Ford Transit Connect X-Press

It's the machine British Telecom engineers' dreams are made of, and it will leave a nation of white van men drooling with envy. This is the van-tastic Ford Transit Connect X-Press, and it looks set to leave an outside lane full of Mercedes Sprinters trailing in its wake - because under the boxy body lie the innards of a Focus RS.

It might be a one-off, but the X-Press is more than the sum of its parts. It demonstrates what Ford's chassis engineers are capable of. It also points towards a future Connect, with styling and performance tweaks that could soon appear on both the van and Tourneo. It's huge fun, and proves the blue oval hasn't lost sight of enthusiastic drivers' interests.

It's the machine British Telecom engineers' dreams are made of, and it will leave a nation of white van men drooling with envy. This is the van-tastic Ford Transit Connect X-Press, and it looks set to leave an outside lane full of Mercedes Sprinters trailing in its wake - because under the boxy body lie the innards of a Focus RS.

The X-Press is the brainchild of a group of engineers working at Ford's Lommel track in Belgium. They built the hot Connect as an out-of-hours project after they decided to mate two retired test mules that had ended their lives on the proving ground. One was a pre-production Transit, and the other was a prototype Focus RS.

Two years on, here's the result: a road-legal van that looks little different from the standard model, but hides a powerful secret. Externally, it's hard to tell the X-Press's performance potential. The RS alloys are the most obvious clue, otherwise only the opalescent white paint and a lower ride height distinguish it from a BT service van.

But the X-Press is every inch a driver's machine. Direct carry-overs from the RS include the 212bhp turbo engine and five-speed manual gearbox, plus the front suspension, brakes and steering rack. Uniquely, there's a one-off rear suspension set-up - albeit with original leaf springs - and extra body bracing. Even the interior has a few special touches, including white leather Recaro sports seats and a furry dash.

So the X-Press looks and feels special, but how does it perform? Put simply, it is totally mental. It's hard to determine whether it's the psychology of a van that has dynamic capabilities to rival some of the world's most exciting performance cars, or the combination of skilled engineering and a surpri- singly good chassis. But the X-Press can be moved along with alacrity.

It's easier to drive than the RS. The hatch's torque steer has been ironed out and the steering is slightly higher geared, meaning it's a much smoother machine on a track. Throw the X-Press into corners and it demonstrates remarkable grip. It turns in sharply with virtually no understeer, while carrying speed into a tight corner causes the inside rear wheel to lift up in the air, much in the style of famous hot hatches such as the Peugeot 205 GTi.

The surreal experience is made all the more dramatic by the noise. The X-Press has a Bosal sports exhaust, which is amplified by the load bay to sound especially vocal at high revs.

The Connect's only downfall is its lack of van practicality. The load bay is rendered virtually useless by the roll cage and spare wheels. But the X-Press isn't about practicality. It's about fun - something it provides a healthy load of.

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