Electric cars are suddenly all the rage, from the much-publicized Chevrolet Volt (did you see it during the Grammy Awards last night?) to future plug-ins from Nissan and other carmakers.

Now Ford has sped up its EV program to keep pace, promising to introduce an electric version of its new Transit Connect small delivery van in the States next year.

The standard 2010 Ford Transit Connect, officially launched today, is a small, front-wheel-drive delivery van. While common in Europe and Asia, these small vans haven't been offered in the States in decades--in fact, the last one may have been the Morris Minor pickup and panel van from 1958 to 1961. They're a useful size for urban deliveries, and the Transit Connect scores better marks on almost every measure than its only U.S. competitor, the recent panel version of the Chevrolet HHR. It will be priced starting at $21,475 when it goes on sale this summer.

The electric Transit Connect will be built by Smith Electric Vehicles in the UK, which already sells the converted van as its Ampere model. Ford calls the company "the European market's leading battery electric upfitter of commercial vehicles," and Smith also sells electrified versions of Ford's larger Transit van and large delivery truck. It has been converting vehicles to electricity since 1920, and is best known in the UK for its electric milk floats.

While Ford may alter a few things for the US market, the Smith Ampere offers a range of 100 miles on an overnight charge and a top speed of 70 mph. It can carry up to 1750 pounds, and Smith says the acceleration of its 50-kilowatt electric motor is quicker than the diesel-engined version. The 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack uses lithium-ion-phosphate cells, and the entire vehicle weighs 3,340 pounds.

The base Transit Connect is built in Turkey, and its arrival in the US marks the first of several "global cars" that Ford will launch here over the next two years. Others are the 2011 Fiesta subcompact, and the next version of the Focus, probably as a 2012 model.

The electric van is the first shot in a volley of electric vehicles planned by Ford over the next three years. It will be followed in 2011 by a small electric car, and then in 2012 by both the next generation of Ford's hybrid vehicles (like the Escape Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid) and plug-in versions of those hybrids as well.