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Review: The Ford Focus Electric

The automaker says soon all its cars will be compatible with gas, electric, and hybrid drivetrains.

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.

Electric inside: Ford chose to rework the guts of its existing Focus model for its first mass-production all-electric vehicle.

Ford claims that a person’s driving habits and the car’s ability to reclaim energy during braking mean that a battery should actually last 100 miles per charge. It has also designed software for the car, and for a companion mobile app, to train drivers to squeeze the most out of their batteries.

A “brake coach” display next to the speedometer attempts to train drivers to recover as much energy as possible by braking early and smoothly. It provides clear feedback designed to encourage a driver’s competitive spirit. For example, when I pulled out into the stop-start traffic of downtown San Francisco (ideal conditions for recovering power), the dashboard told me I had 75 miles left in the battery. When my five-mile trip was over, it still said I had 75 miles left, since I had recovered 99 percent of the energy expended.

The associated smart-phone app, MyFord Mobile, tracks a car’s performance and can be used to share efficiency figures online, enabling drivers to compete against other Focus Electric owners and win (virtual) prizes.

Ford’s most significant innovation in the war against what is known as “range anxiety” will likely be the fact that it can charge fully in just under four hours (half the time it takes a Nissan Leaf to charge), thanks to high-power charging circuitry on board the car. However, getting that rapid charging requires a 240-volt connection in your home and paying $1,499 for the necessary “smart charger.” Those will be available from Best Buy, hinting at a future where electronics retailers are as important to your car as auto parts stores.

The car’s efficiency figures may help impress prospective buyers. The EPA says the Focus Electric can achieve the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon on the highway and 110 in the city (for a combined mpg equivalent of 105). Ford says that makes the car the most efficient five-seater in the world. The Leaf’s equivalent stats are 92 on the highway, 106 in the city, and 99 combined. Ford says that $2.10 of electricity at the average domestic price is enough for 60 miles of driving in an electric Focus—meaning that for the cost of a gallon of gas in San Francisco, the car could travel 120 miles.

Electrifying the Focus has required some trade-offs, though, mainly to accommodate the weight and size of its battery. The car’s slightly lower center of mass is one result; a more serious one is that the battery and its charger take a substantial bite out of the trunk space.

The car is currently in production in Dearborn, Michigan, on the same production lines that make conventional versions of the Focus. Factories in China, Russia, and Western Europe will also be able to make multiple versions in the future, and the Focus will ultimately be available as a hybrid as well as a gas, diesel, or electric car. 

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