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December 14, 2012

News & Features

Sliding doors and seven seats, but don't call it a minivan

The Associated Press

WEB-Ford-transit-connect.jpg

Ford insists its Transit Connect Wagon, shown at the L.A. Auto Show, isn't a minivan. (Jae G. Hong / Associated Press)

It looks like a minivan. It has sliding doors like a minivan. So why isn't Ford calling its new seven-seater a minivan?

For the same reason you don't wear mom jeans or listen to Barry Manilow: It's not cool.

The Transit Connect Wagon debuted last month at the Los Angeles Auto Show. It's set to go on sale late next fall.

To the average buyer -- or, in fact, to everyone outside of Ford Motor Co. -- it will appear that Ford is getting back into the minivan business after a six-year hiatus. The Transit Connect Wagon, which is based on Ford's Transit Connect commercial van, has the high roof of the van but trades its industrial-looking hood for the tapered nose and trapezoid grille of Ford's cars. It has sliding doors on both sides and comes in five-seat and seven-seat versions.

The competition
    The five best-selling minivans in the U.S. and 2012 sales through October: 1. Dodge Caravan, 118,730; 2. Honda Odyssey, 107,536; 3. Chrysler Town and Country, 95,850; 4. Toyota Sienna, 94,986; 5. Kia Sedona, 15,598

The new vehicle will have two four-cylinder engine options, one of which will get 30 mpg or more on the highway. That would make it the most fuel-efficient minivan on the market -- if it were a minivan. But Ford insists that it's not.

"It's anything but a minivan," says David Mondragon, Ford's general manager of marketing. "In our mind, it's a people mover. We think of it as more of a utility, or kind of a hybrid sport utility, than a minivan."

Mondragon says the m-word is too polarizing and turns off Ford's target customers: 30- to 42-year-old parents who grew up with minivans and like their utility but don't want to sacrifice style. At one point, Ford even considered calling the wagon a "you-tility," but it turned out another carmaker already had dibs on that one.

"A lot of consumers in this segment are parents who still want their own identity," Mondragon says. "There's a lot of blandness in the industry, especially in regard to multi-passenger vehicles. They want something fresh and uniquely styled."

The Transit Connect Wagon has a different look than the average minivan. The roof is higher, the windshield has a steeper slant and the vehicle has a sturdier, more industrial look.

But more important for Ford, the Transit Connect Wagon will be priced like a minivan. The company's current seven-seaters, the Flex wagon and Explorer SUV, cost $30,000 or more. While Ford isn't releasing a price for the new vehicle yet, Mondragon says it will compete at the lower end of the market with vehicles such as the Dodge Grand Caravan, a minivan that starts at $19,995.

Ford has been selling a five-passenger version of the Transit Connect van since 2010, but it's designed for commercial use and has few creature comforts.

The new version will offer lots of bells and whistles, including a panoramic sunroof, leather seats, third-row seats that slide back and forth, and the MyFord Touch entertainment system. Its second- and third-row seats fold down to create 100 cubic feet of cargo space behind the first row, about 20 cubic feet less than the Nissan Quest minivan.

Rebecca Lindland, an automotive analyst with IHS Global Insight, thinks Ford is worrying too much about focus groups. Cave in and call it a minivan, she says.

"It's a great-looking vehicle," Lindland says. "I think they should celebrate the utility of it."

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