Don't Come Knockin' ... This Electric Van is Rockin'

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 07, 2010

This electric Ford van goes silently about its appointed tasks. (Ford photo)
This electric Ford van goes silently about its appointed tasks. (Ford photo)

Vans don't get any respect. And what do they expect if they plaster their back bumpers with "Don't come knockin' if this van's rockin'," stickers? Singer-songwriter Bill Morrisey's "Car and Driver" plays up another version of the stereotype: "I just airbrushed my Econoline/A friend of the devil is a friend of mine." Actually, those dudes drive VW Microbuses, but "bus" doesn't rhyme with "mine."

Automakers are acutely aware that car buyers have a van aversion. Look at this desperate (but kind of funny) attempt by Toyota to make its Sienna minivan appear hip.

So when Ford gave me a chance to--oh wow--drive its latest van, I can't say I was ecstatic. After all, the 2011 Transit Connect is most likely to be seen with the name of a plumbing supply company on its ample flanks. It's a delivery van, not a sports car.

But despite all that, the van waiting for me in front of the Javits Center during the press previews of the New York International Auto Show (open until April 11) was something pretty special. Ford is electrifying 1,000 of its Transit Connects (made in Turkey, who knew?) and will be offering them to fleet buyers by the end of the year. AT...T has already ordered a pair of them, and Best Buy is kicking the tires as possible transport for the Geek Squad.

Test drives in New York City are always fraught. I once brought a film crew into deepest Manhattan for a precious hour with a Tesla Roadster, and I can say definitively that I'd have preferred the autobahn to bumper-to-bumper city gridlock.

Tenth Avenue plays host to a lot of commercial traffic, so the Transit Connect was in its element. But the traffic wasn't moving. Of course, EVs make a lot of sense in these situations, because they consume nothing when at a standstill. And a "fill-up" (will we ever stop thinking in those terms?) good for 80 miles costs only $2 to $3, compared to $12 for a standard 20-mpg van.

So Lisa Drake, the Transit Connect EV's chief engineer, and I sat in traffic together. The van inched really well, though you couldn't prove its 12-second zero to 60 time by me. It was a long few blocks.

The van felt very well made. Despite the circuitous route it has to take from Turkey to Michigan (where it's electrified by Ford partner Azure Dynamics), the Transit Connect was quiet and rattle-free. For a miraculous minute, the traffic parted like the Red Sea and I was able to goose it up to all of 25 mph. For a delivery van, the Transit Connect is small and compact, and handles relatively well.

I was curious if Tom and Ray had test driven EVs and whether they'd managed to damage any of them. "We've driven the Tesla and we've driven a golf cart--do either of those count?" asked Ray. Probably not the golf cart. We're not going to revolutionize our transportation fleet with golf carts.

But in point of fact they have recently driven the all-electric version of the Focus, which is a cousin of the Transit Connect (and due to appear a year later). "We thought it was just like driving a Prius for the first 20 mph-- it felt exactly the same, in fact," said Ray. "We floored the gas-- oops, the accelerator-- and thought it accelerated very nicely, just like a gas-powered car... with one notable exception: It didn't make any noise. That's a good thing, as long as the car's new. After that, though, when the car's a junk box, we think that lack of noise is going to be a serious drawback. Think of all the rattles and other annoying noises you're going to hear. We may have to rethink the electric thing!"

On that latter point, Ray, I should point out that the new Chevy Volt electric car makes a fairly anemic "warning" noise when you flip the turn signal stalk. Others, like the Nissan Leaf battery car and the forthcoming Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid, are looking at ring-tone-type noises so you'll know they're coming.

We're going to have to change our thinking when it comes to EVs. When jingling change in our pockets and talking to the neighbors, we'll have to forget about horsepower and say, "It has a 28-kilowatt-hour battery..." and "It takes six hours to recharge."

Ford will make 1,000 of these vans, and sell them mostly into commercial fleets. So your local friend of the devil may not get one. But if he does, you're not going to hear him truckin' up on you.

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