Ford Gets Back in the Minivan Game
CNBC Auto and Airline Industry Reporter
Let's get something straight. As much as Ford Motor may not want to admit it, the new Transit Connect Wagon is basically a minivan.
Whether you call it a wagon, minivan or people mover (yes, Ford has used that term), what matters is whether the Transit Connect Wagon actually connects with buyers.
It is not like the typical minivan, which could open it up to a wider variety of potential customers beyond the traditional minivan buyers — families in suburban America.
Different From a Minivan
Ford has gone to great lengths to say the Transit Connect Wagon is not a traditional minivan. It is smaller, more fuel-efficient, with design cues that are more upright than a typical minivan. (Read More: Mulally Sets the Stage for His Final Act at Ford.)
Ford will give more specifics such as pricing when it gets closer to the Transit Connect rollout in late 2013, but here are some of the wagon's key metrics:
• Equipped with either 5 or 7 seats
• Estimated MPG will be greater than 30 MPG
• Comes with conventional four-cylinder engine or 1.6 liter EcoBoost engine
Stiff Competition for Soccer Moms
While the minivan market is not what it once was, it is still a substantial market generating about 4 percent of all auto sales in the U.S.
Unfortunately for Ford, it's a segment the company gave up on in 2007 when it stopped selling the Freestar. At the time, I was among those who thought Ford was making a smart move. The Freestar was an also-ran in the minivan market. Its styling was weak and it lacked the appeal, performance and special features you could find in the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Chrysler Town and Country or Dodge Caravan. (Read More: Ford Profit Beats Forecasts on Record Northern America Margins.)
Since then, the big 3 in minivans (Chrysler, Honda and Toyota) have all ramped up their models. To quote a friend of mine who bought a Sienna last year, "I love it. It's perfect for me and my family."
So can the Transit Connect Wagon cut into the dominance of the minivan market leaders? Maybe, but it won't be easy. Yes, the fuel efficiency will make it appealing and if Ford can price it under the traditional minivan the Transit Connect Wagon could find a niche.
On the other hand, the Odyssey, Town and Country and other minivans all have a strong reputations. (Read More: Ford Falls Further in Reliability Survey; Toyota Gains.)
The Transit Connect Wagon comes out late next year. Between now and then watch Ford work hard not to call it a minivan, but you and I will know what it really is.
—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau
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