Is US Introduction of Ford’s Transit around the Corner?
The dust has not even settled after Ford’s announcement regarding U.S. sales and the Chicago Auto Show introduction of the small Transit Connect delivery van, and a new series of rumors is starting about the Connect’s big brother – the venerable and decidedly larger Ford Transit itself.
Unlike the urban-friendly Transit Connect, the Transit is a full-size van directly comparable to the Dodge Sprinter. Like the Sprinter, the Transit is tall and narrow, with low floor, well appointed cabin, huge cargo capacity, and diesel-powered heavy engine.
Rumors of US introduction of this large van have been circulating in the media since Alan Mulally’s original spate of announcements about the redundancy of vehicle architectures across international divisions of Ford. Among the models mentioned were the Transit and the Econoline – two full size vans designed around very different concepts and riding on completely unrelated architectures. Inside information from last year pointed to Ford delegating a team to figure out the feasibility of merging the E-series and Transit onto a single frame. Skeptical assessments pointed to the year 2012 or later as the most likely timeframe for such unified architecture becoming a reality, and sometimes even questioned the wisdom behind such move.
Indeed, this would not be the first time Ford tried to unite the two vans. A similar project was commenced, and abandoned, in the 1980’s. At that time the major reason the project’s failure was the fundamentally different concepts employed in developing each vehicle.
The Econoline rides on a frame derived from the F-150 and Super Duty trucks. As such, the fame sits high, but provides impressive gross toughness and capability. However, the high level of the frame, and consequently the floor, limits the cargo space of the truck. Moreover, the trucks heavy-duty underpinnings contribute to its hefty curb weight and all-V8 lineup. For many businesses, a van of Econoline’s strength is simply overkill. However, by sharing a number of parts with the high-volume F-series trucks, the Econoline has always been cheap to build and cheap to buy.
The Transit, on the other hand, was designed ground up about space efficiency, and moderate amount of capability. The frame sits very low and the roof can go very high creating cargo space that puts Econoline to shame. The sheer flexibility of the platform is amazing. While the Econoline comes only in two versions: short body or long body (with identical wheelbase), the Transit offers three wheelbases, four lengths, and three roof heights. Moreover, it can be optioned out as light-duty, and efficient, front-wheel drive, or heavier-duty rear-wheel drive, model. The lightest-duty Transits run around Europe with four-cylinder engines, while the top-line models are equipped with a inline five-cylinder diesel. However, the top end of the Transit cannot reach the brute force of the E350. Moreover, like the Sprinter, the Transit would probably command a higher price; the combination of advanced engines, frames, and cabin sets Sprinter’s price of entry at $36,000, about twice as much as basic E150; unless Ford offers the base Transit with a gasoline engine, the difference between Econoline and Transit prices likely be similar.
Despite all this second-guessing inside the media, sources inside Ford’s Avon Lake plant in Ohio, which currently builds the Econoline, recently revealed that Ford is moving forward with selling the Transit in the US. According to these sources, after this summer’s shut-down, Ford will begin installing tooling for the Transit. Given this timeline for tooling, announcement of the model’s US sales could come as soon as 2008 Los Angeles Auto show and production could begin by summer 2009.
It is unclear whether Ford would replace the Econoline, or simply let the two models sell side-by side. After all, their different qualities could make them attractive to different customers. Some observers highlight the lack of investment in Econoline as a sign of the impeding end of this traditional US van. The Transit has seen steady development funds, and is generally considered the best utility van on the planet. Moreover some large-volume fleet buyers in the US, such as UPS, have literally been begging Ford to offer this vehicle in the US. If Ford can simply amend the Transit lineup with a heavy-duty version able to replace the E350, Ford might just have found a way to remove one out of the more than forty platforms it currently uses around the globe.
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