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It's not sleek, it's not fast and it's not flashy, but Ford's full-size Transit van has been a quiet sales giant, dominating the commercial van market across the world.

And it's that very workhorse character that could make it and the smaller Transit Connect the potential platforms for the automaker's business plan to move people and things with fully self-driving vehicles, experts say.

Ford has declined to comment on what model might carry the brand's autonomous business come 2021, when it says it will bring a robotic vehicle to market. But experts point to the vans' affordable and adaptable nature as logical bases to enter the market.

For now, the Transit and passenger-oriented Transit Connect are generating sales during an off-year when the automaker has few new offerings to compete with flashy new SUVs and crossovers offered by competitors.

The full-size van is popular among commercial buyers for its versatility and easily customized cargo space. Ford hopes the low price point and interior space can help its popularity among other buyers outside the commercial realm — though owning the commercial market has proven lucrative.

"The Transit is really getting the lion's share of that commercial market," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader.com, a marketplace for car shoppers.

The Transit commercial vehicle  generates most of the sales for the segment. Ford says sales were up 7.5 percent through the first six months of the year, driven largely by fleet sales. Sales of the smaller Transit Connect were down 3.8 percent. 

"It's similar to how the F-150 is the best-selling vehicle in the full-size truck market," said Brauer.  "You've got Ford owning these two highly profitable segments."

Brauer, who in 2016 used a full-size commercial Transit to haul car parts from California to Michigan, said Ford has a unique vehicle in that model. It looks and drives like a modern vehicle, he said, not a clunky full-size van. 

Daimler AG, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and General Motors Co. all produce full-size commercial vans. But Ford's global Transit platform dominates when it comes to global volume. The nameplate recognition and market penetration gives Ford an undercurrent of profit that helps carry the automaker as it prepares refreshed Transit and Transit Connect models this year during a slow time for new products.

"It's basically the F-Series, part two," Brauer said. "If you're able to provide for commercial and fleet use when the economy is generally booming, that's a whole new level of profit."

Mark LaNeve, Ford sales chief, said he expects retail sales for both vehicles to grow through the end of the year as the automaker gears up to launch a refreshed van and eliminate sedans from its lineup.

"It's a hell of a great value in the marketplace," LaNeve said. "We're going to do a surprising amount of retail business." 

The success Ford has seen with the Transit in the commercial vehicle market is having a trickle-down effect, according to Stephanie Brinley, analyst with IHS Markit, a London-based analysis company. The success of the commercial vehicle is helping turn consumers' eyes to the Transit Connect, which would in turn build brand recognition and trust as Ford gears up to launch its autonomous vehicles in 2021.

"The Transit Connect is finding a niche home," she said. "Others which have offered similar products have not seen the same success (and) part of Ford’s success with Transit Connect is related to its strong commercial business.

"They have even more potential to support Ford's future autonomous vehicle plans, as the vehicles can be customized for multi-purpose use."

Although Ford officials have declined to comment on what its first-generation autonomous vehicle will look like, or what platform it will use, the company has said it will be able to transition between moving people and moving goods. They have said it will be a hybrid and will be a new nameplate.

That might not mean it's a new architecture, though. GM removed the steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator from its Bolt electric vehicle, stuffed it with autonomous hardware and software, and renamed it the Cruise AV. 

Ford currently tests its autonomous software on hybrid Fusion sedans, though it uses Transit vehicles for the Chariot shuttle service it's invested in.

For now, Ford hopes the Transit Connect will be piloted increasingly by human drivers. The company is marketing the van toward people like Chris and Tiffany Best. The owners of the Rust Belt Market in Ferndale said their Transit Connect has become a surprising asset as they balance work and family life.

"It's a better value than some of the SUV models for our lifestyle," Tiffany Best said. She and Chris use the vehicle to haul anything from plywood to planters to the market. They also use it as a family-hauler. 

It's easier to get in and out of than an SUV, they said, and the high ceiling allows for more cargo space than most mid-size or small SUVs. 

Another perk: It doesn't look like a soccer-mom van.

"It looks cool," Chris Best said of their gun-metal gray Transit Connect. "It's not like a typical van."

That's something Ford hopes to build on as it eliminates sedans from its lineup, though analysts don't think the Transit Connect will be able to fill in the gap sedans will leave. With the Fusion, Fiesta Taurus and Focus sedans to be axed — along with the C-Max compact — the Connect would become Ford's second-cheapest vehicle, currently retailing at $23,215.

Ford has said the Focus will be redesigned into a crossover dubbed the Focus Active. Other crossovers are expected to enter Ford's lineup in the next few years.

Brinley expects the Transit and Transit Connect to remain silent profit pillars for the Dearborn automaker moving forward.

"I don’t think it’s going to come close to filling a sedan gap," Brinley said. "It’s not sexy, it’s practical. There are more utilities coming from Ford which will do better."

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

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