Is This Thing On? Fuel-cell power inches toward prime time Turn the key in Ford Motor Co.'s Focus FCV and you might think the battery's dead. That's because there's no starter noise. No revving sound. Not even a gentle idle.

All those auditory cues that rank just below your mother's voice on the familiarity scale, are absent.

But breathe easy. This car's battery is very much alive. And it's designed, literally, to let us all breathe easier.

Propelled by 200 amps worth of juice - the byproduct of introducing hydrogen to a specially coated electrode - the Focus FCV is more memorable for what it lacks than for what it offers.

Missing are noise, noxious emissions - and power.

At curb side, the Focus FCV (fuel cell vehicle) is indistinguishable from its conventionally equipped cousin. Until the hood is raised.

Again, little is recognizable. Dominating the view is a pair of silver boxes that wouldn't look out of place on a Payless shelf. A Ford engineer's say-so is the most compelling evidence that the tidy package indeed is a powerplant.

Despite a modest peak power rating of 92 hp, the AC induction motor performs capably. There is no discernible lag in acceleration, but there isn't far to go anyway, with a top-end speed of 80 mph (129 km/h).

Meanwhile, the vehicle's single-speed transaxle contributes to extraordinarily smooth acceleration. And, curiously, as it accelerates it does emit sound. Closer to a whir than purr. Like George Jetson's flying car. Only muted.

This day, 24 hours removed from a blizzard, is tailor-made for Focus' front-wheel-drive configuration. Anchored by a Canadian-made Ballard Power Systems Inc. Mark 900 Series fuel cell stack, the FCV easily navigates slushy streets.

Traction is plentiful because the stack adds 800 lbs. (360 kg) to the standard Focus' 3,000-lb. (1,400 kg) curb weight.

Ford says it will work on refinements as the vehicle's 2004 launch date approaches. And weight reduction is a top priority.

Could the answer be less steel? This seems probable given Ford's experimentation with aluminum on its fuel cell research vehicle, the P2000.

And when the "competitively priced" FCV does roll off the line at a plant to be named later, fleet use is its only practical application.

This is because there is no infrastructure for compressed hydrogen - which it consumes at the piggish rate of 4.6 mpg. Therefore, you're looking at a fill-up every 100 miles.

Notably, however, hydrogen's volatility - remember the Hindenburg? - is a non-issue. It's stored in two aluminum tanks wrapped in carbon fiber.

Meanwhile, a system of sensors guards against leaks, shutting the vehicle down if any are detected.

It's easy to be distracted by FCV's novelty. But let's not lose focus. Ford set out to manufacture a vehicle which produces zero emissions. The FCV, with its exhaust system spewing only benign water vapor in barely noticeable quantities, is the culmination of that lofty goal.

Subject to such criteria, this quiet car is a screaming success.