By Larry E. Hall
When an automaker makes the decision to enter the electric car market it has two choices: Spend hundreds of millions designing, developing and tooling the plants to build an all-new car, like Nissan did with the Leaf or, reduce the risk and cost by replacing the drivetrain of an existing gas-powered vehicle with an electric one. This latter choice was the one Ford went with for its newly launched Focus Electric.
Like Mitsubishi did with its i-MiEV, Ford dipped its toes in the EV waters opted to transform an existing car into an e-car and chose the Focus hatchback compact car for its first pure electric car. This means the Electric is built on the same assembly line as the gasoline Focus in Wayne, Michigan. This offers Ford the option of increasing or decreasing EV production depending on demand.
In the past Ford has said it wants its hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric cars to be more than a niche, and that it’s about affordable transportation for the masses. With the Focus Electric, the automaker is at least on the “verge” of being affordable. The 2013 Focus Electric is priced at $39,200 – about $9,000 over the present average American new car price – and before the $3,750 federal or state tax incentives are potentially deducted.
However, a part of affordability has to do with fuel economy, and this is where the Focus Electric really shines given it does not even burn “fuel” in the traditional sense, but uses an efficient electric powertrain. To help consumers compare fuel efficiency between gasoline or diesel cars and electric cars, the EPA has developed a formula called miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe). Focus Electric has an MPGe rating of 110 City/99 Highway and 105 Combined.
Ford introduced the electric version of the new Focus first in California, New York and New Jersey – before expanding distribution to 19 additional markets. Those 19 markets include Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Phoenix, Portland, Raleigh Durham, Richmond, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Tucson and Washington, D.C. The rest of the U.S. will have to wait a while.
To convert the gas-powered Focus to an EV, the aforementioned electric motor replaces a gasoline engine and an L-shaped battery pack is placed under the rear seat and between the rear wheels. Directing power from the electric motor to the front wheels is a simple, direct drive single-speed transmission that takes the place of the standard transmission.
The water-cooled alternating current, 107-kilowatt synchronous permanent magnetic motor generates 143 horsepower and a generous 184 pounds-feet of torque at 0 rpm – yes, “0 rpm” is theoretical given no work is actually taking place, and some editors balk at this, and write in “1 rpm,” but you get the point. The energy is 100-percent from the get-go.
And from said get-go, the Focus Electric’s estimated 0 to 60 mph takes the Focus EV around 9.5 seconds, and its top speed is a modest 84 mph.
Feeding the motor is a 23-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack with more than 17 kWh available in the charge-discharge cycle. The battery pack employs an actively liquid cooled and heated system that allows stable battery operation by maintaining an optimal range of temperature.
While driving, regenerative braking recovers more than 95 percent of the energy normally lost and stores it in the battery. Every time the car coasts or brakes are applied, the electric motor acts as an electric generator and coverts the energy to electricity.
Getting Charged Up
Ford pulled off a one-upsmanship on the Nissan Leaf by equipping the Focus with a 6.6-kW on-board charger. It adds about 20 miles of driving range for every hour of charging, instead of 10 miles for each hour supplied by the Leaf’s 3.3-kW charger. Filling the battery with electrons when empty takes about four hours using Ford’s 240-volt Level 2 home recharging unit versus the Leaf’s seven to 10 hours. However, charge time of around 20 hours using a standard 120-volt plug receptacle is essentially the same as the Leaf’s.
Ford developed with Leviton its home charging station, and priced it at $1,495, including normal installation (normal meaning a home already properly wired for its voltage and amperage). And, unlike other units, the charging station can simply be unplugged if you relocate – electrician not required to remove it.
For hardcore, and sufficiently well-healed, greenies, Ford has teamed up with solar system maker SunPower. A 2.5-kilowatt rooftop solar panel system will provide Focus Electric owners enough renewable energy production to offset the energy used for charging. The solar panels produce an average of 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, enough output to accommodate a customer who drives 12,000 miles a year. Assuming “normal’ installation, the installed cost is $10,000 after federal tax credits.
An all-new Ford Focus was introduced in late 201l as a 2012 model. Designed by Ford’s European arm, it follows the company’s “kinetic” styling themes, which the automaker calls an “energy in motion” look. It’s an edgy, adventurous exterior characterized by a disport ensemble of swoops and wedges.
Like the standard Focus hatchback, the Electric has an athletic profile that features a raked roofline. Tires mounted on 17-inch aluminum wheels fill the wheel wells, giving the car an “it’s time to rock ’n roll” performance look. The big difference between the two is up front. Rather than the gas-powered Focus’s single bar grille and almost menacing looking gaping mouth flanked by bold triangle intakes, the Electric has a more stately, Aston Martin-like design with narrow horizontal crossbars. On either side of the new grille, HID headlamps sweep gracefully up and into muscular front fenders. The tail end of the Focus is quite distinctive with a large rear spoiler and giant taillamps that wrap around the corners.
In The Tech-Rich Cabin
Interior quality is a giant leap from the previous generation Focus. Material quality is arguably the best in the small car class, heavy on soft touch surfaces with an astute mix of stout plastic panels. All are nicely grained or show a stylish matte finish, and the switchgear features a no-slip shape or coating. The cabin has a spacious feeling, though backseat legroom is tight.
The Electric’s dashboard mimics the standard Focus and is designed for those comfortable using all manner of mobile infotainment devices – potentially a turn-off for older buyers and women. The four-spoke steering wheel is the same, including a pair of buttons on two spokes along with cruise control operation and Ford’s SYNC, the integrated communications and entertainment system.
The instrument cluster has a centrally mounted speedometer with a pair of color displays on either side. The right screen displays climate, entertainment and navigation as well as a driving efficiency graphic of blue butterflies. The left screen delivers relevant EV information such as available range and battery state of charge.
Mounted in the center console is an eight-inch screen that features MyFord Touch infotainment system. It fetches up audio, navigation, phone and climate controls that some reviewers rave about while others say that at best, the almost knob-less and button-less interface is confusing and frustrating to operate.
What’s not confusing to operate is the gear shifter. Rather than some weird gear selections, the Focus Electric has the standard PRNDL—park, reverse, neutral, drive and low—positions that everyone is familiar with.
But wait, there’s more technology. The standard MyFord Mobile app, available for iOS, Android, and Blackberry, helps EV drivers locate local charging stations, plan trips, view current battery status and manage remote charging. For the social-connected crowd, a gaming feature lets owners share accomplishments on Facebook and Twitter.
Basically, the Focus Electric comes standard with the same trim level as the top-of-line Titanium edition of the gasoline Focus, meaning that it is thoroughly appointed. Standard features include: Intelligent Access with push-button start; power locks, windows and outside mirrors; dual-zone climate controls; heated front seats; leather-wrapped steering wheel; Sony nine-speaker audio system; satellite and HD radio; ambient lighting; and a rear camera with rear parking sensor. The only options are leather seats and two paint colors.
When it comes to safety, the Focus Electric has all the biggies: Anti-lock brakes, stability control, traction control, dual front airbags, drive and front passenger side-protection airbags and curtain side airbags.
Driving The Focus Electric
When the 2012 Focus arrived, auto critics penned high praise about its ride, handling and braking characteristics. Since the Electric version has the same structure and independent front and rear suspension, it’s no surprise that many of these same reviewers give the EV high marks. Road and Track commented, “Apart from its EV quietness, the car’s road-going demeanor does little to set it apart from its gasoline-fueled counterpart.” And Automobile magazine remarked, “With the independent multilink rear suspension, no untoward body motions are observed. The ride is perfectly acceptable, thanks to recalibrations made necessary by the extra weight (of the batteries).”
A quiet ride is synonymous with the electric car driving experience as noted by the New York Times’ reviewer, “Battery-powered cars are intrinsically quiet, the motor sound falling between a whir and a whisper. But the Focus is deep-space silent, the quietest of the many electric cars I’ve driven.”
Mark Vaughn, AutoWeek’s west coast editor and an i-MiEV owner, said, “The Focus Electric is the quietest EV we’ve driven yet. Ford spent time and energy adding sound insulation throughout the vehicle and damping down everything that might disturb its compact serenity. You won’t hear gears whining, clicks clacking or switches switching.” He added, “Stomp on the throttle, and it's hard to feel any torque steer at all.”
The EV For You?
If you want a car that doesn’t run on liquid fuels, the Focus Electric has few competitors. That includes the funky styled Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which is smaller than the Focus, has a shorter driving range and longer charging time, and starts at $29,125. Arguably, the electric $39,145 Chevy Volt with gasoline-powered generator backup could be an alternate option, although not if you never want to burn gas. It is a shorter range EV – the government rates it at 38 miles all-electric range – and the gasoline engine kicks on when the usable electrons are depleted. If kept within electric range, it is competitively frugal to operate as other EVs.
Nissan’s 2012 Leaf is the actually closest comparable EV. The Leaf is less expensive than the Ford with the hard-to-find base SV model starting at $35,200, but the more popular SL model starts at $37,250, just $1,950 less than Focus Electric.
The Focus Electric and Leaf have close EPA ratings for both driving range and efficiency: The Leaf is rated at 73 miles of driving range, with a rating of 99 MPGe (miles-per-gallon equivalent), The Focus Electric is slightly better on both counts, with 76 miles of range and a 105 MPGe rating.
The Focus EV has a decided advantage when it comes to battery charge time. While both vehicles require around 20 hours to charge from a standard household 120-volt outlet, the Focus Electric needs just four hours charge from a 240-volt outlet versus the Leaf’s charge time with the same voltage. The Leaf does offer a DC quick-charging capability – not available on the Focus – that can recharge the battery pack to 80-percent capacity in around 30 minutes, but few such charging stations exist yet.
Where the Leaf differs also from the Ford is it was designed without an active liquid thermal management system – partially accounting for its lower cost. Nissan has said thermal management was deemed not necessary for the Leaf’s battery pack design.
The Leaf has however experienced a minor controversy all year as to whether lack of liquid cooling in particular leads to heat-induced premature failure in a few of the states in which it was first launched beginning late 2010, and these also are among America’s hottest states. Nissan has denied any inherent design flaw and commissioned an independent panel to investigate further.
Further complicating the choice is a September report in which Nissan’s CEO was quoted as saying pending 2013 model year Leafs are being equipped with a larger battery with as-of-yet unreported capacity increase over its first-generation 24 kwh. This is expected to increase range – other reports put it at possibly 25 percent or so. Therefore, it’s a series of pros and cons comparing the 2012 Leaf, and even more so, the believed-pending 2013 Leaf, to Ford’s first-generation thermally managed 23-kwh Focus Electric.
Both the Focus Electric and Leaf will whiz by gas stations while producing zero emissions, and most owners of either car will recoup at least a few thousand dollars of the premium from lower fuel and maintenance costs.
So, which of the two battery electric cars are for you?
Another final decider between the Focus Electric and Leaf could be styling. For those that don’t want to show off their environmental leanings, the Focus EV is designed for the generic aisle of the dealership. Its styling is edgy, sporty, decidedly European and its green credentials are incognito. The Leaf, on the other hand, is a dedicated design with distinctive styling – no upfront grille, bulging headlights, wide rear end and odd proportions combined say, “I’m a green car.”
Tough choice, huh? But if you want to drive one of the sharpest-looking cars on the road while smiling to yourself because you have no personal connection to OPEC, the Focus Electric is the EV for you.
Prices are manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.