Ford has an enviable reputation in the field of motor sport going back many years and currently being kept alive by the factory-backed World Rally Championship team. Under the watchful eye of team manager Malcolm Wilson, himself no slouch behind the wheel of a rally car in his day, two Finnish drivers — Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala — are proving hard to beat in their Focus WRCs.
It was not really a surprise when Ford unveiled a new range of special edition light commercials at last year's CV Show under the SportVan banner with the Transit as the main focus of attention. The Fiesta SportVan was a bit of a no-brainer really as all the necessary bits already existed from the passenger car range.
When it came to the Transit SportVan it was a little bit different as the additional bodywork treatments were not off-the-shelf items. And the same went for the concept version of the baby Transit on display. The Connect SportVan, however, is now a reality and will be on sale in August/September, albeit in limited numbers.
As with the other SportVans the main and unmistakable external feature of the Connect is the Performance Blue metallic paintwork and the two wide white stripes running up the centre of the bonnet. For reference these are vinyl and not paintwork so can be removed with relative ease for those who find them a bit 'bling'.
Apart from the stripes, though, it's all pretty restrained at the front with a chrome grille, the centre and outside sections of the bumper colour-coded and a metallic-coloured skid plate underneath.
Wheelarch extensions, door mirrors and handles remain matt black to match the side-rubbing strip down the flanks and the only differences at the rear compared to the standard van are a wider exhaust tailpipe and a metallic-coloured insert in the colour-coded bumper. The top of the bumper acts as a non-slip step.
The finishing touches to the exterior of the Connect SportVan are the rather attractive 18in alloy wheels and the tastefully small colour-coded, roof-mounted, spoiler at the back.
At this juncture, we should point out that if customers are expecting to find a fire-breathing petrol engine under the bonnet they will be sorely disappointed.
Ford is easily the biggest seller of LCVs in the country and as such would open itself up to all sorts of adverse criticism in the Middle England tabloids if it was seen to be encouraging van drivers to speed by selling a van powered by a petrol turbo engine.
The approach taken with this Connect is similar that of the other two SportVans. It's a visually distinctive special edition with a host of optional extras at an attractive price, but based on the running gear of a standard van. In this case the starting point is a 220 1.8TDCi short-wheelbase LX with 110hp on tap at 3,500rpm and with peak torque of 280Nm occurring at 1,500rpm. All Connects are front-wheel drive with a manual five-speed gearchange.
Taking this approach means that owners are taking on a known quantity when it comes to performance and fuel consumption; there will be no nasty shocks when filling up at the fuel pumps. We tested a 110hp long-wheelbase high roof Connect last year and it returned 40mpg running unladen. The short-wheelbase, low roof, SportVan should be marginally more frugal.
Where buyers of a Connect SportVan really score is in the amount of optional extras included in the package, on top of those already mentioned.
Anti-lock brakes are standard, but is bolstered with the addition of Traction Control which brings with it disc brakes all-round; drums are usually fitted at the rear. Speaking of the rear, Park Distance Control is fitted into the rear bumper for added safety.
Access to the load area is via the standard-fit twin glazed symmetrical rear doors — both feature a wiper — but add to this a nearside sliding side door and a full steel bulkhead with window and the 2.8m3 of space is not only easier to get at, but is also more secure. The latter is improved further with the installation of a full alarm system.
Move to the cab and the list just keeps on growing. Leather covered seats — heated — and steering wheel, air conditioning, full-width overhead storage shelf, 6006 CD/radio with steering column stalk controls, bluetooth and in-dash, six-disc multichanger all feature.
The centre console has a metallic backplate and this finish is mirrored on the gearknob. All-in-all a pretty comprehensive package.
We were given the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the Connect SportVan on the test track at Ford's Technical Centre at Dunton, in the wilds of Essex.
The 110hp version of the 1.8TDCi engine was introduced last year and it was just what was needed for anyone hacking up and down the motorway with a load on board on a regular basis. The additional torque it provides compared to its less powerful stablemates is spot on. In particular it generates a much more positive response in the middle of the rev range.
The sole addition on this SportVan which is likely to alter the overall dynamics is the fitment of alloy wheels and the accompanying low profile tyres; in this case they are 225/40R18s and yes, they do make a difference.
The ride quality is slightly harder thanks to the stiffer sidewalls, there's a subjective improvement to the steering response and the handling feels a bit sharper. The marginal downside is an increased tendency to tramline; follow ridges and camber changes in the road. In our humble opinion this is no bad thing as it simply means the driver is receiving more feedback about what the road conditions are doing.
Personally we would forego the leather seats in favour of a decent pair of cloth Recaro sport seats, but now we are just nitpicking.
The basic price of Connect SportVan had not been finalised at the time of writing, but expect it to be between £15,000 and £15,500 which represents good value considering the number of optional extras fitted, not to mention a rather sharp, and exclusive, exterior treatment. It also retains all the load-carrying virtues and fuel economy of the standard offering. This is one for the owner/operator spending far too much time out on the road.