At this year's Chicago Motor Show, Ford pulled the wraps off the Transit Connect, a roomy little commercial van that, in years past, might have been described with words like "ungainly" and "awkward." That's because the vehicle was designed for the tight streets of Europe, which require taller, narrower products than the conventional vans and other models we've grown accustomed to on American roads.
But in a surprise move, Ford has decided to introduce the affordable and oh-so-functional Transit to the States, marking the first product, in recent years, to make the trans-Atlantic jump in whole cloth - or, if you prefer, sheetmetal.
Over the decades, Ford has often tried to share products between its various, global operations. Several versions of the old Escort, for example, were developed by the automaker's Japanese affiliate, Mazda Motors. The small car's replacement, the Focus, was initially developed primarily by Ford of Europe.
So were the Ford Contour and Mercury Mistake, er, Mystique. Less than successful in the States, those two models suffered from a variety of problems, including the difficulty in developing a product for one market, then shipping it over to another. In Europe, customers are less likely than Americans to equate size with price. And the Mondeo - the European equivalent of the Contour - played in a much more up-market segment than the U.S. version did. That caused problems in several ways, as it was difficult to engineer out the higher production costs of the Mondeo to make it possible to sell Contour for a profit.
Going forward, however, Ford's European and American engineers will be working far more closely together, so if a product has potential on both sides of the Atlantic, that will be carefully factored into the initial design. Yes, there'll likely be more content - in the form of upscale features - on the European models. But that's less difficult if such matters are considered from the start.
What's critical is that by sharing product development, Ford can shave billions off its annual product development bills. (And that allows it to give us Americans more upscale features, by the way.) It's the basic logic that has driven the Japanese and European makers forever, it seems. (And which has motivated dramatic changes in product development at General Motors, whose new Saturn Astra is exactly the same car that's sold in Europe as the Opel Astra.)
The Transit Connect is the first of the Euro wave we'll be seeing Ford use to flood a market in transition. With gas at $4 per gallon, suddenly, the smaller, more fuel-efficient products of Europe may find a major, rather than niche, audience in the U.S.
So what's to follow?
The big one to watch for is the latest version of the Fiesta, the sexy subcompact that recently went on sale in Europe. For a host of reasons, Ford will begin importing it into the U.S. in the 2010 model year. According to Mark Fields, Ford's President of the Americas, the delay was meant to ensure everything was right for the States. Among other things, it requires setting up a production line, and for that, Ford is shutting down an F-Series pickup plant in Mexico, and converting it to build Fiestas, about as big a shift in scale as you could possibly imagine.
Next up the size ladder is the European Focus. Yes, you've seen the new, '08 Focus on the road, but it's little more than a lightly modified version of the original compact car, which has been around, in the U.S. for nearly a decade. Europeans got a total remake of Focus a couple years back, which is a markedly better product, according to most reviews. You'll see it here, finally, in 2010, probably as a 2011 model.
Though they may have to negotiate narrow streets and minuscule parking spaces, Europeans still like their room and comfort, and that's led to a different breed of product than we see here. Station wagons and hatchbacks are wildly popular. So are MPVs, or Multi-Purpose Vehicles, like the Kuga, which could show up here as a downsized version of the Ford Edge.
European minivans run a range of shapes and sizes, from the large and funky Renault Espace to the compact Ford C-Max. The U.S. maker just might bring that little van, about the size of Chevrolet's HHR, to the States. An alternative is the bigger, seven-passenger C-Max. Ford has officially abandoned the minivan market in the States, opting for a new generation of "people movers," starting with the boxy Flex. Something smaller than the 4,400-pound behemoth could prove critical in an era of renewed interest in fuel economy.
Other potential transplants range from the funky little Ka, which is sized somewhere between the Smart fortwo and the Mini; the latest generation of the mid-size (by Euro standards) Mondeo, and the Transit, the big brother to the newly imported Transit Connect.
Oh, and our thanks to the Detroit Free Press for the germ of this story.