Fleet managers and professional contractors have a variety of choices when its time to replace their aging vehicles. Until recently, the Ford Transit Connect Electric utility van was not among them.

Ford’s New All-Electric Utility Van Delivers Zero Emissions but at Twice the Price
Photo: Thom Blackett For ENR
The Transit Connect Electric will cost some greenbacks for firms wanting to go green. Its base price is $57,400—before adding in a charging station and taking out tax incentives.
Ford’s New All-Electric Utility Van Delivers Zero Emissions but at Twice the Price
Photo: Courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

Developed by Ford and Azure Dynamics, the plug-in electric van promises zero emissions and lower operating costs, points being evaluated by early adopters including AT&T, the New York Power Authority and others. Regular production starts in April 2011, though orders can be placed now through 65 different Azure-certified Ford dealers.

Nuts and Bolts

Ford’s utility van features a 300-volt motor that delivers up to 173 lb-ft of torque, a single-speed transmission, a 28-kWh lithium-ion battery pack and an inverter, courtesy of Azure Dynamics.

Chassis settings are shared among all Transit Connects, but the electric powertrain adds 600 pounds to the vehicle’s curb weight and, as a result, drops the payload to about 1,000 lb from 1,600 lb.

Drivers can expect a maximum range of 80 miles. The average charge time is six to eight hours at 240 volts or 20 to 22 hours at 110 volts. The van is operational in temperatures ranging from -30° to 120°F.

Behind the Wheel

During a short test drive last month at an Azure’s Woburn, Mass., facility, we discovered a ride that mirrored the gas model. The steering offered the same non-communicative feel, and the driver’s seat maintained its firm-yet-supportive status. With two average-size adults sitting in front of 135 cu-ft of empty cargo space, in-town acceleration was acceptable and allowed for easy merging onto the highway. The regenerative braking system’s action was hardly noticeable.

Among the vehicle’s more distinguishing features is a range indicator that replaces the tachometer. An audible alert sounds when the system is at its minimum level, suggesting that a detour to the nearest charging station is in order.

A High Price for Going Green

Ford has partnered with Coulomb Technologies to supply charging stations; unfortunately, they’re not included in the Transit Connect Electric’s $57,400 base price, a figure that represents a premium of about $30,000 over the cost of a gas-powered model. Factor in a $7,500 federal tax incentive for electric vehicles, and the price is down to $49,900. Alas, the gas model starts at $21,185. At this time, there are no bulk discounts or lease options.

The high price is somewhat offset by lower operating and maintenance costs, says Jeff Hyatt, Azure’s director of sales. However, he admits, “When you talk about [return on investment], it’s very tough to justify right now.” There are other considerations, such as firms and government agencies looking to take an environmental lead. Yet as we noted in a review of the gas-powered model in 2009, the savings for construction and other businesses will come from the 22-mpg city fuel economy and 25-mpg highway as well as the 1,600 lb of payload.

The equation is affected negatively by the plug-in version’s higher price, not to mention its lower payload. Mike Omotoso, senior manager of powertrain forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates (like ENR, a unit of McGraw-Hill), says it is best suited for light duty. “We see it more as a delivery van,” he says.

To differentiate it from the gas-guzzling model, owners may want to trick out the van with custom decals.

“The badging will be key,” says Omotoso. “You have to make absolutely sure people realize this is a different vehicle.

”On the other hand, Omotoso adds, the down economy makes this model a luxury item. “If you are buying [the Transit Connect Electric] for business, finances and profit should be the main priority,” he says.