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Transit Connect Wagon: Can a Ford minivan by another name be hip?

Transit Connect Wagon – a Ford effort to be cool with a family car it doesn't want to call a minivan – debuts this month.

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Dealers say the vehicle fills a void in Ford's lineup. The company stopped making the Freestar minivan in 2006, citing falling demand as customers swarmed to new crossovers like the Ford Escape. But the decision cost some customers who needed the utility of a minivan, says Terry Kidd, who owns Kidd Ford Lincoln in Morrison, Tenn.

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"We still sell used minivans. It's a very popular body style," he said.

Kidd says the Transit Connect Wagon should be as good – if not better – than other minivans on the market. That's a far cry from the clunky, inefficient Freestar, which had trouble competing with industry leaders like the Honda Odyssey.

Ford has been selling a five-passenger version of the Transit Connect van since 2010, but it's designed for commercial use and has few creature comforts. The new version will offer lots of bells and whistles, including a panoramic sunroof, leather seats, third-row seats that slide back and forth and the MyFordTouch entertainment system. Its second- and third-row seats fold down to create 100 cubic feet of cargo space behind the first row, or about 20 cubic feet less than the Nissan Quest minivan.

US minivan sales peaked at 1.37 million in 2000; by 2011, they had fallen to 472,398. About 3 percent of new vehicle buyers are purchasing minivans now, down from 6 percent a decade ago, according to Strategic Vision, a consulting firm. Alexander Edwards, who heads Strategic Vision's automotive division, says Ford can move that needle, but it needs to show what makes the Transit Wagon different – its optional rear cargo doors, for example – and target nontraditional minivan buyers like aging parents and outdoor enthusiasts.

"Yes, the term minivan is polarizing, but for those who are open to a minivan-styled vehicle, most do not care or worry about such stigma," he said.

The Transit Connect Wagon will be made in Valencia, Spain, and exported to the United States, Asia, and Europe. Ford currently sells about 35,000 Transit Connects in the US each year, and about 15 percent of those are the five-passenger wagon versions, which are used by taxi companies and others. It expects to double that with the new wagon.

Rebecca Lindland, an automotive analyst with IHS Global Insight, thinks Ford is worrying too much about focus groups. Cave in and call it a minivan, she says.

"It's a great-looking vehicle," she said. "I think they should celebrate the utility of it."

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