Ford’s Facelifted Van Aimed at Baby Boomers Reliving Glory DaysBy
New Transit Connect debuted Thursday at Chicago auto show
Carmaker’s dominance with delivery vans has been a strength
The automaker pioneered the compact commercial van market in the U.S. when it brought the Transit Connect over from Europe about nine years ago. Ford still controls nearly half of the niche segment, though sales of the model fell more than 20 percent last year, as rivals including the Nissan NV200 and Ram ProMaster City encroached on its turf.
Ford has given the boxy vehicle a sleek new face, equipped it with Alexa voice controls and outfitted it with an available 6.5-inch floating touch screen. After revealing the redesign Thursday at the Chicago Auto Show, the automaker will aim to go beyond the electricians and florists who have traditionally bought Transit Connects and appeal to aging consumers who haul around their grandkids.
“We see a huge opportunity with the baby boom generation,” Imran Jalal, the van’s brand manager, said at a briefing in Detroit ahead of the show. “Drivers 50 and older will grow by 17 million over the next 10 years.”
Ford hopes Transit Connect -- which now starts at $25,800 for the people-hauling wagon version -- can be “a more affordable alternative to minivans and SUVs,” said John Ruppert, the automaker’s general manager for commercial vehicle sales and marketing.
Ford abandoned the minivan segment back in 2006 when it ended production of its Freestar model that was vastly outsold by rivals. An attempt at a comeback with the van-like C-Max hatchback in 2012 was unsuccessful, and the company is expected to drop that model from its U.S. lineup.
“With the minivan market, there’s a formula and if you stray too far from it, it’s doesn’t work,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with car-selling website Autotrader. “I don’t see the Transit Connect as a family vehicle, I see it for people that carry equipment around for their work or their hobbies.”
About 85 percent of the Transit Connects that Ford sells go to businesses using it to haul cargo. Ruppert said he hopes as much as one-quarter will be bought by personal users attracted to the new creature comforts and the van’s five- or seven-passenger seating. The new version goes on sale in the second half of this year and will offer a diesel engine that gets 30 miles per gallon on the highway.
The Transit Connect is one of the 23 new model introductions Chief Executive Officer Jim Hackett has promised worldwide this year to reverse Ford’s fortunes. The automaker also is expanding its SUV lineup with the small EcoSport crossover that arrived in showrooms last month. The company will probably sell 60,000 to 70,000 EcoSports this year, according to U.S. sales chief Mark LaNeve.
While commercial vehicles have been a source of strength for Ford, analysts have a hard time assessing the impact the Transit Connect -- a relatively small seller -- has on the company’s bottom line.
“It seems important to Ford,” David Whiston, an analyst with Morningstar Inc. in Chicago, said of the van. But since the company doesn’t break out profit by model, “it’s hard to say exactly how critical it is.”
— With assistance by John Lippert