On Autos: Little Ford van offers compact alternative

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This 2017 Ford Transit Connect is the passenger-hauling version of a popular compact work van. (Brady Holt/The Current)

City-dwelling families looking to buy a minivan may react with dismay at the size of today’s models. Although they remain significantly smaller than full-size vans, modern minivans like the Chrysler Pacifica, Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna are still among the largest passenger vehicles you can buy.

If your family would benefit from an extra dose of “mini” in its minivan, Ford sells a peculiar but intriguing option: the Transit Connect Passenger Wagon, a people-hauling version of its compact work van.

Essentially a van version of the Ford Focus economy car, the Transit Connect is sold in five- and seven-passenger lengths, both with handy sliding doors. Even the 190-inch-long extended-wheelbase model with three rows of seats is significantly smaller than normal minivans, which are about a foot longer and 6 inches wider. The five-passenger model, at a mere 174 inches long, takes up only as much curbside space as a subcompact sedan like a Hyundai Accent or Ford Fiesta.

The 2017 Ford Transit Connect is significantly smaller than typical minivans. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Transit Connect also drives like a nice small car. The tested long-wheelbase model retains the tight, responsive steering of its Focus sibling — nothing like a big, bulky van. Its composed ride quality is also appreciated on D.C. streets, and a huge windshield and windows provide especially good visibility. From behind the wheel, the Transit Connect feels both endearing and sensible, particularly in crowded conditions.

Though small on the outside, the Transit Connect shows its work-van roots by offering expansive cargo space. The five-passenger version offers up to 77 cubic feet of luggage room behind the front seats — more than a midsize crossover SUV like the Ford Edge or Nissan Murano — and the seven-passenger model grows to a whopping 104 cubic feet. The only way to beat that volume is with a normal minivan or one of the biggest full-size SUVs.

That said, there are notable flaws to the Transit Connect package that will turn off some families.

First, Ford doesn’t offer a number of features that have become ubiquitous to modern minivans — there are no power-sliding doors or power-operated liftgate; there’s no rear entertainment system or even rear USB ports; and although there is a touch screen infotainment system, it’s small and sometimes hard to use easily.

The 2017 Ford Transit Connect is small on the outside but offers almost unparalleled cargo space with the seats folded down. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Another issue is the seats. While they’re hardly miserable, they’re also not especially comfortable. They tend toward small, hard and flat, especially in the rear rows. Meanwhile, although they can fold flat to open up the big cargo hold, it’s a fussy procedure. (On the other hand, some minivans require the middle row to be removed from the vehicle for maximum space — a lot less convenient than Ford’s system.) The long-wheelbase Transit Connect is offered with a choice of middle-row captain’s chairs or a three-passenger bench seat; in the former, total seating capacity drops to six.

Note, too, that the long-wheelbase Transit Connect doesn’t have an especially tight turning circle — at 40 feet, it’s wider even than some normal minivans. The smaller five-passenger model turns around in a tidier 36 feet.

Another drawback is the Transit Connect’s unimpressive powertrain. The small four-cylinder engine feels peppy at low speeds with just a couple of people on board, but it lacks the smooth, effortless power of a normal minivan’s V6. Even more disappointingly, the Transit Connect is rated for just 22 mpg in mixed driving — the same as a bigger, more powerful Odyssey, Pacifica or Sienna.

The 2017 Ford Transit Connect is agile and has great visibility, but it’s missing many modern features. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Prices for the 2017 Transit Connect Passenger Wagon start at $26,690 for a commercial-oriented seven-passenger model with few options and workmanlike vinyl seats. Upgrade to the XLT model for cloth upholstery and some other niceties, and you’re looking at $26,695 for the five-passenger model or $2,000 more for the longer seven-passenger version. The tested three-row Titanium model — decked out with heated leather seats, a panoramic glass roof and flashy 17-inch alloy wheels — reached $34,105. Considering all the features the Ford doesn’t offer, that’s pretty steep.

That said, Ford has no direct competitor for the Transit Connect Passenger Wagon. The five-passenger model offers tremendous space in a compact package, and the seven-passenger version couples the basics of a minivan with a tidier size and superior handling agility.

This 2017 Ford Transit Connect is the passenger-hauling version of a popular compact work van. (Brady Holt/The Current)

A normal minivan like the Pacifica or Odyssey is roomier, better-equipped, more comfortable and only a little more expensive — but far bulkier. So is the Mercedes-Benz Metris, another work van turned into a passenger vehicle; it’s sized between the Transit Connect and normal minivans, but costs more than either. Meanwhile, Chrysler offers a passenger version of its Ram Promaster City compact work van, but it doesn’t offer third-row seating despite being the same size as the seven-passenger Transit Connect.

Accordingly, if you’re looking for a fairly small but incredibly useful vehicle that doesn’t feel dismal to drive, check out the Transit Connect to see if it could fit your life despite its weak points.