2014 Ford Transit Connect Wagon: First Drive

May 6, 2014
Ford is calling the 2014 Transit Connect Wagon the unminivan.

It’s a tag that elicits eye rolls, as with the most cursory look at this vehicle's profile—its sliding doors, its three rows of seating—it's...unmistakable. It’s almost as if a soft-drink company had decided to call Pepsi—rather than 7-Up—the uncola, or if Mazda suddenly decided to tag its MX-5 Miata the unsportscar.

Of course, the Transit Connect Wagon is a minivan—albeit one that’s far more true-to-form than the bloated vehicles that we currently call minivans. Yet it seats seven up (!), in three rows. And Ford hasn't had anything that might be seen as a minivan on its roster since the inglorious Windstar and Freestar.

A familiar formula, brought back better

Just like the original K-car-based Chrysler minivans of the 1980s, or the revered Honda Accord-based Odyssey of the mid-1990s, the new Transit Connect Wagon feels like what it is: a van made out of a car, and a van that drives like a car. And for the most part, the results are stellar. It’s delightfully responsive, refined-riding, nimble, and efficient.

Built in Spain, on the underpinnings of the current Ford Focus (Ford Motor Company’s Global C platform), the 2014 Transit Connect Wagon is the more passenger-oriented version of a vehicle that was developed primarily for commercial duty. Although this time around, engineers allowed for a sort of parallel-development path for the Wagon from the start—bringing such a level of improvement (and refinement) that the previous-generation Transit Connect models that just recently cleared dealerships might suddenly appear crude and aged.

2014 Ford Transit Connect Wagon

2014 Ford Transit Connect Wagon

The engines in the Transit Connect, along with much of what's laid out under the hood, are roughly in synch with the Ford Escape; and that means you get a choice between either a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 169 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque, or a 1.6-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four, making 178 hp and 184 lb-ft. Versions with the 2.5-liter get EPA ratings of 20 mpg city, 28 highway, while those with the 1.6 return 22/29 mpg. And in either case, you get a six-speed automatic transmission (also the same unit as in the Escape).

Similar outputs, different personalities

Models with the 2.5-liter four are a little more vocal, although not at all thrashy. Go for the 1.6-liter EcoBoost turbo four and you sacrifice the towing capability but gain a smoother character and a little more pep in the low-to-mid revs. These two engines are remarkably close in output; and in full, foot-to-the-floor acceleration they feel about as quick. But in real-world driving, and in any kind of partial-throttle transition maneuver, the 1.6T answers almost right away with a wave of torque and fewer needs for downshifting. In either case, the transmission is smooth to upshift and quick to downshift, and it includes a little toggle on the shift knob for manually selecting gears.

Steering is a very nicely weighted, well-sorted electric-boost rack-and-pinion system, while brakes are four-wheel discs across the model line. If it weren't for the marvelous Mazda 5, a vehicle that manages to drive every bit as well as a small hatchback, we'd call the Transit Connect Wagon the lightest-driving van. Base curb weight for the seven-passenger version is nearly 4,000 pounds, but we would have guessed hundreds less.

From a purely practical standpoint, the Transit Connect gets business done. Front seats (and this nearly 6'7" editor) could use a few more inches of rearward travel, but it's perhaps a good thing they don't go back farther. I had the front seat back all the way, and I couldn't get the curved, thicker portion of the side pillar out of my peripheral vision—although in all fairness, it never got in the way of visibility. Otherwise the front area feels, as in the Ford Escape, like the interior of a small car but elevated several inches—and with the raised roof on every model, most drivers will have a foot of space, perhaps more, above their head.

Impressive for people or cargo

2014 Ford Transit Connect Wagon

2014 Ford Transit Connect Wagon

In three-row versions, the back-seat arrangement is impressive, whether your context falls amongst crossovers, minivans, or unminivans. A second row is split 60/40 and is generously sized to fit adults; it has seatbacks that flip forward, then the entire seat folds forward and then deep into the floorwell with a continuous motion that you could pull off with one arm for the smaller portion. The twin third-row seats can jockey fore and aft a few inches, while they fold flat and an extending shelf allows the cargo floor to be perfectly flat with everything in place. The only thing missing is that the cargo floor then includes some weak points that smaller items (or pet paws) could wedge into. With wide-opening sliding doors on either side, plus a huge cargo opening, the Transit Connect Wagon is shockingly easy to load or reconfigure; adding to that convenience is that this vehicle rides pretty much at car height—so you don't have to step up first, as in many crossover vehicles. You can choose between a setup with a one-piece lift-up hatchback or dual side-hinged rear doors; unless you're height-limited (by a garage door, for instance), we like the hatchback setup best for its easy load opening—and for the lack of another visibility-obstructing pillar in the middle.

The pick for spaciousness, not high payload or towing

What’s not to like about the Transit Connect? As we see it, those who look closely at things like payload and towing numbers might show up short. The tow rating on the Transit Connect Wagon is just 2,000 pounds—and that's with the Tow Package, which is not available with our favorite engine, the 1.6-liter EcoBoost. As for payload, it only ranges up to 1,270 pounds. That's impressive by base pickup standards, and a few hundred pounds more than a typical passenger car; but get five heavy occupants in the Transit Connect, and you're already there: No cargo for you.

Although otherwise, cargo space is very, very impressive, whether by the numbers (104.2 cubic feet behind the first row, with the second row folded) or by real stuff space.

The other gripe is that, as much as we love how the Transit Connect Wagon feels like what it is—the front clip of a Focus or Escape, and its nimble running gear, pulling a squared-off van body—that's too much what it feels like in some quality and trim areas. Outside of the dash, there's an underlying feeling of cheapness in some of the storage areas, for instance, and lots of hard injection-molded edges wherever you might place things.

Admittedly, the starting price of around $25,000 is well below the $40k bottom-line price that's now quite typical for those bloated minivans. And Ford (mostly) makes up for those inadequacies with some really top-notch noise insulation—keeping engine, wind, and road noise out.

Will DIY types make the minivan cool again?

While we’re not sure how many rock-collecting professors or Maker Faire attendees (these were actual examples from Ford) would be able to afford a Transit Connect—and choose it over a 20-year-old Volvo wagon—this sort of double-speak goes a long way toward doing what we think Ford is really trying to do with this unminivan. That is, to convince some American families—just a few here and there, really—that vans are cool again.

Of course, to those hipster-types, boldly calling it a minivan might have made the Transit Connect Wagon cooler yet.

And well, that's just ironic.

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