glass would take a long time to defrost on a cold day.
There is very little not to like about this mini-van in everything except name.
One of the few nits I’ll pick is that you can’t get the one-piece rear liftgate in the lower trims. It’s only available in the top-of-the-line Titanium.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Despite the chicken tax idiocy, the Transit and its rivals are still relatively affordable — and very practical.
The Ford isn’t the most affordable of the three; however, the price spread isn’t huge.
But it is the most versatile, available in more configurations — and with more amenities — than its rivals.
And, it’s nicer.
If you need more than Just the Basics — or need to pull anything — it’s probably the one you want.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos