Critics of electric vehicles say they are too expensive and lack sufficient driving range. But I wonder if those gripes would disappear if the EVs on sale weren't so — let's not mince words — homely. I adore my all-electric Nissan Leaf, but its wide rear end, bulging headlights and odd proportions evoke a Japanese gizmo aesthetic that doesn't necessarily appeal to mainstream U.S. car buyers.
Enter the handsome 2012 Ford Focus Electric, the first all-electric car from a U.S. automaker in the 21st century. Ford will begin selling the electric version of the new Focus in the next few weeks in California, New York and New Jersey, followed by 19 additional markets in the fall.
The Focus Electric looks nearly identical to the gas version, a small "Electric" badge the only clue that internal combustion has been supplanted by swift and silent electric propulsion. Sit in the low-slung, well-conforming seats and you feel oh-so normal. There are no circuit-board motifs, techno start-up sounds, weird shifter knobs or special Eco modes. The driver chooses among standard gear selections: park, reverse, neutral, drive and low.
EVs are highly regarded for their high torque at zero rpm — allowing zippy departures from red lights. In my week with the Focus Electric in the San Francisco Bay area — the first multiday test of the car by a journalist — the powertrain felt as if it had been tailored for highway driving, offering rapid bursts of acceleration from 30 to 50 mph, and from 55 to 75, with oomph left in reserve.
That's one of many ways Ford engineers aimed this electric auto at drivers accustomed to the road manners of a gasoline car.
"We wanted the Focus Electric to be a vehicle first, that just happened to be electric," says Eric Kuehn, Ford's chief engineer for global electrified programs.
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. The engineers told me they used extra insulation and sound damping.
The extra benefit of quieting the 107-kilowatt (143 horsepower) motor is a reduction of all road noise to ultraluxury levels, whether on city streets or while briskly accelerating to the maximum speed of 85 mph. The single-speed transmission provides direct linear velocity, with no hint of cylinders firing or gears waiting to engage. The concomitant high efficiency means that fuel costs just a third as much as filling up the gas-powered Focus, according to fueleconomy.gov. These days that's the equivalent of about $1.30 a gallon.
In my week with the Focus, I was EV-incognito. Not once did I receive a curious glance from a pedestrian or fellow roadway denizen. Focus Electric drivers desperately seeking green cred can find a prominent public charging location to plug in. When I juiced up outside a Walgreens in Pleasanton, Calif., 40 miles east of San Francisco, strip-mall shoppers gawked at the charging cord dangling from my Ford.
One woman said, "I didn't know electric cars existed." A father told his son: "Look. That's the wave of the future." If I'd wanted, I could have preached EV religion all day to potential acolytes.
Thankfully, I didn't need all day to charge because the Focus Electric uses a 6.6-kilowatt charger capable of replenishing the batteries at twice the rate of a Leaf. This equates to a full recharge from empty to full in a little more than four hours when pulling 240 volts — adding about 20 miles of driving range in an hour, instead of 10 miles for each hour with the Leaf.
There were three or four trips during my week when I would have been forced to leave the Leaf, with its 3.3-kilowatt charger, at home. But I was able to take the Focus Electric because, for example, a 1 1/2-hour charge at the Walgreens allowed me to make the 35-mile return to my home charger. I had lunch while I waited at a fast-food joint nearby. Charging at half the rate would have exceeded the limits of my schedule and my patience.
The Environmental Protection Agency's estimated driving range of 76 miles is spot-on. The farthest I ventured was 83 miles, with the dashboard indicating use of 19 kilowatt-hours from the 23-kilowatt-hour pack. Batteries always keep a kilowatt or two in reserve, so I probably could have pushed the range beyond 90 miles with careful driving.
The Focus once again proved the rule-of-thumb on EV efficiency: four miles of driving per kilowatt-hour under favorable conditions, and closer to three when blasting the air-conditioning, running uphill or driving in cold weather.
In terms of understanding range from behind the wheel, I wish Ford had provided a conventional-style analog fuel gauge with a big red needle and hash marks. Instead, the car has a small thermometer-style display of the battery state-of-charge combined with an estimate of the remaining miles. Leaf owners refer to their cars' similar feature as the guess-o-meter, but the Focus' predictions were even more scattershot.
On one trip, when I really needed to know if a low battery was going to carry me the last five miles home, the dashboard's guess at the remaining range shot up wildly to 85 miles and then to a ludicrous 139 miles despite showing only an eighth of the charge remaining. Ford said this was a glitch in my near-production test vehicle that had been fixed in production models.
Ford makes matters worse with other confusing EV-related dashboard displays and nomenclature — not sufficiently explaining terms like battery "surplus" and "budget." And rather than show the level of regenerative braking with bars or a meter, long features of hybrids and EVs, the Focus flashes an inscrutable "braking score" each time you come to a stop.
Worst of all, blue butterflies appear and flutter when you drive in an eco-friendly manner, a cutesy affectation that made me want to snuff out the flying bugs by pushing the limits of the EV's acceleration.
One innovation where Ford fares better is the blue light circling the fueling door on the left side, where you plug in the car. It shows charging progress at a glance from a distance by illuminating successive sections of what serves as glowing state-of-charge pie chart.
The interface shortcomings — and twitchy brakes that took a day to get used to — are forgotten when you mash the accelerator: The aggressive throttle settings tended to provoke a chirp of the low-rolling-resistance tires.
Above 10 mph, the Focus becomes well-planted and controlled by taut steering. Without a gas engine up front, the Focus Electric's weight distribution is close to ideal at 49 percent in front, 51 percent in the rear. (The gasoline car is nose-heavy at 61/39.)
Because of its 650-pound battery pack, the car is relatively heavy, at 3,642 pounds, but the engineers did a good job of adjusting springs and shocks to handle the extra weight in the rear. The car has a substantial but not ponderous feel.
What's less forgivable is the packaging of the batteries. Some are placed where the regular Focus' gas tank would be, but the main pack is under the liftgate, reducing cargo space by 39 percent, to just 14.5 cubic feet. There is room for a few bags of groceries but nothing more. And back seat legroom is tight, as it is in the gas version.
Building an EV from the ground up would have allowed designers to put the battery under the cabin, presenting new possibilities for passenger comfort and cargo space. But Ford decided to reduce the risk and cost of making an electric car by building the Electric on the same assembly line as the gasoline Focus; workers install either electric motors or gas engines, and they bolt in either lithium-ion battery packs or gasoline tanks. That gives the company the option of expanding or reducing EV volume based on demand.
Nissan, BMW and Tesla would argue that giving up the ability to optimize the vehicle platform — and integrate all the systems for electric-car efficiency — is too high a price for the relative ease of development and production in Ford's approach.
In the end, the Focus Electric solves the nerdy-EV problem, but it may underscore the biggest current challenge to widespread adoption of electric cars: their cost. The availability of gas and electric versions of the Focus, side by side in showrooms, will invite apples-to-apples cost-benefit comparisons.
The Ford Focus Electric has a base price of $39,995 — minus a $7,500 federal tax credit. That puts its tab at $32,500, some $9,500 above the upscale Focus Titanium. I can hear the electric naysayers exclaiming "Aha! You won't make back the savings at the pumps." That's despite $4 gasoline, and the Focus Electric's 110 mpg equivalent rating.
But when buying any new car, especially an innovative model of any kind, emotions, aesthetics and externalities eclipse economics. Most owners will recoup at least a few thousand dollars of the premium from much lower fuel and maintenance costs.
Beyond that, what do you get for the extra money? A faster, quieter Focus — one that eliminates gas station visits, tailpipe emissions or any personal connection to OPEC. Also, one of the sharpest looking U.S. cars on the road.