The Ford Focus Electric is a fascinating electric vehicle because it looks and drives like an ordinary Ford Focus. Its competitors are unique designs that trade on hey-look-at-me styling. They include the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle that is the Focus EV’s nearest competitor, the Toyota Prius hybrid, and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. The Focus Electric is a great compact car with three exceptions: It’s only good for 75-80 miles at a time, the battery monopolizes the trunk, and it costs just under $40,000. Such is life on the bleeding edge.
Ford built the Focus EV from the platform of the new, third-generation Focus that has been shipping in the US for a year. It’s one of the highest-rated compacts in the eyes of car buff and consumer magazines. Out went the gasoline engine in front, replaced by a 141-hp electric motor. Out went week-long-vacation luggage capacity in back, in went a 650-pound, 23-kWh lithium battery plus pack-light luggage capacity (tennis racquets yes, his-and-her golf bags no). The Focus EV is good for 76 miles, Ford says.
I drove a production level Focus Electric at Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan proving grounds. Acceleration is zippy at low speeds (electric motors produce their most power at startup) but getting to 60 mph is leisurely stroll of more than 10 seconds, and the track’s straightaways weren’t long enough to verify the top speed of around 85 mph. Around the course’s undulating curved sections, the Focus Electric did a good job tracking; the driver felt in control. Lifting off the throttle, there’s none of the anchor-thrown slowdown of EVs such as the Mini Electric that improves battery regeneration yet is disconcerting to drivers who expect a car to coast. There are Focus EV-specific driver aids in the center stack and instrument panel LCDs. Some are useful such as the braking coach that maximizes regeneration and others you may never get used to, such as butterflies that appear for the greener-than-thou, light-footed driver. The rest of the cockpit is standard Focus, including Ford Sync and MyFord Touch.
Ford Focus Electric vs. Nissan LeafThe closest competitor to the Focus Electric is the Nissan Leaf. Both are compact vehicles, both cost a little under $40,000 before the $7,500 federal rebate, both hold four to maybe five, and both are good for 75 miles plus or minus. Both Focus and Leaf use some funky and recycled materials. Ford’s seat material is soy foam; Nissan uses the plastic from soda bottles. Both come with range anxiety standard; no matter what automakers say, once you’ve gone more than 25 miles from home, you start to worry if you’ll make it back. Both get around 100 MPGe (Ford 105 MPGe, Nissan 99 MPGe). MPGe helps you compare the cost and efficiency of electric and gasoline cars and their fuels. A gas-engine Focus would need to get 100 mpg on unleaded regular to equal the Focus Electric. Focus gas models have EPA combined ratings of 32 mpg to 40 mpg, so the electric version is 2.5 to 3 times as efficient.
But there are differences, too. The Ford looks like a normal car. The bug-eyed, purpose-built Leaf looks like no other car. The Leaf has a bigger cargo area because it can use the space under the rear seat for batteries. Ford is the better driver’s car. The Leaf has more back seat room. The Ford Focus Electric charges twice as fast on the optional 240-volt chargers that both offer, just four hours for a full charge. In the Focus, if you carry the included 120-volt charging cable that plugs into any wall socket, you could stop for a leisurely lunch and extend your range by as much as 10-20 miles. (That improves your range anxiety margin of safety.)
The Focus Electric has been on sale since early this year. Among world automakers, Ford was late to market, but it’s still the first mainstream US automaker shipping an EV. Google took delivery of the first Focus Electric. If you don’t have Google IPO-stakeholder amounts of money, you’ll have a hard time making an economic case for either one. There’s more than a two-to-one price differential between the cheapest Focus and Focus Electric. But after you roll in a $7,500 taxpayer-funded federal rebate on the Focus Electric and step up to the corresponding Focus five-door (hatchback) gasoline model with options that come standard on the Focus Electric (navigation, MyFord Touch, automatic transmission) the difference is around $7,500. That’s closer but breakeven will still take longer than your likely term of ownership — around 130,000 miles at current gas prices.
In addition to the Leaf, Prius, and Volt, other competitors include the Tesla S that is pegged to sell for less than $50,000 (cheap for a Tesla) and all the other hybrids coming to market, including light hybrids such as the Chevrolet Malibu Eco.