Technically, the 2011 Ford Transit Connect Electric is not Ford’s first battery-powered car. That honor belongs to the short-lived Ranger EV from a decade ago. But, technically, that pickup truck was available only for lease, and Ford took them back and crushed them after the program ended – much like General Motors did with the infamous EV1. Later this year the AC/TC goes on sale for real. Just try prying one back from someone with a pink slip in the glove compartment.
This time around Ford shows no inclination of doing such a thing. The electric mini-cargo van is in fact the first salvo in an upcoming assault of battery-powered vehicles that includes an all-electric Ford Focus on the way next year. In the meantime, the Transit Connect Electric will have to carry the plug-in flag with the blue oval on it all by itself. We took one for a spin at the Chicago Auto Show to see how high it holds it.

When it goes into production later this year, the vehicle will start its life as a ‘glider’, which is a TC that’s imported fresh from the factory in Kocaeli, Turkey sans engine and transmission. From there it will go to a yet-to-be-determined facility that will absolutely, positively be located in Michigan to have its new components installed. These include a 134 hp electric motor, a 28 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, electrically-assisted steering, electrically-generated heat and air conditioning, electrically-boosted brakes, electrically…you get the idea.

The net result is a vehicle that can go a maximum of 80 miles on a charge, and that charge takes between six to eight hours on a 240-volt outlet, much longer on a standard 120-volt. Sobering figures that are the harsh reality of battery-powered transportation, even in the 21st century. Unlike the Chevy Volt, which tries to mitigate such shortcomings by employing a range-extending internal combustion engine to broaden its appeal at the cost of sacrificing electric purity, the Transit Connect embraces them by targeting itself at customers to whom it is a good fit, even if that means a lot less customers.

Ford and project partner, electric vehicle specialist, Azure Dynamics say those customers will include fleet operators like delivery companies and utilities which operate vehicles on regular routes falling within the AC/TC’s range, and environmentally-concerned businesses that can benefit not only from lower operating costs, but also the good PR from going petroleum-free. Think: reality TV show florists to the stars.

Unfortunately, they’ll have to go out of their way to advertise the power source of their new wheels because the AC/TC looks just like its carbon-belching brethren, inside and out. Aside from a range gauge where the tachometer usually is found, no notable changes have been made to the passenger compartment, and you even use a good old-fashioned key to start it up - a turn of which is accompanied by silence, not even a beep of acknowledgement. Pull the transmission selector into ‘D’ and you’re ready to go.

Press on the gas…uh, throttle….hmmm, accelerator pedal (that’s it!) and the AC/TC pulls away very normally, just the quiet whirr of the electric motor replacing the buzz of the four-cylinder engine to give it away. Our test drive was short, only a few miles on the kinds of city streets the vehicle will likely spend most of its time on, and within such confines it offers little to complain about. Ford claims overall performance is similar to the gasoline-powered version, and that sounds about right. If your company happens to have a ’30 minutes or less’ delivery policy, you’ll want to know that top speed is limited to 75 mph.

Working in the AC/TC’s favor is the fact that the regular-issue Transit Connect is a van, albeit a very small one, so the bars for dynamics and refinement are pretty low. As it is, the extra weight of the battery pack seems to keep the vehicle pinned down a little better than the standard version, preventing the suspension from getting too bouncy on bumpy roads and around turns. The 600-pound pack fits neatly in the space where the fuel tank usually goes, so cargo space remains an impressive 135 cubic feet, but payload drops commensurately from 1,600 lbs to 1,000 lbs.

Transit Connect Program Manager Praveen Cherian says the pack will last the expected life of the vehicle - which is estimated to be 10 years and 120,000 miles in fleet use. Cost to replace it has not been revealed, in fact, the cost for the AC/TC hasn’t been announced yet, either, though people close to the project have previously indicated that it will likely run in the neighborhood of $50,000 before various green tax credits are factored in.

At that price, and with its limitations, don’t expect to see too many AC/TCs on the road anytime soon. Ford is only planning on selling 1,000 in its first year of production and, if all goes well, ramping that figure up to 5,000 in following years. Not game-changing numbers, but after a century of building vehicles with exhaust pipes, the company that put the world on wheels is finally in the electric game…sort of.

While AC/TCs will be sold through Ford dealers, customers will technically be buying them from Azure Dynamics, which will oversee the upfit. So we’ll have to wait for that Focus before Ford officially becomes an electric car manufacturer.

We’ve waited this long, I think we can suck it up for another year. At least the air will be a little cleaner while we do.