While all eyes are on high-profile plug-in announcements from General Motors, Nissan, Toyota and others, Ford appears to be quietly inching into a leading position in the race to get electric vehicles on the market.

Ford has recently made great advances in its hybrid technology with the 41-mpg Ford Fusion Hybrid and second-generation Escape Hybrid. But the company will take another big step forward when it rolls out its first electric vehicle—a European-built mini commercial vehicle called the Ford Transit Connect.

The vehicle, produced in collaboration with the UK’s Smith Electric Vehicles, will feature a 29 kWh battery pack. Ford expects to eventually sell “a couple thousand a month,” mainly to government fleets, according to Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s group vice president of Global Product Development.

Next Up: A Small Electric Car

Ford will be quickly following the Transit EV with several pure electric vehicles aimed at the consumer market, including a Focus-sized subcompact that’s slated for sale in 2011. HybridCars.com took a quick demo-drive of the vehicle—simply called BEV for battery electric vehicle—at the Washington Auto Show earlier this month. The BEV accelerated in a brisk manner with barely a flutter of noise. Power delivery was seamless and constant. (We’ll have more detailed reports in the coming weeks.)

The Ford BEV is a joint venture between Ford and Magna International, a major global parts supplier. Magna supplies the batteries and powertrain components, as well as the engineering and vehicle design. The BEV technology has been applied to a Ford Focus mule that has been in road testing for the past six months.

To power up, the BEV has an on-board battery charger compatible with any standard outlet. Charge time is approximately 12 hours at 110 volts or 6 hours at 220 volts. Fully charged, the BEV promises a travel range of 100 miles. The powertrain consists of single electric motor managed by a one-speed transmission. Energy comes from a lithium ion battery split into two packs. One is stored below the floor of the cabin, and the other is in the trunk. Energy-saving features include vacuum-assisted regenerative brakes, a high-voltage compressor for the air conditioning system, and an electric cabin heater.

Ford says the BEV will first be introduced in North America, with the potential to migrate to the European and Asia Pacific markets down the road.

In Good Time: Ford Hybrids, Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars

Ford’s plan is to deliver some version of the BEV in 2011, and then to follow in 2012 with its next-generation hybrid vehicles and a plug-in hybrid. If the company delivers, it will be only slightly behind Toyota’s plug-in Prius and GM’s Chevy Volt. That’s not far at all, considering the small initial production numbers for these vehicles. By that time, Ford will have a couple years of real-world road experience with electric vehicles.