Ford gives away 5 new vans to woo small-business owners

When gas prices passed $4 a gallon last year, Kimberlee Mitchell thought it was the end of her business.

Mitchell, owner of Boo Boo Busters in Ladera Ranch, Calif., makes a living baby-proofing homes. Her area stretches about 150 miles from northern Los Angeles to San Diego, and fuel costs were killing her. It didn't help that her vans were so disorganized that sometimes she'd have to leave a job unfinished to go find the right size bolt or screw.

Mitchell was one of five small-business owners who won a Ford Transit Connect van in a contest sponsored by Ford for small companies. Ford showed the winners their new vans at the Chicago Auto Show, open to the public Friday.

"This is like a mobile warehouse," Mitchell says, sitting in the van for the first time. "We were having trouble keeping our doors open. But now we'll be able to go wider" and maybe start franchising the company. Transit Connect starts at $21,479 and is expected to get 24 miles per gallon. The back can be configured to hold shelving and containers, even dog kennels. An optional computer screen can remotely connect to a computer based in the office.

The Connect giveaways are a flashy, but not unique, attempt to court small-business owners.

"If you look at the history of recessions, it's small businesses that really are the ones who lead us out," says Rob Stevens, lead engineer on the Transit Connect.

Auto sales in the U.S. crashed last year, to 13.2 million, and could tumble to just 10 million or so this year.

Toyota is using the show to provide the first look at its 2010 Tundras, including a work truck aimed at hard-core users who don't mind painted trim instead of chrome, vinyl upholstery instead of cloth and fewer power accessories in return for a sticker price $550 to $655 less than standard models. The 2010 Tundras go on sale in April, and Toyota will set prices closer to launch.

Chrysler is showing a line of heavy-duty Ram work trucks — basic models adept at strenuous tasks. "Capability is important," says Joe Veltri, Chrysler's director of truck product planning.

The Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 heavy-duty trucks and the 3500, 4500 and 5500 chassis-cabs are due in the fall.

Veltri says a lot of small businesses are postponing truck purchases, and "the important thing is, when they do decide to come back to the market, they buy us again," he says.