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Ford offers an alternative van while Toyota goes sporty

2017 Ford Transit Connect cropped for webThe 2017 Ford Transit Connect is roomy and fun to drive, but it's missing some valuable features. COURTESY PHOTO  Every day, you're probably seeing countless Ford Transit Connect vans without paying them a second glance. Most are built as rolling boxes with no rear windows, emblazoned with the names of plumbing companies or home-security specialists.
But Ford also sells versions of the 2017 Transit Connect that are designed as family cars. And despite their work-van origins — and their associated drawbacks — these vans are surprisingly appealing to drive.

First off, don't confuse the Transit Connect with its much larger Transit sibling. That's a full-size rear-wheel-drive van for heavy-duty work, and its passenger version seats up to 15. The Transit Connect, meanwhile, is mechanically derived from Ford's compact economy car, the Focus. It has front-wheel-drive, a four-cylinder engine and it's a breeze to park.
The Transit Connect is even significantly smaller than a normal minivan, like a Chrysler Pacifica, Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna. It's sold as a 174-inch-long version with two rows of seats or an 189-inch-long version with three rows — the former is about as long as a Ford Fiesta subcompact sedan, and the latter is about as long as a Ford Edge midsize crossover. A normal minivan would be about a foot longer and six inches wider.
The Transit Connect's Ford Focus roots show through on the road. The Focus is one of the more fun compact cars to drive, and this van shares its delightfully tight, responsive steering. Meanwhile, the high roof and huge windows lend it outstanding visibility.
It's also quite functional. The five-passenger version has the space of a midsize SUV with the footprint of a compact or even subcompact one, along with handy sliding doors. And the long-wheelbase model — which can hold either six or seven passengers, depending on the seating configuration — offers 104 cubic feet of cargo room, more than nearly any other passenger car but a minivan or a Chevy Suburban.
However, the Transit Connect's work-van roots will hold it back for some families. Ford curiously omitted a minivan staple — power-sliding doors — and also doesn't offer a power liftgate, rear entertainment system or rear USB ports. Moreover, the rear seats were clearly retrofitted into a vehicle that was designed mainly for cargo; the cushions aren't especially comfortable, and it's a little fussy to fold them down.
Moreover, if its compact size and nimble handling aren't of paramount importance, Ford doesn't give much of a price advantage over a normal minivan. Prices for the passenger version start at nearly $27,000 without ample equipment, and the tested top-of-the-line Titanium model surpassed $34,000 despite its missing features. You also won't save at the pump; the Transit Connect's little four-cylinder engine is rated for 22 mpg, the same as the leading normal-sized, V6-powered minivans.
If the Transit Connect's undeniably unique personality sounds appealing, though, be sure to give it a look despite its shortcomings.
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2017 Toyota 86 cropped for webThe 2017 Toyota 86 is a pure sports coupe for drivers who care more about handling than power or refinement. COURTESY PHOTOMany small two-door cars only look sporty. The popular Honda Civic coupe, for instance, has mainly cosmetic changes from the Civic sedan — it looks more fun, but mostly it retains much of the sensible four-door's everyday comfort, fuel economy and value.
Don't confuse the 2017 Toyota 86 for that type of coupe. This little two-door is a rear-wheel-drive performance machine — a vehicle with sublime handling agility but a cramped and austere interior, a noisy ride and a price that starts at a somewhat lofty $27,150.
The 86 is the new name for the Scion FR-S, given that Toyota has discontinued its Scion brand. The car was co-developed with Subaru, which sells its own version of the car as the BRZ. In conjunction with the name change, Toyota tweaked the styling and made some modest mechanical adjustments, including the addition of five more horsepower for the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.
That said, drivers who care most about acceleration will likely look elsewhere. Given that the 86 weighs just 2,700 pounds, its 205 horsepower produces lively performance — but for this price, it's easy to find faster cars in a straight line. Where the 86 and BRZ stand out is their handling. Their rear-wheel-drive architecture was carefully crafted for a balanced weight distribution between the front and rear of the car, and the steering is delightfully prompt and responsive. You sit low in these lithe little coupes, maintaining a close connection to the road.
But if you're looking for broader appeal, the 86 doesn't quite deliver it. Except when handling is paramount, the rest of the package is just too crude for the price. The front seats are supremely comfortable and supportive in aggressive driving, but the rest of the cabin is dated and dull. The rear seats are almost unusable; there's zero legroom if the front seats are all the way back. The cabin is noisy and tinny. Luxury features like leather upholstery aren't offered (though you can get that one on the BRZ).
Shop the 86 and BRZ against the Mazda MX-5 and Fiat 124 Spider convertibles; the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen GTI hatchbacks; the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang coupes; and each other.

@BradyHoltAutos

 

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