Ford retailers watched in dismay in the mid-1990s as a new generation of specially designed small vans like Citroen Berlingo, Peugeot Partner and Renault Kangoo started eating into sales of the venerable Escort Courier. Buyers liked the new entries' greater capacity and versatility - the result of being designed from the wheels up as a van rather than a load box grafted on to a passenger vehicle - and voted with their wallets. Sales of Berlingo, Partner and Kangoo zoomed to more than half a million units across Europe last year.
At the same time, Ford retailers were unable to capitalise on a growing trend towards sub-one tonne vans in the medium commercial vehicle segment. Although tough and durable, the market leading Transit was simply too much van for some operators. New entries like jointly developed Fiat Scudo, Citroen Jumpy/Dispatch and Peugeot Expert captured the mood of the customer - and 10 per cent of this 114,000 unit a year market across Europe.
The Ford CV fightback started in 2000 with the launch of a totally redesigned Transit - tougher, cheaper to run and more versatile, with a broader range of bodystyles and the ability to be configured as a front wheel drive vehicle for lighter duty operation. Now comes phase two - Transit Connect.
Like all good ideas, the Transit Connect premise is blindingly obvious - a purpose-built commercial vehicle that's designed to take Transit's core values into the small van market. And it has one deceptively simple USP - this is the only van in the class that will accept two 1200mm x 935mm x 800mm Europallets in its load space.
For Ford retailers in the UK, where perennial market leader Transit is a commercial vehicle icon, that adds up to a real profit opportunity. With mix and match wheelbases and roof heights, plus a number of bulkhead, seat and door configurations, Ford offers buyers a huge number of Transit Connect variations. In simple terms, they range from short wheelbase, low roof (4278mm and 1814mm) to long wheelbase, high roof (4525mm and 1981mm) with payload capacity ranging from 625kg to 900kg.
Three engines, all 1.8-litre, are available - the 75bhp TDdi direct injection diesel, the 90bhp TDCi common rail diesel, and the 115bhp 16-valve petrol. All drive the front wheels through Ford's proven MTX 75 five-speed manual transmission. Although aimed primarily at the European market, Transit Connect began life in the United States at Ford's global truck development centre in Detroit, although later development and testing was switched to Europe. Transit Connect was therefore subjected to Ford's usual truck durability testing, which insiders say is 50 per cent tougher than comparable car testing.
“We wanted to make industrial strength accessible to all areas of the market,” says Ford of Europe commercial vehicles director Paul Morel. “In fact, it's probably overdesigned for some people.” Morel makes no apology for this, however. “It's hard to make money in this business unless you're special.”
Transit Connect is built at the Ford Otosan plant in Kocaeli, Turkey, just over an hour south-east of Istanbul. This brand new plant, jointly owned by Ford and Turkish industrial group Koc Holding, was constructed to build the new Transit and Transit Connect.
Why Turkey? Until the devastating earthquake in 1999, this was the second largest Transit market in the world after the UK, with sales of more than 40,000 units a year. The UK will be a key market for Transit Connect. Ford expects most of the volume to be driven off the back of large fleets looking for a solus supply source for all their vehicles. “You need to be a full range supplier these days,” says Paul Morel, who points out Ford has recently signed a 22,000-vehicle fleet deal with BT for both Transit and Transit Connect. Launch vehicle will be the short wheelbase version, but Morel expects the long wheelbase model to be the backbone of the range.
It's the people carrying version - the Tourneo Connect - that will provide UK Ford retailers with a new market opportunity, however. Van-based people carriers - Citroen Berlingo, Renault Kangoo and Fiat Doblo - are very popular in a number of European markets (up to 80 per cent of Transit Connects sold in Spain are expected to be Tourneo versions, for example). What's more they are a growing segment in the UK, where volumes have risen from barely 700 units in 1998 to almost 9300 last year.
With its superior driveability - the smooth and punchy common rail diesel is the only engine fitted - and greater interior room (it is available only in long wheelbase, high-roof form), the Tourneo Connect gives Ford a class leading entrant in the category. And with a Focus-based Scenic and Zafira rival not due until 2003, it's also the only the only van-type passenger vehicle other than the Galaxy in Ford's product portfolio.
Disappointingly, there's no seven-seat option which would give buyers a Ford alternative to Vauxhall Zafira. “Our research found people wanted to carry five passengers plus a load,” says chief programme engineer Adrian Whittle. “We could have done seven seats, but the front-wheel-drive Transit does that.”
The Transit Connect and Tourneo Connect will arrive in UK Ford showrooms in August or September. Prices have yet to be finalised, but Paul Morel suggests margins should be reasonable across the range. “We will price against principal competitors,” he insists. “Most of the time we'll price at a premium.”