The First “Green Halo” Truck

When a car company produces a “halo car,” it can transform and transcend an entire brand or class of vehicles. In this era of high-tech eco-friendly automotive technologies, the halo has taken a decisively green tint. Witness the Toyota Prius, which until very recently, has been the single green halo car of the 21st century. With the introduction of the Ford Transit Connect Electric, unveiled at this week’s Chicago Auto Show, Ford may have produced the first halo truck.

The small footprint delivery-style truck, which won Truck of the Year at last month’s Detroit auto show, is a proven global success. Ford has sold more than 655,000 of the combustion engine Transit Connect since coming to market in 2003. The size and style of the truck, ideally suited to small businesses and fleets, fills a niche that has been neglected in the United States. Perhaps more importantly, the Transit Connect Electric, as a pure electric vehicle, is well suited for commercial fleets that travel predictable, short-range routes with frequent stop-and-go driving in urban and suburban environments and a central location for daily recharging.

When you combine the functionality and solid track record of the Transit Connect platform, with the built-in marketing opportunities for small businesses to emblazon the large exterior panels with green slogans such as “Zero-Emissions” and “100 percent electric,” it makes for a compelling package.

The Ford Transit Connect Electric also demonstrates the company’s focused strategy to use existing global vehicles, and to roll out hybrid and electric versions in those models as quickly as possible. Ford executives declined to answer questions from about whether the company would ever introduce a unique nameplate or design for a hybrid or electric car—only responding that nothing has been ruled out.

EV as Small Company Marketing Edge

To bring the Ford Transit Connect Electric to market, Ford tapped Azure Dynamics Corporation for the 55-kilowatt electric drivetrain system, which uses a sizable 600-pound 28-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack from Johnson Controls-Saft. The vehicle has a 75 mile per hour top speed and can drive up to 80 miles on a charge—perfectly fine for the needs of a local delivery cycle.

We had a chance to drive the vehicle at the 2010 Chicago Auto Show. Like other electric vehicles, it provides peppy, smooth and silent acceleration—which is almost generic for electric-drive vehicles. Azure and Ford are still tuning up the steering, which is currently tighter than engineers would like. The prototype’s instrumental panel and other features also need some adjustment, but the vehicles is very much on track for introduction later this year. The vehicle delivers on what Ford promises as car-like driving dynamics, combined with cargo capacity and accessibility. Pricing hasn’t been announced, but expect a hefty price tag, considering the size of the lithium ion battery pack. Businesses willing to pull from their marketing budgets to demonstrate green-ness will probably jump on the opportunity, while budget-oriented fleet buyers might be daunted by the cost.

Given the economics, production volume will be modest for the first couple of years—about 1,000 vehicles per year, according to Azure Dynamics’s Ron Iacobell. The Transit Connect Electric will be hitting the market about the same time as other electric-drive cars, most notably the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf. Those cars will be grabbing most of the headlines. Meanwhile, the Transit Connect will give Ford a big head start in the electric commercial fleet space. It will also be a persuasive demonstration that the company can deliver on its electrification plans using winning global platforms, key strategic partnerships, and a passion for cutting-edge green technology.

“With interest in eco-friendly vehicles stronger than ever among commercial and government fleet operators, the Transit Connect Electric promises to offer another unique solution for their needs,” said Gerry Koss, Ford fleet marketing manager.

Ford will follow the introduction of the Transit Connect Electric in late 2010 with the roll out of the Ford Focus Electric in 2011.