Electric avenue: Ford’s Focus Electric looks almost exactly like the regular Focus, minus the tailpipe.
Ford is preparing for an era when choosing whether a new car is powered by gas, electricity, or both is as simple as choosing its color is.
All future models from the automaker will be designed so that they can be produced with gas, electric, or hybrid drivetrains, a strategy embodied by the Ford Focus Electric, made available for the first press test drives last week. While GM and Nissan designed their first all-electric mass production cars from scratch, Ford is essentially using a 2010 design with the gas guts switched for electric ones.
That made strolling up to a Ford Focus in San Francisco last week slightly underwhelming: from the outside, the car looks familiar (unless you’re looking for the tailpipe). From the inside, though, in the driver’s seat, the Focus Electric is distinctive. I found it well-suited to San Francisco traffic, a game of real-life Frogger that rewards those who can quickly zip between lanes and enter gaps that open and close in an eyeblink. The eager response of the electric motor when I put my foot down was a big help, and all the more distinctive due to the near-silence, which also allowed me to hear more of what was happening around me.
The Focus Electric’s zip is something all-electric cars can offer. Electric motors can provide their full torque instantly, from any speed, while gas cars must rev up their engines before delivering extra torque to the wheels.
“We actually had to control the ramp-up on the torque to make it less immediate, more human,” Kevin Layden, Ford’s director of electrification programs and engineering, told me after the drive. Ford’s research revealed that drivers feel like they’re getting a responsive drive if there’s a lag of about 200 milliseconds or less between the accelerator being pressed and a jump in torque, Layden says. The Focus was adjusted to be less than 200 milliseconds.
The Focus Electric will become available in California, New Jersey, and New York in the next few months, and in a total of 19 states by the end of 2012. The price tag will be $39,200 before tax rebates or local adjustments.
The most critical questions about any electric vehicle cannot be answered by a test drive or a glance at its price, though. Ford—like others before it—faces the challenge of convincing people that a car able to travel 76 miles on a single charge (slightly better than the 73 miles offered by its nearest competitor, the Nissan Leaf) can meet their driving needs, and that the car is worth the higher upfront cost.