After a six-year hiatus, Ford will roll back into the minivan game — sort of.
The automaker today introduced a seven-seat version of its Transit Connect Wagon, a more upscale version of its small commercial van, which it expects to get more than 30 mpg on the highway when it launches late next year as a 2014 model.
The boxy yet stylish Transit Connect Wagon isn't as big as the Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey or the Dodge Grand Caravan -- the three models of minivans that claim the majority of about 400,000 such vehicles U.S. buyers drive off every year. It's similar to a Mazda5, although larger, and Ford says it will haul a heftier payload than the Grand Caravan.
Ford execs say by calling it a wagon rather than a minivan, they hope to lure buyers who want an affordable vehicle that can efficiently transport people like a minivan, and haul cargo like a utility vehicle. While pricing was not released, the Transit Connect Wagon will be "thousands less" than the Sienna and Odyssey, said Ford's Vice President of Global Engineering, Global Product Development Hau Thai-Tang.
Ford's last seven-seat minivan, the Freestar, was killed off in 2007 as millions of buyers moved from minivans into larger seven-seat SUVs. Ford had considered selling its smaller C-Max hatchback with a third row, but decided against it; most automakers force U.S. shoppers looking for three rows of seating to buy larger, more profitable vehicles. The success of the commercial Transit Connect -- which Ford will sell about 35,000 of in the United States this year -- gave Ford confidence to explore the passenger market.
"Minivans are now too large and too expensive, Thai-Tang said. "This (Transit Connect Wagon) is a right-sized product."
Built from the same chassis layout as the Ford Focus and Ford Escape, the Transit Connect Wagon will also rely on similar engine choies — a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an optional 1.6-liter EcoBoost , estimated to deliver 30 mpg-plus on the highway -- mated to a six-speed automatic. As with the commercial Transit Connect, Ford will sell a short and long-wheelbase version with either five or seven seats, and trims up to its high-zoot Titanium badge.
Of the pre-production models on display at the unveiling, one sported a bright red color and the other a lime green tint. For family duty, the Transit Connect Wagon gets a series of interior upgrades, with options such as an all-glass panoramic roof, a 6.5-inch touch screen display with navigation and leather seats.
Ford will unveil the wagon to the public at the Los Angeles Auto Show later this month, and begin shipments from the factory in Valencia, Spain, late next year.