Ford is taking a piecemeal approach to reducing vehicle emissions, but the crown jewel of its eco-friendly lineup is the Focus Electric. This zero-emissions version of the Focus goes down a different path than rivals like the Nissan Leaf; by that, we mean that Ford didn't create a dedicated EV platform or design.
Instead, Ford adapted its existing Focus compact to be one of many options shoppers intent on reducing their footprint can take home with them.
Behind the wheel of an engine-less car
There is no ignition key tumbler in the Focus Electric, a common enough trend nowadays, but the only way of knowing the car is ready to go after pressing the start button is through an infographic on the dashboard and a light. Like in a conventional automatic, the car will creep forward or back once the brake is released. The shift pattern includes Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, and Low, all of which are again familiar.
Once underway, the car's hefty 3,691 lbs. curb weight isn't really felt in normal driving thanks to the electric motor's instant and generous torque delivery. It's eerily quiet too, only allowing the sound of traffic, wind noise and a distant hum to keep occupants company. The brakes aren't as grabby as we expected, but they do take some getting used to. They produce a quiet thrum from under the hood, a sign that the regenerative system is working. An infographic that shows three arrows chasing each other in a circle on the LCD screen in the dash tells the driver the battery is being recharged under braking.
Merging onto a busy street triggered the traction control system, with the telltale light on the dash flashing. The official torque rating of 184 lb-ft doesn't look that great, but it pours on instantly since electric motors don't have a peak. The Focus Electric's motor is rated at 107 kW, which equates to 143 horsepower, but the car feels much quicker than that number and the vehicle's weight would suggest. The unique delivery made squirting into and out of holes in traffic easy and, dare we say it, kind of fun.
While we didn't quite get to the official 84 mph top speed on our loop, we saw about 50 mph and can attest to a pleasant instant surge of acceleration that no doubt also surprised drivers around us.
Off the line acceleration was also impressive, and it was too easy to squeal the tires, being used to four-cylinder gas engines without a lot of down-low torque. Though this isn't the car's mission; instead, it's a by-product of the electric motor's might.
Of course, matting it isn't ideal for the range, and the car's onboard Energy Coach that consists of three horizontal bar graphs that give the driver feedback on how efficiently they're driving. The fuller, the better, and after we stepped on it, the acceleration bar went to about halfway and turned yellow. We assume even worse performance will return a red colored bar but weren't able to confirm this.
Coaching tips help get the most out of the batteries
A separate Brake Coach tells drivers how efficiently they're using the regenerative braking capability of the car. It's updated at every stop, showing how much energy was recaptured since the last one. We managed 97 percent without really focusing on it. At the end of a trip, the Trip Summary gives an average Brake Score, energy used in kilowatt-hours (kWh) and the watt-hours/mile or kilometer average. A Lifetime Summary shows the distance drive since last recharge, the average Watt-hour per mile or kilometer energy used and the Brake Score. The range is officially set at 76 miles by the EPA, but we saw 72 kilometers (about 45 miles) remaining, with the battery icon showing the batteries to be about halfway drained. Ford reps suggested the range is closer to 160 kilometers (100 miles) under the ideal conditions and driving habits.
Thus far, these numbers don't mean much to us, nor would they to the average motorist, who is instead used to thinking in terms of mpg. As more and more electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids reach the roads, however, this will likely change.
The Focus Electric's main competitor, Nissan's Leaf, also offers five seats, but it offers unique styling as its body isn't based on any of Nissan's existing models. The Leaf offers more interior space, but it is rated at 99 mpgE compared to the Focus Electric's 110 mpgE. The difference is no doubt due to the Focus Electric's newer batteries, especially considering the fact the Leaf is some 314 lbs. lighter.
The electrified Focus uses 23 kWh lithium-ion batteries that get liquid cooling to keep them at optimal temperatures. Ford has made a big deal about the Focus being able to be fully recharged in about half the time of the Leaf thanks to the optional 240V charger and the car's onboard 6.6 kW unit, though Nissan will double the Leaf's 3.3kW h built-in charger's capacity for the 2013 model year. Ford estimates about 3.5 to 4 hours to recharge the Focus with this accessory, which is likely to cost about $1,500. Ford has partnered with Best Buy to have the retailer's Geek Squad install the 240V, 6.6 kWh charging stations in owner's homes. A traditional outlet and the included 120V charger are said to take 18 hours for a full charge (20 for the Leaf), making the option pretty much a necessity.
A nice touch is the light-up ring around the charging port that will indicate the approximate battery life remaining when the front door is opened. Ford will also unveil a cross-platform smartphone app called MyFordMobile and an online portal that will let owners precondition the interior or cool or heat the batteries as needed while the vehicle is still plugged in to maximize range once the car's on its own.
Leftlane's bottom line
While the overall package was certainly impressive, electric cars still have a long way to go. There is the matter of range, as going away on a longer trip for a long weekend will either require renting a traditional, gas-burning car, or extending the trip and carefully planning stops to accommodate the recharging times.
However, Ford's decision to base its Focus Electric so closely on the standard gas model should help it undercut the low-volume, unique Leaf. We think this is a sign of things to come.
2013 Ford Focus Electric base price, $39,995 (does not include $7,500 federal rebate).
Words and photos by Paul Rachwal.