A few years ago, in a conversation over Thai food with my wife, I glanced into the street at a dented Dodge Caravan with a stick figure family decal on the back window, and said that if I ever wanted to buy a minivan, she had permission to kill me. Now, after favorably driving the Ford Transit Connect Wagon in Detroit, I'm afraid this may be the last article I ever write.
I'm going to let you in on a secret: Detroit gets a tad cold and snowy in the winter, and based on the city having the budget of a six-year old's lemonade stand, a fresh foot of powder on the ground is met with a "why plow when you can do nothing?" attitude. With the massive amount of salt and unplowed real estate, not to mention meteor crater-sized potholes on the roads, It's not exactly a great place for cars in the same way the icy North Atlantic isn't the best place for your unsinkable luxury ship.
Because no one in the car industry has any foresight, the yearly Detroit Auto Show occurs smack in the middle of January. Jalopnik's crack team of writer monkeys needed a car that wouldn't quit, and were too cheap to get a rental car, so the obvious choice was a front-wheel drive, four-cylinder minivan. And no, that line wasn't hyperbole.
This car will knock any SUV in a three-mile radius right into a cocked hat, and here are a few reasons why.
Car companies do this thing every once in a while where they design all of their cars around their best looking, or most prominent model. Nissan did it with their 370Z and GT-R,Chevy did it with their Corvette, and Acura did it with the endangered California Condor. Ford, however, threw their design language away and likely after several rounds of frustrated beer pong, said "Aston Martins are sexy. Let's make that." The Transit's large-mouth front grille, the rakish, swept-back body lines and the attention to the golden ratio in the car's proportions is why this minivan looks all kinds of right.
It looks as aggressive as a Focus ST, which is a pocket supercar in its own way. The only minor gripe I have is that the wheel wells are a bit too small for my liking, but as the Transit uses regular economy car tires to propel its mass instead of huge 75-profile tractor tires on dubs like you'd see on a mid-range SUV, it's an added frugal benefit, rather than a hindrance in the car's design.
The interior is the most important part of any car, unless you're Ralph Lauren and like to sit in your climate-controlled mega-garage and stare at your collection of cars on pedestals and try to remember what driving feels like. The Transit has enough going on that it won't feel dated in a decade's time. Everything has a deliberate flow, and it looks like each angle was sculpted and carefully thought through before finalizing, not like the napkin-drawn, ruler-corrected, first-draft ways of design in the '80s and early '90s. Compared to BMW's more expensive X5 interior, the materials may look a bit cheaper (and they are), but the Transit is simply easier to manage and much less imposing and cumbersome than the elegant-yet-cluttered mess that is BMW's interior styling.
The Transit Connect Wagon's perforated leather isn't a rock-hard nightmare like the base-spec leatherette in BMW's mid-range X5 truck, and looks more like the textured cowhide that comes on mid-range Mercedes-Benz E-Classes of late. It makes the Transit truly a nice place to be.
One thing I absolutely love about newer cars in general is that gauges are almost always thoughtfully designed, and the Transit does not disappoint. It's extremely pleasing and minimalistic, with a colorful and high-contrast LCD display at the top for your MPG readouts, driving modes, and menus.
...and then there's the space. Holy tapdancing crapplesauce, the sheer space inside this thing is immense. As the Jalopnik six-man team piled in for the show in the wee hours of the morning, the car never felt cramped, even with full-size airline carry-on luggage that fit behind the third row snugly. The car also has two large overhead closeable bins in the second row, and a large open overhead storage area in front of the driver's seat.
It's truly RV-like in its execution, and most likely the only car in which you could comfortably don a top hat. If we compare head room, to the most ubiquitous and class-leading SUV on the market – the Range Rover – the Transit beats it by more than six inches in both front and rear head room. You also don't have to take it to the dealer if one of your kids drops a crayon between the seats.
Now comes the toughest part of any new car assessment: the "infotainment" system. That's a word that a half-tumescent and self-satisfied ad executive came up with after his boss told him that he shouldn't bother coming into work on Monday if he didn't come up with a better name than "computer radio."
It's a dumb term, but as far as implementation of the system goes, the Transit has the least annoying version of Ford's current system. To grandpa Tavarish, who loves buttons and relies on muscle memory, using this new-fangled system doesn't come with a steep learning curve. Connecting a phone through Bluetooth is a little on the finicky side, but just like waiting in line at the DMV, you likely won't have to go through the process again for a long while, so it's best to just get it over with as soon as possible.
The navigation did as well as it could in the endless grid that is the Motor City and hardly ever got confused, with a relatively easy to follow map layout. However, and this is sheer personal preference yet again, but the screen is on the small side. When you've been on the road for hours, the kids in the back are restless from watching the SpongeBob movie for the third time in a row and the only thing you want at this point is the business end of a pillow, the last thing you need is a screen that now requires your readin' glasses. Glare isn't a problem because of a well-designed overhang that provides shade, but even so, a 20% increase of screen size would have made it a more enjoyable experience.
There's a dual-zone climate control in the front, and a rear, LCD-less control in the second row, that either didn't work, or my feeble brain couldn't understand how to use it, as it did nothing but blow ice-cold air, no matter the setting, so I left it off for the very real fear of frostbite in the sub-freezing Detroit climate. The parking assist system wasn't taxed in parking-abundant Detroit, but the rear view camera and various visual and audible alerts were a great addition to the car's usability – an indispensable utility in more population-dense areas. An added bonus to this system is that the car's ride height isn't SUV-spec stratospheric, so if you do rely on swinging your head 180 degrees to back up, you'll have enough visibility to be able to make an informed decision as to whether or not you really want to run over the neighbor's cat.
One of the most impressive features, however, was the power window on each of the rear sliding doors. Something like that wasn't necessary as most vans until recently didn't have this option, but it's another touch that the forward-thinking heads at Ford decided to put into their lovable and pragmatic people-hauler that made the experience that much more useful and enjoyable.
If you've ever driven in a car with good suspension, that's what this van feels like. It doesn't have a crazy high center of gravity like you'd get on any SUV, so you can lightly chuck it into corners, and the power delivery from its 169 horsepower, 2.5 liter 4-cylinder engine feels like more, due to its adequate area under the power curve. That means that you don't need to rev the valves off the engine to appreciate what it can do and most of the power is in the middle of the rev range, exactly where it should be, because you're not Mario Andretti, you're dropping your kids off at Panera.
There aren't any hill-assist modes or center differential settings that you'd see on something like a Dodge Durango, that may manage to kid its owners into thinking that they'll be traversing arctic tundra or desert dunes on the way to Applebees, because this van is front-wheel drive, and it makes no excuses as to what it is. It just works.
As far as inclement weather – the one unequivocal raison d'etre for for the traditional SUV – the van fared astonishingly, but unsurprisingly well. In the few inches of compacted snow that I experienced, the traction control system was nothing short of phenomenal. Not only did I never get stuck, but in order to make this car slide in the snow at all, you had to disable the traction control, which is only done via the car's menu, and put it into the transmission's "S" mode, locking it into gear. Hooning this car was akin to simultaneously turning the keys in a nuclear sub, with the giant red launch button being the very usable center console hand-operated parking brake, which is something sadly missing from most high-end Sport Utility Vehicles.
As tested in Titanium trim, the Ford Transit Connect Wagon was a touch less than $32,000. As a lump sum, that's a lot of money. For a new car, especially one that can handle a sheer amount of tasks with relative ease, it's a freaking bargain. Infiniti's three-row starter crossover, the QX60, with its cramped rear seats and a needless full-time all-wheel-drive system will set you back at least $43,000 for the hum drum base model and likely won't retain the Transit's value and won't do things as well as this plucky van can. Check. Mate.
The EPA estimates that this van could do 30 MPG on a highway stretch. Fully loaded and in hoon mode, this parking-lot blasting people carrier returned a little less than that, but only just. To compare, the only three-row SUV that even comes close to that is the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and it misses the mark by two miles per gallon, and it's a whopping $15,000 more, in base trim.
If you're thinking about buying a premium three row crossover or SUV because you want the kids to be safe and secure, finish your double-mocha venti Crapuccino and drive one of these. It's an amazing looking vehicle, and while it can fall short in some minor areas, like front display screen size, it's a solid car for anyone looking to do, well, anything. It's a jack and master of all trades, and at a price that rivals mid-size sedans, it has the value that simply can't be beat by any 3-row SUV on the market today. If you have a pulse, go and drive one and realize that you've probably been doing it wrong this whole time.
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world's cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he's the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn't feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.